Lance Gardner in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
By Adrian Badger
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Eric Ting
Afi Bijou, Jasmine Bracey, Afua Busia, Lance Gardner, Sydney Morton, Ray Porter, Lisa Quoresimo, Jennifer Regan, Amir Tala
Playing through July 29, 2017
What do you get when you cross two playwrights from different worlds, a nineteenth century melodrama, race and gender mashups, and a healthy punch in the gut? You get An Octoroon, the latest Berkeley Rep West Coast premiere.
Knowing very little about this piece by Jacbs-Jenkins (which was – to use a very loose definition of the word – “adapted” from the original nineteenth century melodrama The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault) I expected a modern retelling of the original piece designed to entertain and enlighten. However, from the moment I took my seat and surveyed the stage, I knew that this evening would not be as expected. Arnulfo Maldonado’s black stage with a simple hanging black light was clue enough that this play would not be “traditional”.
From the moment BJJ (brilliantly played by Lance Gardner) entered the stage and began putting on his “stage makeup” white face (Gardner is African American), the tone was set: This was not your great-grandfather’s melodrama.
With An Octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins manages to take what was likely a scandalous melodrama in the nineteenth century and make it scandalous, relevant and enlightening contemporary play within a play today. To explain too much of the plot would ruin the ongoing surprises and moments of revelation in this play, but An Octoroon is an entertaining, shocking, poignant play bursting with creativity, modern context and, yes, blatant, intentional, in-your-face-to-make-a-point racism.
Much of the success of this unique piece of theatre is due to the creative writing of Jacobs-Jenkins and the vision of director Eric Ting. But the actors in this Berkeley Rep production elevate this work to an even higher level. Gardner, playing multiple roles, deftly and simultaneously navigates the frustrations of a creative genius, a hero and a villain without so much as breaking a sweat. Jennifer Regan as Dora, the suitor to the handsome hero, recalls Carol Burnett’s southern belle with a comedic timing that is at the same time funny and heartbreaking. And the slave girl “chorus” (Afi Bijou, Jasmine Bracey and Afua Busia) masterfully balance their traditional plantation melodrama roles with contemporary language and attitude that somehow transcends and conjoins two centuries of cultural change. Ray Porter, Amir Talai and Sydney Morton as the titular Octoroon round out the stellar cast.
But, as with all melodramas, the music is itself a performer in the play. From modern recorded music to the live melodramatic piano accompaniment (deftly handled by Lisa Quoresimo), every plot twist and turn is more clear by the perfect “performance” of the music. Combined with clever sets that meld two-dimensional melodrama backdrops with three-dimensional surprises, and simple but perfect costumes by Montana Blanco, An Octoroon is an assault on the senses, the mind, the heart and the gut that should not be missed.