The opening scene of An Octoroon, now at Dobama Theatre, is one of the most disarming lid-lifters for any play in recent memory. Ananias Dixon, a black actor, walks out on the stage in his underwear and addresses the audience as BJJ, a doppelganger for the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Smiling engagingly, he proceeds to share his feelings about how, as an African-American writer, he's always accused of deconstructing the race problem in America, even when he writes a play featuring talking farm animals.
Of course, this is an obvious feint since that is exactly what Jacobs-Jenkins is about to do. As BJJ applies white face paint to himself, he complains that he can't find any white actors to play the white people in this show, which is based on an 1859 melodrama by Dion Boucicault titled The Octoroon. Boucicault's original tale was a florid story of a mixed race love affair between the white owner of a declining Louisiana plantation, George Peyton, and Zoe, who is an octoroon.
According to the laws of that antebellum time, a person who had one-eighth black blood was considered an octoroon and thereby stained, rendered less than human. And the playwright's stylized version of that old theatrical chestnut forms the bulk of this fascinating, disturbing work. Shifting smoothly from high melodrama to meta-theater to contemporary language and performance customs, the proceedings are often confusing — especially in the first act.
But the acting, under the superb direction of Nathan Motta, is always fully on point and riveting. After the opening scene, we are introduced to Boucicault (sharply rendered by Abraham Adams), the hard-drinking Irish playwright who authored the original piece. As he dons red face paint, to play a couple more characters later on, he regales the audience with his theatrical innovations ("I invented the matinee!") along with other random complaints.
The face painting is completed when Boucicault's assistant arrives and dons blackface so he can play two of the slaves on George's property, Pete and Paul. Once all the faces are in place, we slide into Jacobs-Jenkins version of the melodrama. Dixon reemerges, his white-face now carefully applied, as the dapper George, a man of the world who recently inherited the plantation from his uncle. From the get-go, he is actively being pursued by Dora, a blonde who lives over yonder mountain. But George only has eyes for Zoe, his uncle's daughter.
One reason the play is a challenge to track is that three of the characters, female house slaves at the mansion, speak in contemporary slang, with one calling the other "ghetto" and referring to their owners as "cool-ass white people." It is arresting and jarring to see these women — played with sass and style by Katrice Monee Headd, India Nicole Burton, and Maya Jones — gossiping about their slavery as people today would talk about working at Target. And it brings home the heinous everyday truth of that time with full force.
Of course, every melodrama needs a villain and that role is also handled by Dixon, who plays the evil McCloskey by putting on a black cloak and snapping on a wiry black mustache. In a performance that has to be seen to be believed, Dixon inhabits each of his characters fully while staying true to the essentially artificial nature of the entire play. He has scenes where he plays both George and McClosky in rapid succession and even has a dramatic fight with himself, throwing himself head-over-heels at one time. In all, it is simply a tour-de-force achievement.
As Dora, Anjanette Hall flutters and flirts with all the intensity of a petticoated barracuda, and her scene when she collapses in tears after learning of George's affection for Zoe is a gem of intentional overacting. Natalie Green also stands out as the simpering Zoe, accepting her fate as a person stained by her blood and mincing about with her arms bouncing puppet-like, as if they were attached with strings to her ankles.
The slaves are "led" by the compliant older slave Pete, and Arif Silverman plays him to the hilt, sidling sideways across the stage. After these scuttling movements Silverman perpetually finishes in the classic "Black Sambo" pose, arms and legs akimbo, fingers spread, and always, always smiling. Nathan A. Lilly also registers powerfully in the second act in the small but telling role of Ratts.
There is so much to admire in this production it almost seems unfair to point out some weaknesses. But there are a few. The overdone melodramatic acting begins to feel tiresome after a while. And the entire play ends on an anti-climactic note as two of the female slaves (Headd and Burton) chat absently about the future and the fact that the other slave (Jones) might have killed herself. It is at this point that one longs to see BJJ again, to wrap up this most challenging look into race in America.
Or perhaps it should finish on the one projected image near the end of the show, an actual photograph, that still sends chills down the spine of anyone who believes freedom should be more than just a word.