Review: The power of Berkeley Rep’s ‘An Octoroon’ is its duality of emotion

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George (Lance Gardner) is in love with the fair Zoe (Sydney Morton) in “An Octoroon,” playing through July 29th at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

One of the most compelling moments in a play full of them takes place early between two playwrights in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “An Octoroon.”

One is the 19th century playwright Dion Boucicault, a man who wrote “The Octoroon, and a man who did Black people no favors in how he portrayed them in this and his other melodramatic works in the mid 1800’s. As he and the modern Black playwright BJJ size each other up wearing not much more than their white skivvies, a barrage of obscenities is drilled into each man.

What is so fascinating about this moment is its indignance, an opportunity for a modern playwright to go back in time and let this fool have it, a playwright like others who went to great pains to objectify Black characters as Sambos or Mammies, while white audiences ate that crap up. And while Boucicault might have been a brilliant playwright, a voice of his era, his work is now rarely produced and has probably not aged well.

It is not often where I attend a play and feel like I need to be on my toes. But this play, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed with such sure-handed force by Eric Ting, leaves the audience with so much to process, and my own thoughts were everywhere. There is even a moment where the most random thought popped in my head, which was something like this – “Who the fu** thinks it’s a good idea to still have the name of a football team the Washington Redskins?”

The play is loaded with mesmerizing irony, and is quite hilarious in spurts. But was it? Certainly, the solid ensemble cast keeps the action moving with precision, and the heavy stylings of dated melodrama are portrayed with great effect. Some things are very blatantly hilarious, namely the vicious fight that George has with himself. I mean, George has with M’Closky.

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BJJ (Gardner) takes on the task of playing the white characters in his play after his white actors quit. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

BJJ (a commanding Lance Gardner) starts the play off by talking to the audience about being a “Black playwright,” in quotes here because he has no idea what that means. After all, any term that labels someone as something takes away from the totality of what they are trying to accomplish, yes? Jacobs-Jenkins, in interviews, has made his position clear – there is no one way to define a “Black theatre” or a “Black actor.” So much diversity within a community does not allow for a singular experience.

BJJ takes on the dual roles of the evil landowner M’Closky and the dashing hero George, but does so in whiteface – his white actors have left the play. So it is up to BJJ and his band of actors to create this story of a man in love with Zoe (sharp and pathos-driven Sydney Morton), an octoroon, one that is 1/8th black. Due to George’s lack of finances, M’Closky is ready to take over the property, and with it comes Zoe, who M’Closky will now have as his own. George has a way out, if he can marry the very rich and painfully awkward southern belle Dora (a scene-stealing Jennifer Regan), allowing him to get the money needed to save the land, yet denying his true love for Zoe.

This small plot synopsis only tells a bit of the story. There are also some painful portrayals of actors in both red and black face, hugely powerful turns by Ray Porter and Amir Talai, respectively. And in both heartbreaking and hilariously modern performances, the slaves Minnie (a powerful Afi Bijou) and Dido (a regal Jasmine Bracey) provide important perspectives and commentary.

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Dido (Jasmine Bracey, L) and Minnie (Afi Bijou) share plans for the future. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

What Ting seems to do here is create a playground for all of us to explore something that is so difficult to do now – have a mature, adult conversation about race. And it is done by punching hard. So hard that I have read multiple times of audiences walking out of the play so far. Happened on opening night, a woman in front of me shouting out during the play her disdain for what was happening, disappearing after act one.

These actions speak greatly to the meta theatre that bounces all over the place in the form of style, and Jacobs-Jenkins script brings it all out beautifully. That story is greatly enhanced by the stunning set of Arnulfo Maldonado and Jiyoun Chang’s masterful lighting design, which becomes even more stunning late in the play. That piece of a Southern bayou sets the scene for one of the most tender moments of the play between Dido and Zoe, which features a small, funny twist that reminds us how different these two people really are. And I would be remiss not to mention Montana Blanco’s exceptional costume design, for which there is an award somewhere out there.

Whether it’s the obvious Brechtian tones of explaining to the audience what the function of the fourth act is all about or simply allowing the slaves to use language of modern times, it’s all terribly effective, with Jacobs-Jenkins stating beautifully in an interview, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”

The play saves some of its most powerful moments for the end, not to be revealed here. All I can say is that an image, which the audience stares at for what feels like an eternity, is haunting. It’s an image that is iconic, yet for all the laughter and melodrama, this image has the power to stay with the audience long after Br’er Rabbit (mustache-challenged talent Lisa Quoresimo) plays the final note. And of all the songs that are played, in a nod to agit prop theatre, seeing all the performers in their purest form sing with passion, and singing the words they sing, is both inspiring and heartbreaking, which really isn’t much different than the dual feelings that crop up throughout the play.

There really is no one way to walk out of the theatre at the play’s conclusion. There ain’t no whistling of happy tunes at the end of this one. But ultimately, living with the feelings of joy and pain makes the production critical and necessary. Rarely can a play allow someone to live a full life in the span of two hours.

This is the play to do exactly that.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “An Octoroon”
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Adapted from the play written by Dion Boucicault
Directed by Eric Ting
The Word: A bold, powerful play that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. It may not be for everyone, but everyone can take something important away from this searing piece on race.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Through July 23rd
Tickets range from $29 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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