August 30-September 30, 2018
An Octoroon is a play written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. It is an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, which premiered in 1859. It’s a play within a play. The Terrebonne plantation is in upheaval – the Master has died. His naïve young nephew tries to hold things together, but the evil neighbor is out to buy the land. Meanwhile, the slaves chat and gossip, and the beautiful, young ward of the estate has a secret that will change everything. Based on a controversial classic, this Obie Award winning play is part period satire and part meta-theatrical middle finger – it’s a provocative and moving challenge to the racial climate of “the land of the free” in both the antebellum South and today.
Director – Akin Babatunde
Production Stage Manager – Tiffany Cromwell
Set Designer – Bob Lavallee
Lighting Designer – Bryan Stevenson
Costume Desigern – Aaron Patrick DeClerk
Sound Designer – John Flores
Props/Set Decor – Lynn Lovett
Fight Choreographer – Jeffrey Colangelo
Assistant Director – Ptosha Storey
Assistant Stage Manager – Katherine Ahola
Assistant Scenic Designer – Jackson Key
To be completely honest, after reading the synopsis of this show, I was a bit apprehensive to attend. I knew that this was going to be a play about race. The “theme of race relations” resonates as much today as it did in the 1960s, during the Jim Crow era and the Civil War.
On the ride to the theater, my husband and I talked about our concerns about the show’s topic. Our lives are busy and stressful during the week, so (right or wrong) we just wanted to be entertained. Instead – this production challenged us to FEEL.
The set design was minimal – an empty stage. A coil of rope lay on the floor lit by a single naked lightbulb. The opening scene began with Ryan Woods standing exposed in just his underwear. There is a raw edge of tension emanating from the stage. Woods addressed the audience directly explaining his most recent conversation with his therapist. We feel like we are eavesdropping on their intimate conversation. Woods explains a bit about the original play, The Octaroon, written by Dion Boucicault in 1859. In the era of minstrel shows it was common for white men to portray race in blackface, red-face – – men portraying women. In his monologue, Woods discussed the lack of diverse roles for black actors today and their continued struggle against stereotypes. He went on to say:
I mean, God forbid you ask a black guy to play some football playing illiterate drug-addict magical negro Iraq vet with PTSD who’s secretly on the DL with HIV but who’s also trying to get out of a generic ghetto with his pregnant obese girlfriend who has anger management issues from a history of sexual abuse – in fact, everyone’s been sexually abuse – and someone’s mother has a monologue where she’s snotting out of her nose and crying everywhere because she’s snotting out of her nose and crying everywhere because she’s been caught smoking crack and fired from her job as a hotel mail…
The play transitions from a monologue to the play itself. The plot is simple. Set in the Old South, a cotton plantation owner whose kingdom has been built on the backs of African slaves, has fallen in love with a girl of mixed race. The play’s title comes from the term Octaroon that refers to a person of one-eighth African ancestry.
The acting was the best we have seen at Stage West. The show captured the essence of history while making the characters’ angst painfully relevant today – in the DFW metroplex.
I cannot give enough accolades to Ryan Woods as an actor of merit. He played three very different characters flawlessly. As you can see from the dialogue above, the complexity and juxtaposition of words requires finesse in delivery. In Act IV, two of Wood’s characters engage in a fistfight and we watch him not only beating up himself, but maintains both characters while doing so. The fight choreography was brilliant.
Nikki Cloer, who plays Dora, a wealthy white woman who has her eyes on George, is very funny. She is a natural comedian who over exaggerates everything with aplomb. She is well cast as a foil to George.
The acerbic banter of Kristen White and Bretteney Beverly, as a house slave and her best friend brought additional relevance to the production. While “Minnie and Dido” portray 1850’s Mississippi slaves, their conversations about “life on the plantation” could easily reflect two girls from the hood at the local hair salon. These two actors OWNED the stage – with their adroit body language, vocal intonations, facial expressions, and their “attitude”. I felt like I was standing on the stoop with these girls as they gossiped about the slaves who were auctioned, whose baby got sold, and who was currently sleeping with the mas’ser. At one point Minnie said to Dido “I can’t read the sign out front… because, you know, I can’t read.” It was bizarre yet engaging for a play with such serious issues to be purposefully funny yet spot-on relevant.
The Octaroon was an unexpected evening of theatrical pathos and delight. What a wonderful surprise. The show is playing at Stage West until September 30, so I highly recommend you go see it.
Consider having dinner before the performance at Stage West’s Café (here’s the menu). You can even enjoy coffee and dessert at intermission. Please go see this show – you will be entertained by this thought-provoking, Obie award winning play long past the curtain call.