“I invented matinées bitches, look it up!”
You wouldn’t have put money on Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre becoming the destination for some of London’s more radical theatre leanings but with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, it has done it once again. Less of a surprise is that it is director Ned Bennett at the helm again, reuniting with Pomona collaborators Georgia Lowe (design) and Elliot Griggs (lighting) to provide a headfuck of a production out of a headfuck of a play.
I could talk about the plot, about how Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted Dion Boucicault’s 1859 racially dubious play The Octoroon, but that wouldn’t do this any justice really. For this is a piece of theatre less concerned with narrative drive, with characters that move from point A to point B, but more of a thought experiment, challenging audiences to consider our attitudes toward race, both in how it is portrayed on contemporary stages and how we deal with the legacy of a wealth of drama approaching the issue in a completely different day and age.
That much is obvious from the start when we’re confronted with Ken Nwosu’s BJJ, the writer himself talking about the experience of being a playwright of colour, who can’t write anything without critics assessing it for a racial critique. As it turns out, he’s joined by Boucicault, with whom he spars verbally in a most engaging manner and when they are eventually met by the company of actors who are putting on this adaptation – BJJ dons whiteface, Boucicault paints his face red to play a Native American and Alistair Toovey’s blacks up.
This the scene is set to really challenge our preconceptions and Bennett and Jacobs-Jenkins do so effectively, calling into question what onstage identities can or should be assumed, and the baggage we bring to them as audiences. Take Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole’s house servants, their dialogue is written in the contemporary African American vernacular, instantly flipping our expectations of how the slave experience is represented. And having Nwosu play both the hero and the antagonist of the story, fighting himself hilariously at one point, heightens the melodramatic contrast between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
By the time you throw in gorgeous live cello (James Douglas playing Theo Vidgen’s compositions) counterpointed by Snoop Dogg rapping through ‘Step Yo Game Up’, giant rabbits creeping round the set and the strangely beautiful ballet of the small polystyrene balls that fill up the stage at one point, your mind is fizzing the creativity and ingenuity of the thinking here. You’re also, rightly, not allowed to forget how seriously the legacy of slavery still pervades too much of how race is dealt with today. Arresting, essential stuff.