octoroon ['okta'ru:n] (octoroons) An offensive term for somebody who has one black great-grandparent and no other black ancestors
On September 26th I had the pleasure of watching An Octoroon by Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival at Billie Brown Studio in South Brisbane.
The original story was a satirical comedy rooted in the 1850s, about a man who falls in a love with a woman. This would be just another love story if it wasn't for the minor detail that he happens to be white and she happens to be a slave working on his Louisiana plantation.
The New York Times claims An Octoroon is "this decade's most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today" and who am I do disagree?
An Octoroon has been altered by Nakkiah Lui who measuredly stirred in Australia's own shameful history of slavery. This brilliantly bizarre production has pointy edges that stab you where it should.
To broach the topic of race or slavery you have to either go for an intense drama or spoon-feed it with sugar. Slapstick comedy is An Octoroon's weapon of choice. This is not just any play; it is a completely new experience.
The rejuvenated story follows George Peyton (Colin Smith) who inherits a banana plantation and all the slaves on it.
Enter Zoe (Shari Sebbens), his uncle's illegitimate daughter. Love at first strikes George and he can not see any other future than one with her in it, but the course of true love is never that simple. Inevitably, a series of obstacles, set it off course. Zoe is an octoroon, the plantation is in financial trouble and wealthy Dora Sunnyside saw him first. To make matters much worse, evil M'Closky (Colin Smith) will stop at nothing to marry (or own) Zoe. Chaos ensues and the play within a play explodes in all directions.
I found the staging to be particularly clever, you can't help to watch your own reflection in the face of the other audience members. Although I laughed a lot, there were times I was a little uncomfortable, and that is okay. I am okay with uncomfortable when you are discussing such a pain-filled topic. The playwright knew well enough that comedy was the best vehicle to deliver his message. When you peel away the laughs, the ugly truth is not as easy to digest. It's disgusting how normal devaluing a life used to be.
That is why casting Elaine Crombie (Minnie) was genius; she made me laugh every time she stepped on the stage. Colin Smith (Bjj/George/M'Closky), Anthony Standish (Boucicault/Jonah/Lafouche) and Anthony Taufa (Assistant/Pete/Paul) were moving and engaging. The entire cast were strong.
Over a cup of coffee as we discussed the show afterwards, we both agreed that we didn't really know how we felt until the end of the show. That is when it all came together and you finally understood. It's carefully written to deliver the appropriate amount tickle and punch to move you and make you think.
An Octoroon is not just another play, it's something you have to see to understand its brilliance.
Currently playing at Billie Brown theatre in South Brisbane until the 8th of October.
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Director: Nakkiah Lui (Black Comedy) Venue: Bille Brown Studio Co-pro: Brisbane Festival
Elaine Crombie, Chenoa Deemal, Shari Sebbens, Colin Smith, Anthony Standish, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra,Sarah Ogden and Anthony Taufa.
Warning: Contains adult themes and strong coarse language. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this production of An Octoroon contains images and voices of deceased persons.