For me, growing up in Moscow meant growing up with Alexander Pushkin – a celebrated Russian poet whose silhouette, often inscribed on book covers, is as familiar to any Russian as Shakespeare’s to any English-speaker. Thanks in part to my great-grandfather and in part to Pushkin’s enthralling epic poems, I learned to read early and, like many Russian kids, had many of his works memorized.
My mother and great-grandmother often told me Pushkin’s remarkable life story: he – an icon of Russian literature – was part black, the grandchild of an African man who was a favorite in the court of Peter the Great and the subject of Pushkin’s unfinished story, “Blackamoor of Peter the Great.”
At Company One’s production of An Octoroon last night, this was the lens through which I watched the events unravel. Originally written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault and adapted for the modern stage by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“The hottest play of 1859 is back! Sort of…”), it is the story of a female octoroon (a person who is one eight black) who grows up on a southern plantation beloved and treated as an equal by her aunt, but, through the family’s loss of the property, is then subjected to the cruel fate of her fellow slaves.
That story may be the kernel, but the aspect of the melodrama (yes, you get to speak to the actors throughout, ooh, ahh, boo, cheer – the whole lot) that takes your breath away is the way Jacobs-Jenkins has transformed it into something that transcends time and place, and the “tricks” the troupe (in its own words, if I’m quoting correctly) uses to make the viewers “feel something.”
Brandon Green is magnetic in his trilogy of roles: Jacobs-Jenkins himself, George (the white man who falls in love with Zoe, the octoroon) and M’Closky, the evil owner of the neighboring plantation. The play opens with “BJJ” speaking directly to the audience, describing how, through sessions with his comical therapist (Green “plays” her, too, to great effect), he arrived at the idea of re-creating the 1850s tale for modern audiences.
Brooks Reeves then arrives on the stage as the original playwright, Boucicault – and immediately builds up another mesmerizing character the likes of which I have never seen on a stage (and not just because he first struts around in just pajama bottoms, and later paints himself red to play an “Indian.”)
One of the most dramatic elements of the night is perhaps the simplest: several characters paint their faces (black, white, and red) to become others, poignantly transforming a basic element of theater into a powerful statement on race.
Then comes a cast of characters who, despite the play’s being a melodrama filled with bursts of exaggerated gesture and emotion, are often able to reach right into your heart and make you feel all the anger, frustration, joy and disappointment that comes with such a story of prejudice – heightened all the more because of its relevance in the year 2016.
Zoe (Shawna M. James) breaks your heart with her innocence and hope. Dido (Obehi Janice) and Minnie (Elle Borders) and Grace (Amelia Lumpkin) flawlessly (and tragically, and hilariously) embody the incredible resilience of the slave spirit, piercing you with their incredible humor, light-heartedness, and optimism in the face of a very uncertain future. Dora (Bridgette Hayes) is the essence of melodrama, playing a woman who pulls all the stops in an effort to attract a man – and, just when we find her predictable, ultimately surprises everyone. Harsh Gagooma (who also plays three roles: the assistant, Pete and Paul) is a chameleon able to inspire pity one moment, elation the next – but always with the melancholy undertone demanded by his roles.
Kadahj Bennett plays Br’er Rabbit, an enormous rabbit (the stuff of nightmares) who appears to magically control aspects of the set. In reality, however, you end up with the feeling that he is, perhaps, actually controlling us, and that as we are watching him, he is, silently, watching us. It gets eerie at times – and our confusion about how to respond to his gesticulations seems to be precisely what BJJ had in mind. (Toward the end of the play, we learn that inside the mask is a sea caption with the potential to change several of the characters’ lives – but can he?)
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There were moments last night when I felt certain that Zoe the octoroon – and the other slaves – were moments away from a life closer to that of Pushkin’s grandfather and Pushkin himself: one of the equality and acceptance and love they deserve. And (no matter how the play ends) there are moments when you realize how far that type of life is from being a guarantee, in 1859 as today.
At the outset, BJJ (Green) declares that theater is no longer a place of novelty and that these days, we can experience anything we want any time we want to. By the end, he has – in the best possible way – proven himself wrong.