Lance Gardner as George in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne

From the opening minutes of An Octoroon, when BJJ, the stand-in for author MacArthur Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, appears on a blank stage in his underwear and announces that he is a black playwright, you know that you are in for an exciting theatrical experience. And then it gets better.

Soon BJJ (terrific performance by Lance Gardner) is joined onstage by a rather cantankerous, boozy version of Dion Boucicault (well-acted by Ray Porter), author of the once popular, The Octoroon, the 1859 melodrama about forbidden interracial love. Poor Boucicault is now forgotten and obsolete. After a funny exchange of unimaginative curses, Boucicault’s infamous melodrama is about to gain new life as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins adapts it into a 21st-century version from his own perspective.

To prepare for the play-in-chief, BJJ layers white-face make-up on his black face. He explains “I couldn’t find any more white guys to play the white guys’ parts.” He will act the role of George, the honorable white heir apparent to Terrebonne, the cotton plantation run by slave labor that is about to be sold to the highest bidder. George is in love with Zoe, the demure octoroon (the one-eighth black daughter of the recently deceased plantation owner). Rich southern belle Dora (first-rate Jennifer Regan) is also hot for George. BJJ will also act as the evil white overseer M’Closky, who wants own Zoe and Terrebonne by any means necessary.

Jasmine Bracey as Dido (left) and Afi Bijou as Minnie in An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne

Boucicault smears on red-face since he plays a Native American. BJJ’s assistant (great work by Amir Talai) plasters on black-face as the audience squirms. He will play a small slave boy killed by M’Closky, as well as a stereotypical ancient family retainer. The squirming continues as the play-in-chief opens with two women house-slaves (talented actors Afi Bijou and Jasmine Bracey) sweeping the floor, throwing around the N-word, but with a 21st-century sense of fun. Two overtly amateurish painted canvases form the plantation backdrops.

The exaggerated story progresses as M’Closky grows more evil. When the plantation and its slaves are put up for auction, George must decide whether to save the plantation and Zoe by marrying the obnoxious but wealthy Dora. To this point, the humor from the inflated storyline keeps the mood light. But all of that changes when the melodrama is suspended and we are then taken out of our comfort zone by a startling graphic of racial hatred. The curtain then opens for the first time to a realistic and quite lovely night scene of a bayou and cabin which finds Zoe, like Juliet, hoping to end her life rather than face the morning.

The play is managed brilliantly by director Eric Ting, who keeps An Octoroon running smoothly in two different centuries simultaneously. The excellent acting by Lance Gardner, especially the animated soliloquy/dialogue between George and M’Closky (both parts, remember, played by Gardner,) helps immeasurably, as does the talented cast, the scenic design (Arnulfo Maldonado) and the costumes (Montana Blanco). 

The Obie Award-winning An Octoroon is wholly unique — entertaining and amusing while it bursts throughout with racial, political and social commentary. Great theater!

All performances of An Octoroon are followed by a post-show discussion with Berkeley Rep staff, docents, and artists. An Octoroon is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through July 29, 2017. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep’s website.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...