- Chris O'Rourke
Umi Myers as Zoe in An Octoroon. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Political theatre and the politics of theatre. Both very much to the forefront in The Abbey Theatre's production of An Octoroon, a reboot of Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Making history as the first production on The Abbey stage written by a black writer, directed by a black director, with a predominately black cast. Something many would have considered inconceivable a few decades ago. Raising questions about whose politics? Whose theatre? Who frames our conversations and representations? If politics is about power and theatre about voice, who benefits? Questions An Octoroon asks in no uncertain terms, in a production where everyone benefits. It being, without question, one of the most memorable and vitally important productions of 2022. While also being one of the most fun.
Rory Nolan and Patrick Martins in An Octoroon. Image by Ros Kavanagh
As for the title, the name refers to someone born one-eight black. As for the plot, it's sheer meta-theatrical melodrama. The kind whose now familiar copy goes; deep in the sweat soaked South, a plantation faces imminent ruin. Its slaves soon to be sold into…eh, slavery, to the dreaded, dastardly M'Closky. As George and Zoe find their forbidden interracial love blossoming, mystery, mayhem and murder ensue as a Southern belle struts her stuff and a noble savage faces false accusations of murdering a child (like Jim in Huckleberry Finn). Can stolen letters and an opportune photograph conspire to save the American way? Can justice finally see the lovers unite? And who on earth is that disappearing rabbit? In a race against time, watch Atlanta burn (sorry, wrong story). Starring a mesmerising Patrick Martins as the playwright, sporting the kind of Speedo body I once had till I grew less vain about my looks. A superlative Maeve O'Mahony as the divine Dora, whose antebellum antics sends men running for cover. A jaw dropping Rory Nolan fleshing out images that might scar you forever (who, with Martins, offers smart subversions of physical stereotypes). And a divine Jolly Abraham as Old Man Pete, channelling an aged Chicken George with a Chris Rock twist, dressed like that golliwog doll who used to be on the Blackjack sweet wrappers until the 1980s. Slavery as you've never seen it before. An Octoroon. Simply sensational. Coming to a theatre near you.
Maeve O'Mahony and Patrick Martins in An Octoroon. Image by Ros Kavanagh
So much for the hype. Which fails to do the reality justice. Like Torch Song Trilogy, An Octoroon opens with the writer putting on make up before a mirror while talking directly to the audience. Here an ingenious whiteface subversion proves the first of many. As recently as the 1980s blackface was seen as an acceptable from of parody on mainstream television. Of course, that depended which side of the parody you were on. The arrival of Rory Nolan's Boucicault establishes some hilarious juxtapositions, with Nolan delivering one of the funniest scenes of the year as he transforms into the tomahawk wielding Wahnotee. The set up now complete, the garage door finally raises on Boucicault's tale and the fun quickly gets tempered. It's still there, but reined in. Poking fun at the conventions of melodrama, while gifting elbows to representations of black people from Song of the South to Gone With the Wind. All played out on a blood red stage. Sabine Dargent's design a minor masterpiece, highlighting the deathly seriousness underneath all the playfulness.
Mara Allen and Leah Walker in An Octoroon. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Unlike Nella Larsen's 1929 classic novel, Passing, which spoke as much to black readers about their own prejudice towards those partially white, Jacobs-Jenkins's reboot focuses on white perceptions and their representations of black, part black, or others, in a predominantly white media. Directed exquisitely by Anthony Simpson-Pike. With Molly O'Cathain's costumes and Stephen Dodd's lights underscoring immaculately detailed performances from Jolly Abraham, Loré Adewusi, Mara Allen, Patrick Martins, Umi Myers, Jeanne Nicole Ní Ainle, Rory Nolan, Maeve O’Mahony and Leah Walker. From an oversized rabbit, Satin Beige playing cello live on stage, the use of direct address, actors playing several roles, to opening up the backstage area, Simpson-Pike smartly evokes a Brechtian distance that's comic and visually engaging. Revealing through exaggerated comedic touches, and a powerful, if unfocused photograph, how representations of black people continue to be problematic. Just as they were when Boucicault first produced The Octoroon in 1859.
Maeve O'Mahony and Umi Myers in An Octoroon. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Which places An Octoroon in a strange space. If Boucicault is a problematic figure at the best of times, it could be argued his representations of black people, as well as Irish and Indigenous Americans, placed them centre stage in theatres at a time when neither would have been allowed through the front door. Smuggling in subtle subversions to challenge negative perceptions by portraying them as safe, foolish, harmless, charming, dignified and folksy. Successfully placing them before a hostile audience for whom lynching was as likely an expression of disgust as demanding a refund. Indeed, Boucicault wrote two endings to An Octoroon, depending on whether it was a European or American audience. Love conquers or Zoe dies, thereby preventing an interracial marriage. I'll leave it to you to decide which ending played where.
Mara Allen and Leah Walker in An Octoroon. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Boucicault is on the record as saying; "there are features in slavery far more objectionable than any hitherto held up to human execration." Something Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't always acknowledge about Boucicault while echoing his sentiments. Adding that the same might be said about theatre and how black people are represented. To a modern audience the manner in which black stereotypes became conventions, from vaudeville through the silent movie era, Hollywood till the 1960s and Tom and Jerry cartoons, Al Jolson to black-faced minstrels, might seem like distant history. For many others, it's recent memory. For both, An Octoroon is a salutary reminder. To say an American play about slavery doesn't speak to the current Irish experience is a little like saying Torch Sing Trilogy doesn't speak to the Irish gay experience. It does if you're listening. If you're not, An Octoroon might well give you pause for thought. Black history presents the world with uncomfortable truths. Take up An Octoroon's invitation to listen. At the very least you're guaranteed one of the best nights of theatre you'll have this year. Not to be missed.
An Octoroon, a reboot of Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, runs at The Abbey Theatre until May 14.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre