An Octoroon – Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins

Here be spoilers.

Company One’s production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is every bit as good as everyone says it is. It is also sold out through the rest of its run (ends Feb 27) but if you have the time to spare, try for a waitlist ticket. Yes, it is worth that extra bit of effort for a chance to see it.

The best thing about this production is the cast. They are an excellent ensemble. They set a (very high) level of work and everyone is meeting it with wonderful energy and precision. And before I leave this topic, the cast gets extra points for absolutely killing it at the 8 PM show on a two show Saturday. This is a long show and there could not have been much downtime in between, but every single person showed up and showed out. Bravo!

The second best thing abut this production is…the production. The stage craft is relatively minimal but it is beautiful. It uses the black box space very  well, captures the imagination with just a few physical set pieces, and in keeping with what I like most about Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ work, there is a crispness to everything.

The third best thing about this production is you. The Octoroon was a melodrama. The audience was meant to participate. An Octoroon has some deviations from the structure but the intent is the same. Boo the villain. Cheer for the heroine. Shout instructions or to “Watch out!” when characters are going the wrong way or about to come to harm. If you do it, those around you will. Company One makes this clear before the show, but you want to be a leader in this. Trust me.

The actual play is very good, but had some elements that didn’t enhance the experience for me. They weren’t important enough to detract from the rest of the script, but I wish I understood why those choices were made. A long stretch in the beginning is spent establishing a frame for the play. It sets the tone of humor and gives the audience permission to laugh at things some people might find uncomfortable. It also introduces the use of white, black, and red face, and the irony of what color characters are wearing which faces without making an excuse for it, or academicizing it. It also establishes a flawed hero grounded in the present time for the audience hold onto if they are uncomfortable. The preamble did all of those jobs well. However, the unreliable narrator bit didn’t add anything for me, the Bees-Dionysus-Dion exposition just seemed a bit of unnecessary frippery, and there’s a very well choreographed but (to me) overlong “Eff you!” sequence between two characters that doesn’t bear out in any later relationship, help you acclimate (there’s otherwise no profanity in the play), or really do any other work.  I would have been happy to have several of those minutes cut form the overall run time.

But the clunky start is easily forgiven. The rest of the play is funny, and does its best work subtly. The finest dialogue in the entire play is the exchanges between Dido and Minnie. And acts 4 and 5 are masterful writing and playing.

I had my favorite feeling coming out of that show. Time well spent.

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