Human existence is so fleeting. And with humans themselves so impermanent, is there really anything they can lay claim to in this world? Their property? Their love? Their racial identity?
Possessions and possessiveness form the backbone of D.C. born playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, raising questions about our inherent human tendency to claim and codify.
The play lays down a revelatory ass-whooping on the kind of categorical statements about race pervasive in today’s culture, the Trump-esque blame game populated with blanket accusations toward groups we think we can define. And it’s done through a biting satire meant to blur those definitions.
And we see these lines being blurred largely because our eponymous octoroon (i.e., one-eighth black) girl Zoe (Kathryn Tkel) is such an anomaly. In the play, set on an 1850’s plantation on the brink of foreclosure, she’s the illegitimate daughter of the now-deceased owner. She’s loved. She’s educated like a daughter. But she’s been stamped as property due to a clerical error and about 12% of her DNA. The play revolves around wresting her freedom from an impending fire sale of the lot and all its laborers.
We see through those laborers’ eyes not through the more privileged Zoe, but through the disenchanted Dido (Erika Rose) and Minnie (Shannon Dorsey). Dropped onto the plantation, we find them gossiping, not with antiquated diction, but with a present-day vernacular that reflects the fact that they’re basically us, sounding boards for the story itself. There’s so much wonderful sass in these interchanges, with colloquialisms that are obviously of our time, but still seem to have a down-home, 19th century Southern twang to them. It’s through this dialogue that Dorsey in particular shines.
A decidedly three-walled production–the fourth having been absolutely shattered–An Octoroon employs constant asides and outright explication to the audience that make the whole thing feel more participatory than perfunctory. Meta commentary abounds, and the entire open is a framing narrative where “BJJ” (Jon Hudson Odom) and the “Playwright” (James Kocinek) tell us directly their motivations, their reservations, and the racially reversed roles they will don for the play itself. Then on comes the face paint: whiteface, blackface, and redface. It’s crazy and rather arresting, but you’re right there with them.
Physically too, there’s a true sense of immersion present in the production, and the intimate environment at Woolly Mammoth really adds to the ambience. Characters circle the room and the audience before entering the scene, providing a multi-layered visual and aural experience. Theater surround sound, if you will. Exit stage right, exit stage left, or saunter directly through the audience. These options are all on the table. The pivotal auction scene takes place with one of the characters seated somewhere between rows D and G, wherever he finds that empty chair.
Odom handles the lead role with an undeniable swagger. While he, Kocinek, and Joseph Castillo-Midyett deftly handle three characters each, Odom is the only one made to perform two simultaneously, reflexively interacting with himself on stage. Both the main protagonist and antagonist, he shines as the villain M’Closky, whose maniacal tendencies are reminiscent of a Mandingo-fighting Leo DiCaprio from Django Unchained.
As her character is first introduced, Zoe delivers a hauntingly beautiful hymn that showcases Kathryn Tkel’s impressive vocal range, but the sentimentality of that moment isn’t echoed in later scenes. The budding romance between protagonist George and Zoe, for example, is primarily a straight-to-bloom. Their love is professed abruptly; we don’t get to watch it flower.
The lack of an entirely comprehensive progression doesn’t really dampen the emotional force of the work. But at times the narrative pacing does. There are just a few moments where the relentless comedic riffs work to the play’s detriment in some small measure. Zoe delivers an impassioned monologue that seemed to miss its mark because the audience was still recovering from laughter seconds before. That she was perhaps the least convincing of the thespians may likewise have some bearing.
But that seems an unfair dig at a cast that was cohesive and performances that were truly comprehensive. And did I mention? This play is so meta, and so hilarious.
Special recognition ought to go to the cellist, Katie Chambers, for her massive performance throughout the play. A passive on-stage member of the play, she would pull up a chair in the background of the scene to chime in. From jaunty little hand-plucked notes to beautiful strokes and chords, her work provided color and dictated mood.
Provided you can stomach some pretty insensitive caricatures, you’ll find the social commentary on point. And pivotal moments of a more somber nature elicited audible gasps from the audience.
This is alternative entertainment that merits a hearty recommendation, funnier than the best comedy at the box office, and bound to raise more questions than the best drama there, too.
An Octoroon runs through June 26 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the Woolly Mammoth site. All photos by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Woolly Mammoth.