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An Octoroon (Theatre Review) An Octoroon (Theatre Review)
An Octoroon (Theatre Review)

What does it mean to be a Black playwright? This and the many questions surrounding America’s fascination with the complicated social position of biracial men and women during slavery are what this fascinating play by Brandon Jacob-Jenkins (Appropriate, Gloria) seeks to answer.


Director Ned Bennett revives Dion Bouccicault, one of the 19th century’s most prolific and prominent dramatist play to extraordinary effect. In what other production can you experience hip hop music, hints of Br’er Rabbit, a fiery blazing set and a talking tailor’s dummy?


The starting point of this intriguing production is an extended monologue by the main protagonist Ken Nwosu (As You like It, Christopher Robin) in which he laments the difficulty of finding white actors to play certain roles, the resulting solution being to apply a white face to play these roles simultaneously.


The play is centred around a slave plantation that is to be sold to the evil white overseer M’Closky, who along with the property will get the beautiful and much coveted octoroon Zoe.


The only person who can foil his quest is the starry eyed George nephew of the late plantation owner who  himself has fallen for Zoe but who must marry the rich but overbearing Dora in order to save the plantation and free the slaves.


Unbeknown to George, there is a letter on the way to the plantation that would pay off the debt carried by the pickaninny Paul, admirably played by Alistair Toovey (Mind the Gap, Box of Delights) who is killed on the way to delivering it by M’Closky with the blamed being laid on his drunken ‘Injun’ friend Wahnotee, comically played by Kevin Trainor (The Comedy of Errors, Postcards from America).


The last act things really get heated up, literally. The stage is magically transformed through the visionary imagination of set designer Georgia Lowe (A Street Car Named Desire, Kiss Me) simultaneously into an auction block and the bowels of a blazing paddle steamer. To witness this magical metamorphosis and the mind boggling heart stopping athleticism of the actors as they leap from and to the auction block is worth the price of the ticket alone.


The harsh realities of the horrors, cruelties and shocking violence but physical and sexual that the slaves endured are vividly brought to life through the sometime brutal, sometimes subtle, sometimes comical but always unnervingly uncomfortable exchanges of Minnie (Vivan Oparah), Dido (Emamanuella Cole), Grace (Cassie Clare and the older, loyal slave Pete.


In Octoroon, Jacob-Jenkins tries to really get at the heart of what ‘blackness’ on the stage means by adapting a melodrama and setting it within a metatheatrical frame that’s both real and fantasy but always challenging the notion of what it means to be black.


With its very liberal use of the N-word, which many in the audience found both deeply offensive and disturbing and the overly misogynistic hip hop soundtrack you are left at times wondering he is really trying to say. These combined with chilling images of Br’er Rabbit popping up at intervals left myself and many in the audience bemused as the curtain dropped.


Extraordinary as the play was, the central question what does it mean to be a Black playwright? Was left disappointingly unanswered. However if I will still urge you to search for tickets for this production as it is truly a night of great and imaginative theatre, the likes of which only comes along once in a while and maybe, just maybe you may unravel the answer to this question.


Note: The show is sold out for the entire run, but tickets are available through Day Seats and Friday Rush.


An Octoroon, 7 Jun-18 Jul, National Theatre (Dorfman), SE1 0PX, Visit https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/an-octoroon for ticket info and details.

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