In American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon — a radical and hugely provocative re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault — the playwright declares bluntly to the audience that theatre is no longer a place of novelty.
How could anything be novel, given the generally wealthy and privileged audiences who attend theatres are able to experience just about everything? How can theatre possibly give us any kind of new experience, in the way that Boucicault and his contemporaries were able to?
The perhaps unintended irony of that declaration is that An Octoroon is likely the most original and uncompromising piece of theatre presented at any Australian theatre company this year. I have no doubt that it will be controversial, but it’s brutally funny and irreverent, with the power to blow open significant conversations.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ play takes place in the deep south of America, but this production has been re-contextualised by playwright Nakkiah Lui, to be set in steamy rural Queensland. In an interview last week, Lui said that Indigenous Australians were certainly held as slaves, even if the history of Australian slavery isn’t as well known or as widely acknowledged.
She said: “Stolen wages weren’t stolen wages; it was slavery. Let’s call a pig a pig.”
The plot of Boucicault’s play is fairly complex and convoluted, and is mostly re-told over the course of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play. It involves a white plantation owner who falls in love with a beautiful woman who is an “octoroon”: a term that’s now considered politically incorrect, referring to a person who is one-eighth black.
But the play is framed by a playwright character known as “BJJ” (Colin Smith), who has set out to write this adaptation. BJJ is pretty lost in his notions of what it means to be a “black playwright”, and what he should do with his talents and this play.
The situation has been made even worse now that most of the white actors have quit his play, not wanting to perform as evil slave owners. So what does BJJ do? He dons white face paint and performs the white roles himself.
The chaos that ensues is frequently disorientating, discomforting, frequently hilarious, and incisive in its politics. Jacobs-Jenkins’ play is one of the richest pieces in recent years interrogating race and identity, and how identity is inevitably shaped by our collective histories.
Lui makes her directorial debut with this production, and proves herself to be a master of this kind of highly-stylised, faux-melodrama comedy. The play loses a little of its steam somewhere in the middle as it works through the various twists and turns of Boucicault’s original text, but Lui’s production retains its focus right to the end.
Lui’s local touches also work a treat and bring the play into contact with our recent history: Anthony Standish paints his skin brown to play a character known as Jonah (who happens to be from Tonga), and Tongan actor Anthony Taufa plays Pete, a trope Aboriginal character who brings to mind a long history of Aboriginalia. Minstrelry is never too far away.
Colin Smith is the audience’s guide to the play as BJJ, and fully captures the playwright’s growing frustration at his inability to make the play work. Anthony Standish is his perfect mirror image as a white playwright who dons brownface, and Anthony Taufa draws on every cliche available to him for a brilliant comedic performance. Sarah Ogden primps about the stage in an appropriately prissy manner.
Shari Sebbens is wonderfully funny as Zoe, the titular octoroon and the picture of a “well-bred” colonial lady, while Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Elaine Crombie steal the show as two house slaves who take a no-bullshit approach to the events of the play. Chenoa Deemal only gets a small amount of dialogue as the pregnant field slave Grace, but makes a massive impact.
Designer Renee Mulder’s stage is a simple long, white traverse space, with audience seating banks on both sides. It’s sometimes a difficult space to work in, but the physical elements of the production are mostly successful, with the actors able to reach out to audiences on both sides.
If theatre is, in fact, no longer a place of novelty, perhaps its greatest purpose is to simply tell the truth by exploding false notions. I suppose by that definition, you could call a certain scene in the fourth act of Lui’s production a coup de théâtre.
I won’t reveal what happens as it’s such an extraordinarily simple idea it’s impact won’t land without context.
The audience is suddenly reminded that the abhorrent crimes and cruelty presented in the play are not ancient history. In fact, the acts depicted in the play were happening so recently in Australia that there’s even photographic evidence.
Lui invites her audience to sit with our history for just a moment, and refuses to deny the full weight of the issues explored thus far through comedy.
It’s frequently said that comedy is tragedy plus time. That makes the line between the two particularly difficult to draw in a country like Australia where racism is arguably as much a part of our present as it is our past.
But An Octoroon is absolutely fearless when it comes to that line, and one of the most dangerous and intriguing works of theatre I’ve seen in years.
This writer was a guest of Brisbane Marketing and Brisbane Festival.
Featured image by Rob Maccoll