An Octaroon

An Octaroon
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Based on a play by Dion Boucicault
Directed by David Reed
Starring Arius West, Andrew Coleburn, and Mandi Lee
UCF Conservatory Theater
Orlando, FL

Back in the old days, if you needed a black actor you put a white guy on stage in blackface. Today, if you can’t get enough white actors for your slave days production, you put black actors up in white face. And if you need a Native American, red face will do just fine for tonight. This “An Octaroon” derives from a very popular 1859-piece decrying slavery: it adds a bracketing device, special effects, lighting that won’t set the building aflame and it camps up the racism till it’s laughable. It also depends on a quick-change cast and a few modern stage tricks. It’s all very Brechtian, even if you must cheat and look it up.

After a rather surreal costuming rant, we travel to Terrebonne (Good Earth) plantation. Like all literary plantations of the antebellum its deep in debt, run by a nearly dead and unseen aunt, and populated with happy slaves doing their level best for their overseers. The stage is full of stereotypes played for yucks: dreamy photographer George (West) flirts with Dora (Stephanie Cabrera), proposes to Octaroon Zoe (Lee) and takes an incriminating picture that convicts his alter ego M’Closky for murdering a child and stealing the US mail. Along the way Terrence Lee waves ocean waves of blue tulle, tings bells to indicate evil, and receives abuse for being third billed. The female black trio and Greek chorus of Minnie, Dido and Grace (Reva Stover, Waneka Leary, and Bria Holloway) talk sassy and bring in the cotton. This should be offensive, but the script is so self-knowing you can’t help but laugh.

What should we take away from this “Follies” of race? There are multiple options: everything comes around, and what was once OK is now offensive, but what was once offensive can be OK if you own it properly. The slave based south was a nasty and brutish place, but there was a sense of belonging, even if that belonging consisted of your name on a bill of sale. And lastly, add enough camp and even a Nazi POW camp can be a hit sitcom. As I rode the cart back to UCF’s byzantine parking lots, a young (white) man behind me rejoiced he was born in the 1990’s and far away from this sort of misery. I pointed out I was old, and he was young, and now it was his job to make things even better. I like to think he’ll make a better world someday, but I never get my hopes too high. Tonight’s show was a notable example that a lesson taught with comedy lasts longer than ones taught with a lecture.

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