Remember Dion Boucicault’s 1859 hit “The Octoroon”? No, of course you don’t.
That anti-slavery play (somewhat in the vein of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) was extremely popular when it debuted but is unsurprisingly forgotten today.
The Unicorn Theatre and UMKC Theatre’s production of “An Octoroon” is a revival of sorts of that old favorite.
The show opens with black playwright BJJ (a stand-in for actual playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins) speaking to the audience about the adaptation he’s working on. All of his white actors have quit because they were uncomfortable playing the parts of slave owners. So he decides to play the roles himself — in whiteface.
Another playwright joins him — this one’s the ghost of Boucicault, we assume — who paints his face red to portray the American Indian character. An assistant in blackface will play the roles of two slaves.
See, “The Octoroon” is a melodrama, a form of theater popular in the 19th century that relies on broad — broad — stereotypes, dastardly villains, tragic love interests and heavy-handed morals. And “An Octoroon” takes up that challenge with a modern sensibility.
The two playwrights act as narrators in one scene, but mostly the story is presented traditionally.
The hero, George, arrives at the plantation he has just inherited, only to find out it’s in dire financial straits. Villainous neighbor M’Closky would like to buy it and resorts to nefarious means to keep George from finding the money that would save his property. Local Southern belle Dora would love to marry George, but he’s in love with another girl, Zoe.
Zoe loves George too, but they can never be together (how tragic!). She’s the octoroon of the title, meaning someone with one black great-grandparent.
“An Octoroon” is a really old-fashioned yet transgressive piece of theater, and it’s not for the faint of heart. The language is biting, the whiteface/blackface/redface uncomfortable and the melodrama is all out — dramatic sighs and sneers, explosions, murder, lynch mobs.
And it’s hilarious. Rasheedat “Ras” Bandejo and Amber McKinnon play Minnie and Dido, two house slaves who appear between the main plot points to comment on what’s going on and gossip about the slaves they know. Unlike the other characters, they speak in a modern idiom, which brings a humanity to the situation that the cardboard-cutout melodrama characters can’t.
The artistic staff of mostly UMKC theater students makes good use of its “empty, unfortunate-looking theater” turned Louisiana plantation. Tristan James’ set consists of curtains, a handful of moving panels and scaffolds. Together with Jae Shanks’ sound and Shannon Barondeau’s lighting design, the stage conjures both the heat of the swamp and the DIY aspect of the framing story.
As BJJ, George and M’Closky, Rufus Burns is fantastic, even going so far as playing all three in the same scene. The way he mixes markers of blackness and whiteness is one of the captivating tensions of the show.
As Zoe, Jessica Franz gets little to do beside sigh helplessly, but she gives those sighs all she’s got. Cinnamon Schultz draws big laughs as Dora, as do Bandejo and McKinnon, who are definite crowd favorites.
“An Octoroon” isn’t an adaptation in the “a modern retelling of” sense; Jacobs-Jenkins uses the original plot and much of the original lines. It’s the casting and the presentation that are modern. Everything is delivered with a self-awareness that makes it extremely funny and produces additional tension for our modern, “woke” sensibilities.
With such classics as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” being struck from school reading lists for portrayals of race that make us cringe today, “An Octoroon” offers us a way to acknowledge the culture and art of our past while also making something new for our future.