Review: An Octoroon

2015-03-03 19.29.55One of my huge theater regrets of 2014 was not seeing An Octoroon. It was a highly acclaimed, sold out, award winning production! And I dillydallied on buying tickets and missed my chance to see it. Turns out, though, I needn’t have fretted. It’s returned and is now playing at Theatre For A New Audience, and I was able to snag a ticket.

The other reason I needn’t have fretted: I didn’t like it.

Call me crazy. In all fairness, I may actually be crazy, because An Octoroon has a ton of merits, and it’s easy to see why people have been so impressed with it. It’s a modern take on an 1850s melodrama by Dion Boucicault (called The Octoroon). An Octoroon‘s playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, has framed the original story with an autobiographical introduction in which a character called Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Austin Smith) is told by his therapist to attempt an adaptation of the melodrama to grapple with his depression.

What follows is extremely clever. To begin with, the production toys with blackface traditions by putting Mr. Smith in whiteface (he’s an an African-American actor) to play the hero; meanwhile certain white cast members wear blackface and redface makeup. It also combines the traditional, formal style of 19th-century melodrama with modern dialogue, giving us historical as well as contemporary perspectives on race and theater. Plus quite a bit of it is extremely funny. (More on that in a moment.) And finally, the production has astonishing, exciting moments. (Particularly the bits with cotton balls. Well done, director Sarah Benson!)

Still though. I could not stop yawning throughout. Sure, it’s punctuated by terrific moments. But as far as I was concerned? It was boring. I seem to be allergic to melodrama, no matter how cleverly it’s packaged. I didn’t care about any of the characters. The dialogue was frequently extremely stodgy (I know, I know, he did it on purpose. That doesn’t make it any less tiresome, though.) I also found Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s writerly touches (he’ll occasionally interject and comment about the weakness of Boucicault’s writing, for example) irritating. The whole thing felt like a bloated gimmick. Even as I saw just how clever it was, I continued to feel utterly disengaged.

Except when Minnie and Dido are onstage. When these two opinionated female slaves appeared, the whole show came together. They are extremely funny supporting characters (played to hilarious effect by Pascale Armand and Maechi Aharanwa) who speak like they’re on a reality show. (“Who ghetto now, bitch?” is just one memorable example. Or, referring to another slave: “She is so fake!”). They are so darn funny and appealing that I started to forget my qualms with the show.

If the whole play had been like that, I think this would be a very different blog post. And judging by the audience’s rapturous reception, I’m in a tiny minority here. (Many were laughing throughout; I wasn’t.) So call me crazy. But I just didn’t care for An Octoroon.

My Grade: C
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Ticket price: $62
Worth it: No
Standing Ovation Watch: 90% yes

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