Nakkiah Lui compares An Octoroon to “a Molotov cocktail; you throw it and it explodes,” she writes in her programme notes. It’s certainly a wildly audacious, highly original, challenging play; an excoriating comedy which puts a feral cat among the pigeons with its irreverent, very funny, cringe-making, deeply provocative exploration of racism, culture and identity as well as the act of making theatre.
Written by African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, An Octoroon premiered in New York in 2014 to ecstatic reviews and had a return season the following year. Earlier this year, it had a season in London.
Anthony Taufa and Anthony Standish. Photograph © Rob Maccoll
Set in the American Deep South, it puts an outrageous spin on a 19th-century melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault called The Octoroon, which was popular in its day but is now virtually never performed for obvious reasons. In a nutshell, it tells the story of George, a plantation owner recently returned from Paris, who falls in love with Zoe, a beautiful young girl, who is the illegitimate daughter of the former owner and the “octoroon” of the title – a politically incorrect term referring to someone whose ancestry is one-eighth black.
However, the plantation is in serious trouble financially and the evil overseer M’Closky, who wants Zoe for himself, realises that as the result of a legal loophole if he purchases the plantation Zoe will come with the property. Meanwhile a local heiress has set her cap at George, while three female slaves look on with raised eyebrows. There’s also a subplot involving several other characters, and a rabbit.
Jacobs-Jenkins uses Boucicault’s play to make savage comment on race relations in the US, but Lui has relocated An Octoroon to Australia, setting it in Far North Queensland – which works disconcertingly well. Though most Australians will instantly think of America rather than Australia when slavery is mentioned, Lui’s production has us thinking again. A device towards the end of the play, best not revealed, stopped the laughter dead on opening night, the audience so still and quiet you could hear a pin drop.
The play begins with a prologue in which Jacobs-Jenkins sends his alter ego BJJ (Colin Smith) on stage in his underpants. “Hi everyone. I’m a ‘black playwright’. I don’t know exactly what that means,” he says by way of introduction. Before long, he is joined by another man in underpants who turns out to be the drunken Boucicault (Anthony Standish). At the suggestion of his shrink, BJJ has decided to stage a production of Boucicault’s melodrama but the white actors have walked out. So BJJ puts on white face to play both George and M’Closky, while Boucicault dons brownface to play a Tongan character called Jonah (yes, indeed). Meanwhile Boucicault’s assistant (Tongan-Australian actor Anthony Taufa) is commandeered to play “all the Abo roles” because he will make “a more convincing Abo than the real Abos”. From there, things become as outrageous as you might imagine – hilarious yet discomforting at the same time.
Sarah Ogden and Colin Smith. Photograph © Rob Maccoll
There is much comic mileage to be had as Smith in the roles of George and M’Closky, Standish as Boucicault and Jonah, Sarah Ogden as the shallow, shrill heiress Dora, and Shari Sebbens as the sweet romantic heroine Zoe use a heightened melodramatic performance style – all posturing poses and extravagant gestures. Meanwhile, Elaine Crombie, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Chenoa Deemal who play the no-bullshit female slaves use a contemporary, colloquial vernacular (“bitches”, “sista” and the like) and a more earthy, modern physicality. (There is plenty of strong language and offensive terminology).
Lui, who is an acclaimed young playwright and actor, is making her directorial debut with the play for Queensland Theatre where she is a member of the Company’s National Artistic Team. And she does a brilliant job.
The production is staged in traverse (the first time the Bille Brown studio has ever been configured in this way apparently) on a gleaming, long white stage bookended by cut-outs in the shape of a house with swinging doors through which all the entrances and exits are made.
Renée Mulder has designed both the set and the costumes, which add plenty of colour as well as more fun and bite to the satire as she plays with stereotypical imagery. Lui and Mulder also throw numerous contemporary references into the mix adding to the outrageous hilarity, while the action is punctuated with bursts of contemporary pop songs.
Lui has gathered a very strong cast with each of them turning in comedic performances that hit just the right note, though Crombie and Reynolds-Diarra are in particularly fine form as slaves Minnie and Dido.
There was a point towards the end when I wished we could leave Boucicault’s melodrama and hear a bit more from BJJ along the lines of his wonderfully spiky prologue (in fact there is a riff between him and Boucicault on how to structure the final act of a melodrama) but then the play pulls the rug out from under you again when it turns deadly serious and knocks you for six.
An Octoroon will doubtless divide audiences, but it’s bold, inventive and exhilaratingly different to most of what we see on stage, with so much to say in its own crazy-brave way.
An Octoroon plays at Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Studio until October 8.