Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has, on more than one occasion, spoken about our societal inability to effectively talk about race. “We were given language and hardly know how to use it,” he told Vogue in 2014. What is it about race that makes us clench up? Is it that we are unequipped to discuss it? Are we afraid of saying the wrong thing? Are we too paralyzed by its daunting scope? None of these, by the way, seem to apply to Jacobs-Jenkins, who has written a trio of radically different, entirely unforgettable plays about race.
Boston was first exposed to Jacobs-Jenkins in 2011 when Company One presented Neighbors, a play about a group of minstrel performers that move next door to a mixed-race family. This past fall, SpeakEasy staged Appropriate, a remarkable play about a white family that convenes at the home of their recently deceased patriarch, where they discover that he was a member of the KKK. Now through Feb 27, Company One and ArtsEmerson have banded together to bring us the New England premiere of An Octoroon, a modern retelling of sorts of Dion Boucicault’s late-1800s antebellum melodrama, The Octoroon.
Company One has been following Jacobs-Jenkins’ ascent ever since its production of Neighbors, said Company One co-founder Summer L. Williams, who directed Neighbors and is also directing An Octoroon. “We were always like, ‘What are you doing now? What’s happening next?’” said Williams. “I found myself really interested and invested in what was going to happen with this story and how it was going to happen.”
Jacobs-Jenkins has employed drastically different techniques to look at race: In Neighbors, he used minstrelsy to shocking effect; with Appropriate, he managed to write a play about race that didn’t have a single black character, while also pulling from the grandfathers of American drama—O’Neill, Williams, Shepard, and Miller, among others. With An Octoroon, he is not only breathing new life into a once widely popular (though now forgotten) play, but he has taken the conventions of theater and turned them upside down.
Several parts are played by actors in blackface, redface, and whiteface. A pair of slaves speak in modern 21st-century slang. Occasionally, Br’er Rabbit hops by, “doing Br’er Rabbit things.” Jacobs-Jenkins has indicated in the script, in order of preference, the actors’ ethnicities. In a prologue, a character named BJJ (a “black playwright”) addresses the audience. There is nothing conventional about An Octoroon: It is a melodrama with a heightened sense of reality, which Williams thinks is necessary to allow the audience to “steep in many emotions and thoughts at once.”
An Octoroon is a fireball of a play that elicits feelings that are often polar opposites of one another: It is at once chilling, hysterical, disturbing, and entertaining. At one point, the slaves are sold at auction. Minnie, one of the slaves, fetches a higher price than her rival, Grace. “Who ghetto now, bitch!?” says Minnie. The horror of watching human beings being treated like property is eclipsed by a sassy slave speaking in modern slang. It makes us think about why we feel free to laugh at contemporary stereotypes but have clear boundaries around things like blackface.
“Branden Jacobs-Jenkins makes you think about history and context and the role you play within that,” said Williams. “I think that’s why a lot of his work is so impactful. We’re laughing and enjoying a particular moment and then we’re just like, ‘Oh, wait a second, why am I laughing at this?’”
I asked Williams what she thinks the play says—or asks—about race. “All of the things that you might think, say, ask, revile, and love,” she said. “It’s all very messy.”