THE BASICS: AN OCTOROON, a 2014 play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins based on a 19th century melodrama, presented by Chautauqua Theater Company, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, with five shows left – July 5 at 2:15 p.m., 7/6 at 4, 7/7 at 2:15, and 7/8 at both 2:15 and 8:00 in the air-conditioned Bratton Theater, on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution (716-357-6437). Your ticket is your grounds pass. chq.org/chautauqua-theater-company Age: 16+ Strong adult language and content. Runtime: Over two hours with one intermission not including an excellent talkback after each performance.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Building on the Chautauqua playbill description: In 1859, an internationally famous author of melodramas (stereotyped characters are clearly good or bad, many plot reversals, a mandatory emotionally cathartic moment for the audience), Irish playwright Dion Boucicault wrote a hit melodrama called THE OCTOROON second in popularity at the time only to UNCLE TOM’S CABIN about the fate of Zoe (Hannah Rose Caton) an “octoroon” woman – a person of one-eighth African ancestry – in the pre-Civil War south. Now, in our current time, “BJJ” – a young black playwright whose initials are surprisingly like those of the actual playwright – can’t get the story out of his head and writes his own version, which he calls AN OCTOROON.
But, as BJJ tells us from the stage, when a white actor friend refuses to take on the role of the cruel, racist plantation overseer (think “Simon Legree,”) BJJ decides to do that himself. So, we end up with a black actor, Larry Powell, playing three different roles: the playwright BJJ, and then the two white men about to take over the Louisiana plantation named “Terrebonne” – both the “good” George and the “bad” M’Closky. Meanwhile, white actor Brett Rickaby takes on the roles of the 19th century real life Dion Boucicault, as well as the characters Wahnotee “the Indian” and LaFouche, the slave auctioneer. In this play- winner of the 2014 Obie Award for Best American New Play- Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, using actors in whiteface, blackface, and redface, opens us up to look at the history of slavery and identity in America.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: I had seen this last summer at The Shaw Festival in the old-fashioned Royal George Theatre where the idea of a melodrama fit like a glove. And, as usual, the Shaw production elements of AN OCTOROON (casting, costumes, sets) were at the highest level (my review). However, I can say that, overall, I liked this summer’s production at Chautauqua better. And why?
First off, and it wasn’t until the talkback afterwards that I realized it, as an American, watching a play about our national shame of slavery and our history of racism, in an American theater, on American soil, just felt more “real” to me than it did watching it in Canada. Also, I thought that the larger Bratton stage offered up more opportunities for set design (Lee Savage) and stagecraft, especially the conflagration. The incidental music chosen by Vincent Olivieri also felt more natural and the mute character of Br’er Rabbit seemed more present, both in a sinister and in an amusing way.
If ever there were a ‘good place’ to watch AN OCTOROON, I would have to say Chautauqua, with its long history of dialog and acceptance, is that place.
It takes me over two hours to drive to Chautauqua, find a parking spot, and walk the grounds to the Bratton theater, so you might ask “is it worth it to be traveling over four hours round trip?” and my answer is “Yes; yes it is” because Chautauqua really sweats the details. And they are not only in the entertainment business, which of course they do well with all of the classical art forms – theater, music, ballet, opera – but they want to effect change in the world. One of the points of the Chautauqua Theater Company’s mission statement reads: “CTC’s mission is to create theater that entertains and stimulates thoughtful involvement within our immediate and extended communities.” That’s what they do best: stimulate thoughtful involvement. Their various programs aim to “engage in positive social change, and they are doing this in great part by teaching civil dialogue skills” so critical today. If ever there were a “good place” to watch AN OCTOROON, I would have to say Chautauqua, with its long history of dialog and acceptance, is that place.
UP NEXT as part of the “Mainstage” Shows: AIRNESS (a new play about an air guitar competition) July 14-19; and INTO THE BREECHES (it’s 1942 and all the men are off to war, so the women put on Henry IV and Henry V) August 11-17. Also, on the CTC website, you can locate free southern tier performances of Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT.
Then the “New Play Workshop” presents UNTITLED RUSSIAN PLAY (capitalism meets communism) July 30-August 1; JUMP (after a loss, Fay finds solace on a bridge) August 2-4; and what I’m really looking forward to – THE AMISH PROJECT (a fictional investigation of the real-life Nickel Minds school shooting) August 19-21. Having previously read the book AMISH GRACE it seems to me that in our polarized society, with flash opinions spread by social media and friends “unfriending” friends, a look into a culture that actively practices forgiveness could prove to be very useful.
Lead image by Haldan Kirsch, staff photographer for The Chautauquan Daily
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!