‘An Octoroon’ Wallows in America’s Racial Quagmire

In our present political climate, blackness has become not just a lightning rod, but also a victim of reductive, uncritical thinking, both from the right and the left. And so I’ve been looking forward to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ much-lauded An Octoroon, a postmodern riff on Dion Boucicault’s 19th century hit melodrama, The Octoroon.

Jacobs-Jenkins is certainly one of today's more astute and alert playwrights (WarNeighbors) and he wastes no time in taking the knife to the jugular of bad ideas. BJJ (short for Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins) -- played by Lance Gardner in a precise, searing performance -- ambles out onto the stage and says, “Hi, everyone. I’m a ‘black playwright.’ I don’t know exactly what that means.” It’s a sharp first jab, throwing out what seems like an obvious declaration and then immediately dismantling it with good-natured bafflement.

All BJJ wants it is for us to share in his predicament. Even though he’s black, he wants to be free to be more than black -- an artist who might, for instance, write a play about “talking farm animals.” When a literary manager excitedly responds that BJJ is “deconstructing African folktales,” he shoots back, “Bitch! I’m not fucking deconstructing any fucking African fucking folktales.” One might say that this is a man who wants both in and out of America’s racial quagmire.

The coup-de-theatre of Jacobs-Jenkins' smart opening is that BJJ is preparing for a role in his reimagining of Boucicault’s melodrama. He’s going to play both the white hero and the white villain of the piece. As we listen to him plead to escape the restrictive racial categories of our age, he’s smearing himself with a clown's white makeup and donning a floppy-haired wig to embrace the restrictive racial categories of the past.

What follows is Boucicault’s plot, a fair number of Boucicault’s scenes, and Jacobs-Jenkins' own sensibilities and concerns. The past is, of course, a great place to have fun and to make fun of: knowledge is superiority and the present always has a surplus of hindsight. And so it’s not just race that Jacobs-Jenkins sends up, but also the cultural and theatrical sensibilities that produced the American melodrama.

We get to laugh at the racist caricatures of African-Americans and Native Americans, ridiculous courting rituals, and the over-the-top narrative machinations that once passed for riveting drama. The notion that George (recently returned from sophisticated Paris) and Zoe (the lovely octoroon of the title) should not marry because, as she puts it, “the one black drop gives me despair, for I’m an unclean thing -- I’m an octoroon!” is ludicrous. Of course, it’s even more so as the cast sighs and mugs its way through scenes of high emotion.

The way that Jacobs-Jenkins sets up the play, framed around his present-day concerns, creates even more distance. This is not our world. Both dramatically and philosophically these choices place An Octoroon on precarious ground. It gives the 21st century audience of the Berkeley Rep and others like it across the country an obvious out -- it's easy to write off "the idiotic past" -- and renders it difficult to make a case for the ongoing relevance of Boucicault's original play. So what seems like an easy target and a way to address the tortured politics of our present day loses force and starts to feel awfully muddled.

It’s not that Jacobs-Jenkins isn’t unaware of the rat’s nest of complexity he’s taking on; it’s that his interventions, except for a few instances, strain for meaning rather than cause the obvious discomfort he’s after. The playwright is a would-be provocateur who just seems too easy to please in his justified anger. Perhaps it’s too justified.

In one of the most crucial plot points of the play, BJJ enters and tries to explain, intervene in, and update Boucicault’s use of what was the then-new technology of photography. The moment feels as aesthetically false as the goofy histrionics of melodramatic acting. Yes, it’s a clever twist. But it feels more like a last ditch attempt at significance rather than a true reckoning.

Dripping in schmaltz, melodrama is a justifiably derided form. Yet aspects of it are deep in the DNA of American theater. It's evident not just in 19th century warhorses like The Octoroon and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also in some of the greatest and most unhinged moments in the plays of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, as well as those of contemporary writers such as Cherrie Moraga and Katori Hall.

As Jacobs-Jenkins is keenly aware, melodrama is often the easiest and most direct form of addressing issues of social justice. But in doing so, you really have to believe in what you're writing about with your whole spirit and risk seeming like an idiot, both among your contemporaries and into the future. Boucicault saw an injustice and responded imperfectly, but he did it with verve.

We live in a world where "smart" and "distanced" have become signs of sophistication and intelligence. The postmodern hijinks of Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon seems knowing, but it lacks the headlong rush of its source material. Despite its many virtues, there's something safe and docile about this 21st century play; in spite of its many faults, the 19th century melodrama on which it's based feels more true and alive.

'An Octoroon' runs through July 29 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information click here.