Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ satire of Dion Boucicault’s 19th Century play An Octoroon brings the audience to confront questions of race, labels about race and how we represent them in theatre both in the past and today.
The play begins with a monologue made by Ken Nwosu playing the playwright himself. He describes what it means to be a black playwright, how that notion itself is a label that needs to be questioned, and how issues of race are often not addressed in productions to avoid any discomfort. This monologue serves as a warning to the audience: there will be none of that in this play.
A convoluted knot is then created around race and interpreting race on stage in order to retell a satirical version of An Octoroon. The play dips in and out the storyline allowing a meta-theatrical comment to be made by the characters. Jacobs-Jenkins character explains, “The point is to make you feel something.”
Yes, the whimsical storytelling is enjoyable. Yes, the acting is on point. Yes, the complications of Ken Nwosu having to play simultaneously two characters that have an altercation is hilarious. And yes, Ned Bennett’s directing is flawless. But no, the audience cannot leave the room feeling wonderful because if the theatre teaches us ‘compassion and understanding’ as Jacobs-Jenkins suggests, then this play reminds us we still have a long way to go to achieve that.
Despite the amusing shenanigans the actors get into, the audience cannot ignore the core of this play which reminds them of a past still too recent that is still too often swept under the rug by too many. If the goal of this play is to make you feel something Jacobs-Jenkins has succeeded.
An Octoroon is a piece well worth seeing that asks a lot of questions and pulls no punches. Whether you are ready to address these questions or not the production throws them at you, forcing you to least receive them and hopefully not sweep them under the rug this time. 5/5
Review written by anonymous.
An Octoroon is currently showing until Wednesday 18th July 2018 at the National Theatre. To find out more about the production, visit here…