‘An Octoroon’ builds, then pulverizes the very structures we stand on

Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theater/Courtesy

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“An Octoroon” begins with BJJ — an onstage realization of the melodrama’s playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins — talking to his imaginary therapist about the public’s tendency to view most of his plays as an attempt to “deconstruct” race, when the truth of his cultural and racial position as a Black playwright is much more uncertain, even to him.

“Deconstructing” implies that there is some type of end goal or agenda to be met, a point to be made. Yet, “An Octoroon” never seems too focused on “making points,” and instead unearths its greatest strengths in the dualities surrounding the history of our nation.

Every laugh in “An Octoroon” is followed by a guilty gut punch, every moment of rambunctious loudness contrasted with resounding silence. From the opening scene featuring BJJ applying whiteface to the closing moment of darkness, “An Octoroon” asks a lot of questions, answers some of them, and roars its way to shattering the foundations of the very “stage” we have built America on.

A remodeling of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama “The Octoroon,” Jacobs-Jenkins’ rendition, playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and directed by Eric Ting, begins with both the original playwright (Boucicault) and the revisionist (BJJ) entering a battle of wills and artistic sensibilities — while the former is applying redface, the latter is applying whiteface. Played by Ray Porter and Berkeley Rep standby Lance Gardner, respectively, each playwright feels like they have something to prove, even if they’re not sure what.

The action then shifts place and time to Terrebonne, the plantation locale of the original play. Herein the true melodramatic hijinks that first defined “The Octoroon” ensue: a young, nouveau plantation owner George (Gardner in whiteface) is trying to save the remnants of his family’s plantation from financial ruin, while simultaneously falling into a forbidden love with one of his uncle’s slaves, Zoe (Sydney Morton), who is designated an “octoroon” because of her 1/8th African blood.

Jacobs-Jenkins and Ting masterfully construct each character interaction with a flurry of dramatic pauses and declarations of unrequited love, dehumanizing each character into obvious tropes and stereotypes. The good-natured white hero, the lightskinned beauty, and the evil overseer all fulfill their constructed roles on stage, never failing to give the audience what they expect.

But Jacobs-Jenkins soon asks what happens when it all blows up, literally — when the cultural foundations of these melodramatic stereotypes disintegrate into nothingness.

He attempts to answer his own questions in the form of two house slaves, Minnie (Afi Bijou) and Dido (Jasmine Bracey), the two shining highlights of “An Octoroon.” The slaves speak only in modern vernacular, juxtaposing the “then” and the “now.” The two women transition easily between a form of satirical Greek chorus — commenting hilariously on the constant outrageousness of everyone around them —and a pair of closely bonded best friends, refusing to separate when facing the threat of possibly being sold.

Actresses Bijou and Bracey handle the change in tone — sometimes going from an off-putting quip normalizing slavery to a scene of horrendous violence in a matter of seconds — with nothing short of god-like versatility. They cross every line deemed “civil” and make a career-defining performance out of it.

Even the sets, designed dynamically by Arnulfo Maldonado, seem to transition from satirical to dynamic, and embody the “play” in “playhouse.” Within the rather small space of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, stages fall from the sky and sets burn to the ground, if only to reveal the final set piece at the end of Act 2: a gorgeous swamp illuminated in blue and lit dimly by fireflies. Only after every other piece of scenery has been destroyed can something truly beautiful be revealed.

The mix of funny-as-hell dialogue, heart-wrenching images, and pure creative ingenuity differentiate “An Octoroon” from all of its other postmodern theatrical colleagues. It refuses to provide solid messages and answers concerning our own racial history in America, and instead forces us to decide just what role we might have played in creating an oppressive system of violence. The language is so funny, and the images are so resonant, because we see ourselves in the performance happening before us. Maybe, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to be saying, we really haven’t come all that far.

“An Octoroon” is playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through July 29th.

Contact Nils Jepson at [email protected].