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By Tristan Lejeune

If you asked anyone at Woolly Mammoth, they probably would tell you the script — the story and its deconstructionist bag of tricks — was why they remounted Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon just a year later. But the performances are what makes this show.

Sly with a joke, smooth with the sarcasm, and never afraid of this antebellum satire’s antiquated, histrionic pronouncements, this is a cast made of gold.

But then, satire’s not quite right because Jacob-Jenkins’s Octoroon exists in deliberately rude dialogue with, in disharmony with, as it were, an 1859 melodrama of the same name by Dion Boucicault, who shows up to remark how nice it is that modern-day theatres can use real-live black actors. Jacob Jenkins’s play, here directed by Nataki Garrett and going on until August 6, fills in the blanks and shows all the warts Boucicault’s left out. It dances with the shadow of its predecessor, and, as such, lives at its underbelly.

The master has died, and the Louisiana cotton plantation is at risk of financial ruin. The new owner, back from studies in Paris, doesn’t know his ass from his elbow, but he’s already in love with a lovely octoroon resident — the race thing bothers people, but they don’t care that these two are also first cousins. Meanwhile, there’s an evil white-cracker ladder-climber who wants to take control of all of it.

The above synopsis does you a favor that Octoroon does not: it cuts to the chase. Within the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, there’s ample room for some cuts. The cotton-sweeping bit doesn’t need to be so long; the “act four” catharsis doesn’t need to be nearly so long. And especially the long-winded introduction could be much, much shorter.

Because there are Things we want to Say about all this, the white, male leads are played by a black man in white face, while a pair of white actors spend their time in black face and red face playing slaves and a Native American. The female actors all play their birth race, presumably because assigned and toyed-with symbols and identities can only stack but so high before they collapse. This Baton Rouge native is not going to pretend he heard anything even approaching a Louisiana accent at Friday’s opening night, but there are so many levels of forged identity going on it hardly matters.

As the title character, Kathryn Tkel has the unenviable task of selling much of the show’s most sincere (and out-of-date) emotions. Her longing, her racist self-loathing, her grace — Tkel plays it all with touching sincerity. On the opposite side of the historical longview is Maggie Wilder’s hysterically funny Southern belle Dora Sunnyside. With her blonde curls and vast hoop skirt, Dora could be a one-note cliché, but Wilder is so knee-slapping good she can make an entire scene with a single “whatever.”

The best parts of the show are the bits between Erika Rose’s Dido and Shannon Dorsey’s Minnie, a pair of slaves determined to be more than that. Rose makes wisdom sound fresh — don’t dare call her Mammy — and makes the audience root for her more than anyone else. As for Dorsey, you’ve never seen such self-possession dressed in a burlap sack. I know that we’re slaves, Minnie tells Dido in the play’s final scene, but you are not your job.

The men are almost as good. As a squealing Sammy-style young boy and older Uncle Tom-esque house slave, Joseph Castillo-Midyett wears his black face without flinching, and he leans into some truly shocking punchlines. James Konicek’s “ignorant savage” Wahnotee is no slouch either, tomahawk and feather headdress included with every action figure sold.

As the dude in white face at center stage, Jon Hudson Odom nails both the wicked grin of the cackling overseer and the preening pretension of the Caucasian fish out of water, but too often the script and direction have him veer into meta-blubbering and irritating struggle with his own material. In a play crowded with good performances, his alone seems Too Much, and when it’s too much for melodrama, it’s officially Too Much.

Indeed, for all its accolades, the script is far from perfect. It isn’t that An Octoroon bites off more than it can chew, but it has so much it wants to say, it often speaks with its mouth full. Messages get muddled, others never seem to resolve.

None of that is the cast’s fault, however, everyone on stage should remember this play proudly.

An Octoroon runs at the Woolly Mammoth through August 6.

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