If you’re not familiar with the content of Artists Repertory Theatre’s An Octoroon, the spare set and opening monologue may have you convinced you’re in for a staid solo show. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
While at times a necessarily difficult performance to watch—it’s about slavery, and the racist history of theater, and drunk white playwrights stereotyping Native Americans, and some of the most racist shit you’ll see anywhere—An Octoroon is unfailingly smart and full of deceptive humor that doesn’t seem like it should work at all, but it does. Just when you think you’ve got a read on what the play is trying to do, it punches you in the face with an image you can’t unsee. There are moments from the performance I attended that were still burnt into my memory days later, which is how you know playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins succeeded in his aim of addressing the potential connection between “the illusion of suffering versus actual suffering.”
That’s a lofty goal, carried out here in a self-aware world where Jacobs-Jenkins’ stage proxy (Joseph Gibson), a struggling African-American playwright, attempts to produce a version of Dion Boucicoult’s real-life play The Octoroon, which premiered in 1859 and whose central conflict stems from one character being secretly part-Black—one-eighth, hence the title. Jacobs-Jenkins’ script lampoons this source material with a game cast, who populate what the show notes actually specify must be “an empty, unfortunate-looking theatre & the plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana” with absurd, upsetting pronouncements and melodrama for the play’s duration.
The absurdity is just as important as the seriousness, and in fact, the play’s combination of humor with images from one of America’s most hateful chapters in history is what gives it its unsettling power. It’s hard not to stay engaged, even at moments when wanting to walk out might be understandable. (There were two walkouts at the show I attended.) But I got attached to Jenkins’ characters—even the truly awful ones, which of course is only possible thanks to the layers of artifice and self-aware humor in the actors’ portrayals of even the worst people.
Addressing race in theater—an art form too often dominated by white people in both its creation and its consumption—is an important task in any political moment, and this is one of the best treatments of it I’ve seen in recent memory. Fair warning: An Octoroon contains no shortage of offending images—there is actual blackface, and an extremely racist portrayal of a Native American—but it does so in a way that always feels urgent and appropriately mocking of racists themselves, and that feeds into a larger goal of shedding light on what suffering looks like, and how and why we cause it. And besides, if you go to the theater to feel comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.