A Theatre Buff Reviews An Octoroon

If you can get past two men in jockey shorts, revealing more buttocks then you might care to see, then you will likely enjoy, and appreciate, An Octoroon. It’s a nineteenth century melodrama (The Octoroon) embedded in a twenty-first century play (An Octoroon). Had I read my program notes before the play began, I might have understood this fact and been more relaxed about the actors revealing their glutei maximi on stage, and then applying white face and red face make-up as they prepared for the melodrama.

2017-An Octoroon
Ryan Cunningham Starr Domingue, and André Sills. Photo by David Cooper.

An Octoroon explores racism from the perspective of both centuries. As we watch the performances of a black actor in white face and white actors in black face and red face, “We cannot not see race while watching this play. We cannot declare ourselves colour blind and get away with it.”1. It’s a disruptive theatrical technique that is profoundly effective.

At its simplest, An Octoroon is the entwined story of the sudden foreclosure of a southern plantation and the consequences for a  young woman, Zoe (Vanessa Sears), of mixed race who thought she had been assured her freedom by the legal papers her recently deceased father (the plantation owner) had signed some years before. But where there are issues of rights, freedom, property, and love, nothing is simple.

The performances by the ‘slaves’ (Lisa Berry, Kiera Sangster, Starr Domingue, and Ryan Cunningham) are compelling in part because the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has liberated the actors’ voices by his stage directions: “I don’t know what a slave sounded like. And neither do you.” He might have also added, and I don’t know how they acted either. The result is an effective mash-up of language and conduct with the language moving between southern cadences/pronunciations and modern street-talk, and the conduct ranging from obsequious to cheeky. André Sills who plays three roles portrays the playwright, BJJ, with anger and resignation, and draws clean distinctions between the kind but ineffective heir, George, and the scheming plantation owner, M’Closky.  Patrick McManus is in character at the outset as the verbose and drunken Irish playwright of The Octoroon and then for the remainder in red face as he plays a reserved and faithful Indian. Diana Donnelly (Dora) plays the white heiress who, if only George would marry her, could join two plantations together. We’re left with the distinct impression that were that to happen she would not be bothered with the details of day to day operations.

There are two scenes in this play within a play—the slave auction and the knife fight—that for different reasons are seared in my mind. The auction is foreshadowed by a bill of sale that is handed out with each program. I thought that reading The Book of Negroes might prepare me for that experience. It did not. The knife fight is extraordinary acting. It’s performed by André Sills who plays George/M’Closky, and is literally the struggle between good and evil.

If you plan to attend be sure to look up Br’er Rabbit (Samantha Walkes) on Wikipedia. Understanding the folk lore will help you to understand the timing of the appearances of this character who has Nanabush qualities.

An Octoroon makes for superb, if somewhat discomfiting theatre. It’s well worth your time. Catch it before it leaves the Shaw Festival (Niagara-On-The-Lake) after the October 13th performance.

  1. Program notes by Jennifer Buckley

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.