Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
The Shaw Festival’s An Octoroon is the Canadian premiere of an off-Broadway sensation from 2014. Like Stratford’s The Breathing Hole, it’s about appropriation.
It’s also complicated. It starts with a monologue by a self-described “black playwright” who calls himself BJJ and is obviously a stand-in for the play’s author, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. He tells us that his own favourite playwright was the 19th-century Anglo-Irish-American actor-dramatist-manager Dion Boucicault. Boucicault is best known now for his atypical comedy London Assurance, but in his day he was renowned as a master of melodrama. One of his biggest successes was The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana, a plantation drama written shortly before the American Civil War. It seems that BJJ would like to revive it, but runs into trouble with political correctness, his own included. His speech, which he says is a kind of therapy, is a switchback ride from pain to anger and back again. And again. Andre Sills, playing him, negotiates the turns with exhilarating speed and accuracy.
BJJ offers his own take on Boucicault’s original, which involves a second prologue spoken by Boucicault himself who says, at profane length, how much he resents being forgotten. Don’t we know that he’s the man who invented matinees? (I didn’t.) He’s written as a stereotype of the drunken Irishman; and Patrick McManus, very vigorously, plays him as such.
Proceed to the actual play: Boucicault’s play, that is, with interpolations. The plantation it depicts has just been inherited by George Peyton, an enlightened young man recently returned from Europe. The estate is bankrupt and must be sold, slaves included, unless George can receive money owing to him from England. Determined that he will not receive it, and ready to indulge in all kinds of dastardly behaviour to prevent it, is the villainous M’Closky. Accentuating their enmity is the presence of Zoe, the octoroon of the title or titles: a young woman one-eighth black, whom George loves and M’Closkey, it seems, lusts after. Theoretically freed, she too, because of some mislaid papers, will be up for auction. In his desperation, George even considers marrying Dora, a rich neighbour, for her money; she is more than willing. Diana Donnelly gives a witty gown-swishing performance as Dora; Vanessa Sears plays Zoe, her first non-musical role, and she is radiant.
BJJ himself plays both George and M’Closkey, in whiteface, the idea being that no actual white performers would agree to appear in such a racially charged a piece. So Sills gets to give a second quick-change performance as good as the first, in a bisected cloak that’s white for the hero and black for the villain, enabling him to play scenes with himself and even, in a great bravura sequence, to fight with himself.
McManus meanwhile has donned redface, as Boucicault himself actually did, to play a drunken Indian (that’s the word they use), even though there’s an actual First Nations actor on hand in the person of Ryan Cunningham. He gets to play an old black slave who, intentionally, is a walking shuffling cliché. Completing the cast are two female slaves, whose scenes very obviously are not by Boucicault. They provide caustic, very modern commentary on the action around them. Lisa Berry and Kiera Sangster are uproarious in the roles and might be even more so if Peter Hinton, whose direction in general is faithful and restrained, had not placed so many of their scenes so far upstage.
Both casting and commentary are intended to stop us in our tracks, to confront us with the prejudices of a former age and of our own. And so they do, for a moment. After that, we adjust and settle down to follow the story. That rug, though, is pulled from under us. The fourth of the original play’s five acts is a murder trial that BJJ refuses to let us see; he gives us a synopsis instead. His excuse is that the crucial piece of evidence is that new-fangled thing, a photograph, something that could hardly thrill us the way it did the audiences of 1859. That’s specious; a photo may not now have the force of revelation, but the trial could still excite, assuming the author knew his business. Which, judging from the only one of his melodramas I’ve seen, an Irish piece called The Shaughraun, Boucicault plainly did.
His fifth act has here vanished without trace. Last we see of Zoe, she’s planning suicide. We’re left to assume that this is averted and there’ll be a happy ending. And so there was, when the original play was done in London. The American public, though, was not ready for a hero marrying a heroine who was even fractionally black, so Boucicault wrote a tragic alternative. He was hardly the last progressive writer to compromise in such a way. As late as 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein had to kill off the hero of South Pacific to prevent him from marrying a Polynesian. Twenty years before that, in Show Boat, Hammerstein had to present miscegenation as inevitably doomed.
The real way to shock and shame a contemporary audience, if anybody had the guts or gall to do it, would probably be to stage Boucicault’s Octoroon unaltered, daring us to sort out its sympathies from its attitudes and its vocabulary. At that, though I haven’t counted, I suspect there are more uses of the N-word in Jacobs-Jenkins’ new scenes than in what remain of Boucicault’s old ones. An Octoroon is not, in short, the breathtaking experience that reports had led us to expect, but it’s a plenty good one.
An Octoroon is in repertory through October 14.