When James Baldwin published Giovanni’s Room in 1956, nobody knew what to make of it. After his debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin was hailed as The Next Voice of Black America. How to read, then, its follow up, which details the lives of gay, white expatriates in Paris? It wasn’t until the 1980s and the rise of queer studies that Giovanni’s Room was canonized, largely because critics were finally able to categorize it: it was a Gay Novel.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is struggling with a similar problem. At the beginning of his adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (which he rightly retitles An Octoroon), the author, as played in frustrated deadpan by Chris Myers, complains, “I can’t even wipe my ass without someone trying to accuse me of deconstructing the race problem in America. I even tried writing a play about talking farm animals once—just to avoid talking about people—and this literary manager was like, ‘Oh my God! You’re totally deconstructing African folktales, aren’t you?’ ” After a fictional conversation with a non-existent therapist, he decides to rewrite Boucicault’s controversial play, and the result is a hilarious satire of, yes, the race problem in America, as well as an earnest but self-conscious melodrama and a examination of the merits and limits of theater.
George Peyton (Mr. Myers in whiteface) is a sensitive man who has recently returned from studying “fine arts” in Paris to assume control of a Louisiana plantation he has inherited from his deceased uncle. He is soon aggressively courted by a rich but vapid heiress, Dora Sunnyside (Zoë Winters), but finds himself falling in love with Zoe (Amber Gray), the eponymous daughter of his uncle and an unnamed slave woman. His estate, however, is in financial ruin, and George must choose between marrying Dora (she would pay off his debts and thus secure the future of his slaves, who might otherwise fall into the hands of less liberal masters) or running off with Zoe. Meanwhile, the evil, mustachioed M’Closky (also Mr. Myers in whiteface) has found a legal loophole in Zoe’s free papers and plans to purchase her for nefarious (sexual) reasons.
The cast is fantastic, especially the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like slaves, Dido (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Grace (Shyko Amos), whose commentary on the action is often in contemporary dialect (“She so fake,” or, “You can’t be bringing your work home with you”) and whose mild interest continually reminds us of Boucicault’s creakiness to modern ears. Ms. Winters also stands out, gleefully shredding the scenery with her pearly whites and vacillating between a squeaky falsetto and a guttural chest voice with impressive ease.
Occasionally, however, An Octoroon does feel overwritten. Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has a sharp and funny voice, but he struggles with conciseness and takes on too much in too little time; he reappears during the climax to discuss the play once again and it is a testament to his talent that this doesn’t feel as cheaply postmodern as it otherwise should—nevertheless, he could have dropped some of the talk about the “moral of the play” and its “universal themes.” Still, the work as a whole emerges as messily impressive, and perhaps its greatest takeaway is the affirmation that “melodrama” is a genre, not a pejorative.