(Chris McCormack’s review appeared in the Irish Times, 4/27; Photo: Patrick Martins as M’Closky in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh.)
Centuries of obscene caricature, is delivered as both confrontational and comedic
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
What does your taste in theatre say about you? Early in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s magnificent play, we see a version of the playwright who, answering a therapist’s questions, reveals that he most admires the 19th century impresario Dion Boucicault. Jacobs-Jenkins is struggling with what it means to be a black artist, so the fact that he enjoys Boucicault, who wrote an ambivalent slave-era melodrama titled The Octoroon, could be seen as a bleak comment on artistic inspiration.
Jacobs-Jenkins (played by an impressively suave Patrick Martins) has decided to write a new version of The Octoroon as a therapeutic exercise. Sitting at an actor’s dressing table, he lists off the demands of representativeness, the pressure to write black characters warped by trauma and addiction. He is literally depressed by an artform, the history of which gets summed up by the arrival of a bad-tempered version of Boucicault (Rory Nolan). “You really save on make-up”, he says, observing how blackface has disappeared since the Victorian era.
An ingenious transformation, dressing him in whiteface make-up, allows Martins not simply one nimble performance in Boucicault’s story but two. He plays both George, a blindingly blonde and easily upset heir who has arrived to a cotton plantation up for sale, as well as his bidding rival M’Closky, a tongue-slithering, moustachioed villain with a reputation for whipping slaves. Whiteness, Jacobs-Jenkins knows, also has its share of cringe representations, which are fair game here, such as Maeve O’Mahony’s sublime performance as an airheaded southern belle.
If race representation is a minefield, the play pulls us into the blast zone and triggers its explosions
Most incendiary are the approaches to the play’s black characters, whose fates will be determined at an auction. Within Jolly Abrahamson’s extraordinary performance, dressed in blackface as different male slaves, are centuries’ worth of obscene caricature, delivered here as both confrontational and comedic.