« Independence Eve: Ears on Baseball | Main | Disturbing the Gates Of Reason--A New Look at Othello »

An Octoroon--[Box] Meets <Diamond>

Breaking the Fourth Wall, play within a play, actors playing dual roles, contemporary and antiquated timeframes as one reality, and a surreal character are all elements of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins remarkable An Octoroon, a play about race in America. Jacobs-Jenkins bases his contemporary speaking play on the 1859 melodrama entitled The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault.

octoroon1-greasepaint.jpg

The Dresser, who saw the July 30, 2017 performance of the Woolly Mammoth production, has seen plenty of theater where the actors infiltrate the audience, maybe embarrass one or two innocent, bone fide audience members and then go back to the traditional play plan where the players interact with one another. Octoroon's breach of the Fourth Wall is different. The character BJJ who talks to the audience first is the stand-in for contemporary playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. BJJ, played with exceptional plasticity by Jon Hudson Odom, appears on stage wearing nothing by his briefs.

He first interacts with an audience member whose cell phone rings (is this an audience plant? The Dresser doesn't think this matters) and then briefs his audience on the play via a session with his female shrink. Odom plays both roles--the nearly naked depressed BJJ and the sickeningly sunny analyst (the audience only hears her voice). BJJ makes it clear that he is a black playwright trying to talk about race in America but he can't get any white actors to take parts that implicate white Americans with slavery. The shrink helps him think through how to proceed, which results in the use of white, black. and red makeup to make a black actor a white man, a white actor a black man, and another white actor a red man (a Native American). So what Jacobs-Jenkins does is through BJJ's vulnerability (i.e. his nearly nakedness) is pull the audience through the Fourth Wall to make them intimates in the process of how this play is going to be enacted. As final touch to the opening scene, BJJ turns his back as he prepares to dress and play the white men roles (George, the good one, and M'Closkey, the bad one). With his back turned he pulls his briefs into his butt crack and essentially moons the audience. Whoa, does this playwright have attitude.

THEOCTOROON_trio.jpg

Just in case you are wondering, the melodrama involves trying to save a plantation in financial ruin and its inhabitants from the clutches of the evil M'Closkey. Among the people affected is a young woman named Zoe who is the daughter of the newly dead plantation master. Zoe's genetic makeup is 1/8 black. She is an octoroon whose status as a free person comes into question with the forced sale of the plantation.THEOCTOROON_AuctionBlock.jpg

What makes Jacobs-Jenkins' play compelling is the discussion throughout the acts about how this play is being made or how it was made. The playwright is thorough and never drops the thread about how An Octoroon is or has been constructed. Almost a legerdemain, Jacobs-Jenkins tacks on a coda after the true end of the play provides a sensational boat-on-fire scene. The coda features two black women who have been sold to the river boat captain Ratts (Jobari Parker-Namdar). The women (played by Erika Rose and Felicia Curry) are looking forward to a new life away from the plantation not knowing their new home has been incinerated. But then their conversation turns back on itself with what-if questions and this mostly comic team turns serious and philosophic as the two deconstruct the play. Interestingly they perform before a scenery flat positioned close to the front of the stage duplicating how the old melodrama might have presented this scene. Scenery flats were positioned close to the front of the stage because lighting was a problem. Before 1850, night time theater in American was lit mostly by candlelight; after 1850, theaters began modernizing with gas lamps. What the positioning of the scenery does, in the Dresser's mind, is create a sense of intimacy while also suggesting metaphorically that these characters are on stage to shine light on the situation.

There is a lot of meat on the bones of this play but the Dresser will add just these two additional things about a play with great acting, fluid directing (kudos to Director Nataki Garrett), and engaging sets and costumes--the fight scene between George and M'Closkey (remember: both roles are played by Jon Hudson Odom) revivals Cirque du Soleil contortionists. And what about the larger-than-life rabbit who walks through many of the scenes? The Dresser thinks the rabbit is Br'er Rabbit from the Uncle Remus tales--the trickster using his wit to thumb his nose at authority and to bend the rules as he sees fit. The rabbit is another stand-in for the playwright.

an-octoroon.jpg
















Henry Crawford's "When [Box] Met <Diamond>" is a poem within a poem and it touches on the issues of slavery and enlightenment allowing an opportunity for a dialectic with Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon. The Dresser presents Crawford's poem and then a playful interchange between Crawford's first poem of "When [Box] Met <Diamond>" and the Dresser's ascribed nervous thoughts about first entering into An Octoroon--would the Dresser as audience be manipulated by the playwright and forced to watch something that tries her patience?

WHEN [BOX] MET <DIAMOND>

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]
Before there were war planes [Oh no!] there was
going down in flames [it is.] Before there was
[What, repetition?] Greek tragedy
[And another lame enjambment.] there was
Greek slavery [I'm a person too, you know.]
Before there were <hey you> courts
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.] there were
courtiers <you, in the box> Before there were cities
<i see you> there were rivers [You don't know how long]
Before there were rights [I've been trapped here.]
there were privileges <i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.] Before there were pistols
[Oh crap!] there were shots [He got it off.]
<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
Before there were lawyers there were [You?] laws
Before there was the big
[How did you leave?] there was the big bang
[I don't think this will work.]
Before there were knives <now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] there was <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.] cutting loose. Before
there was the Renaissance [Say it diamond!] there was
the Age of Enlightenment <we're outta here>
Before there were prisons, there were sentences.


by Henry Crawford
from American Software

"When [Box] Met <Diamond>" copyright © 2017 by Henry Crawford
WHEN [BOX] MET <DIAMOND> {First Poem}

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]
[Oh no!]
[it is.]
[What, repetition?]
[And another lame enjambment.]
[I'm a person too, you know.]
<hey you>
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.]
<you, in the box>
<i see you> [You don't know how long]
[I've been trapped here.]
<i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.]
[Oh crap!] [He got it off.]
<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
[You?]
<god yes, but I found a way out>
[How did you leave?]
<take my hand> [I don't think this will work.]
<now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.]. <me too>
[Say it diamond!]
<we're outta here>


WHEN [BOX] MET <DIAMOND> {First Poem with comments from the Dresser}

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]

The Dresser: I hope An Octoroon is not another self-conscious play that messes with the audience.

[Oh no!]
[it is.]
[What, repetition?]
[And another lame enjambment.]
[I'm a person too, you know.]
<hey you>
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.]

The Dresser: The audience deserves a better play than one messing with the audience.

<you, in the box>
<i see you> [You don't know how long]
[I've been trapped here.]
<i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.]
[Oh crap!] [He got it off.]

The Dresser: I have seen naked actors on stage but somehow a male character wearing briefs seemed more unsettling than a completely naked body. What was the meaning of this state of undress?

<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
[You?]
<god yes, but I found a way out>
[How did you leave?]
<take my hand> [I don't think this will work.]
<now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.]. <me too>
[Say it diamond!]
<we're outta here>

The Dresser: Quite frankly when BJJ began the exchange with his shrink, I thought I and the audience were in for a long and tedious night of theater. I was completely surprised that the shrink could lead the despairing black playwright out of his funk with grease paint.

Now, Dear Reader, the Dresser will step back and allow you to see the parallels of the second poem in "When [Box] Met <Diamond>."

|

Comments (1)

Teri Rife:

Appreciate the interplay between the experience of the play and the accompanying poem, Karren. The poem is so fun, and true to the writing experience.

its complexity of gills {egad}
{not another} thready stem
trembling {haiku}

TR

Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


About

This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 3, 2017 7:53 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Independence Eve: Ears on Baseball.

The next post in this blog is Disturbing the Gates Of Reason--A New Look at Othello .

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

<