An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival)
The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio
September 15 – October 8
An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. This now-politically-incorrect titular understanding is at the centre of Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon” we are told in a meta-theatre pre-emptive explanation of the Act Four function in melodrama. The clarification is not necessary, but appreciated given all that is going in American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ confronting, challenging and compelling re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault.
The Peyton family’s Louisiana plantation seems destined to fall into the unscrupulous hands of its former overseer, M’Closky (Colin Smith). George Peyton (also Colin Smith) is a decent man who scandalously falls for Zoe (Shari Sebbens), the well-educated, illegitimate and octoroon daughter of the deceased owner. And so, he must choose between his love for Zoe and his need to save the estate by marrying the entitled rich heiress Dora (Sarah Ogden).
It begins, however, with the meta-theatrical framing device of playwright character, BJJ (Colin Smith) sharing his frustrations with being a ‘black playwright’ before a confrontation with the original text’s playwright (Anthony Standish). With his white actors having quit the play, BJJ proceeds to don white face paint and perform their roles himself, which happens to lead to one of many hilarious scenes as he switches between the heroic George and the antagonist M’Closky in a physical altercation.
In the hands of leading aboriginal artist Nakkiah Lui, in her directorial debut, this Australian exclusive production, has been subtly re-contextualised through our own lens. Its rich and resplendent tapestry of themes is realised in a lively work of much colour and movement. So much is going on in stylised chaos as music pumps, characters interact playfully and black actors wear whiteface and white actors wear blackface.
Much of the laugher generated is of the uneasy sort and staging, with a long white traverse space with the audience seated on both sides, affords opportunity to see how others are also reacting both in its riotous moments and when serious consideration sharply contrasts earlier scenes. When the audience watches in absolute silence during these later-show moments, it is not with indifference but with acute understanding and acknowledgement of the impact of its message.
Certainly, the indigenous re-contextualisation of the African American story to themes from Australia’s colonial history, works, without detracting from the spirit of the original. Risky themes and complicated questions are translated with effective use of visual language to create a completely original and engaging theatrical experience that is through-provoking and challenging in its layered exploration of who we are and who we are becoming.
Although it is Smith, Standish and Antony Taufa who perform multiple roles in the show, it the ladies of the cast who leave the most lasting impression. Sebbens makes for a humorous heroine, Zoe and Ogden appears to be having great fun within her role as the heiress Dora; she is every bit a stereotypical Southern Belle desperate for George’s attention, complete with an over-the-top accent.
Chenoa Deemal makes the most of her role as field-slave Grace, shunned by those of higher, house, station, while closely bonded house-slaves Minnie (Elaine Crombie) and Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) provide the most laughs in their sassy banter about slave life, the chemistry between the pair filling the theatre in their every easy interaction. Indeed, as the brash, tell-it-as-it-is Minnie, Crombie is absolutely superb in her comic timing and the very best thing about the show.
“An Octoroon” is an original and gripping provocation that gives audiences much to take away from its energetic, fearless approach to interrogating race and identity and the extent to which stereotypes are still embedded in today’s consciousness. It is not only a deconstruction of racial representation, but a gripping production (despite its two hour duration), to be enjoyed and appreciated in equal measure. … bold, inventive and probably unlike anything you will have ever seen on stage before.