Company One/ArtsEmerson's "Octoroon": The Definite Article

Bridgette Hayes, Elle Borders, Shawna M. James, Obehi Janice, Brandon Green & Brooks Reeves in "An Octoroon"

The play An Octoroon is the definite article, even with the slightly altered title from the play on which it's based, The Octoroon, the 1859 five-act melodrama by Irish playwright Dionysius (also known as Dion) Boucicault. This revision is currently being performed as a co-production by ArtsEmerson and Company One Theatre at the Paramount Center black box theater. Revised by Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, author of Appropriate, it shared the 2014 Obie for Best New Play. The original Boucicault work was an antebellum melodrama second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin in popularity. It remains to be seen whether this version will find similar acceptance. Whatever its reception, it must be said that it is the definite article, a melodrama, with all that this classification entails.

In the playbill for this production, the question is asked, “why melodrama?”. The proposed answer to this query is that perhaps this is the only theatrical form that can hold the emotions so deeply felt in our country at present. The danger of utilizing this type of theater, with its absurd heightened reality, broad brush and intentionally exaggerated acting, is that a form that is already a parody to modern eyes doesn't lend itself easily to further satire. Thus we have a nearly three-hour marathon that, despite a few brilliant sparks, becomes more like camp, which can really be excruciatingly boring, rather like a vastly over-extended SNL skit.

Boucicault adapted his play from the novel The Quadroon, stirring up debates between pro-slavers and abolitionists, as well as controversy as to whether theater ought to have any role regarding politics. The earth is not so pretty at Plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana, even though a branch of the Mississippi still runs right through the estate. George (Brandon Green), heir to what he calls the “ruins of Terrebonne” left after his late uncle lost ownership of the estate, exclaims about the threat made by the evil overseer of the property, Jacob M'Closky (also played by Green) to sell off the estate and auction the slaves. Soon he meets and falls in love with the slave Zoe (Shawna Michelle James), who reminds him they cannot marry legally as she is an octoroon, that is, one-eighth black. Other characters include a Whanotee Indian chief (Brooks Reeves), the slave auctioneer LaFouche (also played by Reeves), The Playwright (Reeves again), and the slaves Minnie (Elle Borders) and Dido (Obehi Janice). Also in the cast are a mute Br'Er Rabbit (Kadahj Bennett, who also plays Ratts), Pete (Harsh Gagoomal, who also plays Paul), Dora (Bridgette Hayes), and Grace (Amelia Lumpkin). It may be of interest that none of the five women double in roles, but all four of the men do; seems it was then even more a man's world than it is now.

There are moments of insight, with reference in this land of cotton, to the impossibility of racial intermarriage (not legal countrywide until 1967). Late in the show, there is a brief but effective (though entirely predictable) video presentation. As helmed here by Director Summer L. Williams, most of the cast falls into the trap of lack of any restraint. While melodrama is hardly known for its subtlety, it can still be overdone. And the excessive frequency of f-bombs and the n-word are both offensive in different ways, the former losing its impact with such overuse, the latter at first shocking but soon apparent that it was just universally used. The creative team efforts include Scenic Design by Justin and Christopher Swader, Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg, Sound Design by David Wilson, and Vocal/Dialect Coaching by Karen Kopryanski.

Jacobs-Jenkins has stated that, in the past, melodramas gave audiences a sense of seeing something new and novel, but that today the theater is no longer a place of novelty. This is debatable, and, at least in this production, remains an open question.

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