Going large was the right move for this transfer of “An Octoroon,” Soho Rep’s madly popular, 2014 OBIE Award-winning hit show. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ subversively funny alternative version of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama about forbidden love in the Antebellum South proves a surprisingly good fit for Theater for a New Audience. Under the imaginative helming of Soho Rep a.d. Sarah Benson, a savvy design team makes smart use of TFANA’s hugely handsome mainstage to maximize the serious fun of this offbeat show.
Mimi Lien’s ingenious set is like a Chinese puzzle box, with hidden compartments primed to surprise and delight the eye. Or, in the case of Jeff Sugg’s projections, primed to surprise and shock the soul.
This tricky set presents itself innocently enough as a big, bare stage, where a black actor, Austin Smith, steps out in his underwear and identifies himself as the actual playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. BJJ is suffering from low-grade depression and is advised by his white, female (and perhaps non-existent) shrink (also played by Smith) to take on the therapeutic chore of adapting the work of a playwright he admires — and playing the main roles, even the white guys. Of all things, he chooses Boucicault’s 19th century barnburner, “The Octoroon.”
This exchange leads to a freewheeling riff on what this vintage melodrama might have to say to modern-day people of color. While slapping on whiteface (because he’ll be playing both the white hero and the white villain of the piece), BJJ examines at length his own feelings about the historical fact of racism and the political reality of racism in the present day.
“Black playwright,” he muses. “I can’t even wipe my ass without someone trying to accuse me of deconstructing the race problem in America.”
Smart and funny though they be, these meta-theatrical musings go on for too long and ultimately undercut the scribe’s broader intentions. BJJ’s acknowledgement that our national legacy of slavery still hangs over his own head does give him the motivation to write his show. But, however unintentionally, this narrow focus on the playwright also gives white members of his audience an excuse to wriggle off the hook.
Once these lengthy preliminaries are over, BJJ can finally have his showdown with Boucicault, raucously played as a drunken Irishman by Haynes Thigpen, who also has the fun of putting on redface (if such a word actually exists) to play a Native American.
But even this amusing exchange stalls the opening of the show, which doesn’t really take off until the scenery flies away, revealing the lush Louisiana plantation of Terrebonne, where Boucicault set his play.
At this point, two sassy house slaves named Minnie (Maechi Aharanwa) and Dido (Pascale Armand) finally snatch the play away from the gabby playwright and take over the narrative, which they relate in the juicy street vernacular of the current century. Minnie’s thoughts about bolting the plantation are priceless, but only because she delivers them in the contemporary idiom: “What you gonna do once you free?” she demands of Dido, mocking the notion of expecting help from a white person. “I ain’t never met a white person in my life who try’na help you escape from slavery.”
This tiny chorus, shrewdly conceived and brilliantly played, proceeds to guide us through the high points of the sentimental plot about the forbidden love between George (Smith), the family scion who has just inherited the plantation, and Zoe (the lovely Amber Gray), the well-educated and pale-faced octoroon of the title.
He loves her and she loves him, but that teeny-tiny drop of “black” blood is an issue. So is the wealthy Miss Dora (Mary Wiseman, delicious), who has her eye on George. A much bigger threat looms in the person of the evil overseer, M’Closky (Smith again), who has designs of his own on Zoe.
All these plot complications pose intentionally comic staging conflicts, since the redoubtable lead actor is playing both the upstanding hero and the villainous villain. There are plenty of great comic moments in this show, but the high point might very well be the furious physical battle — heroically staged in pure music-hall style by fight director J. David Brimmer and hilariously enacted by Smith — between these sworn enemies.
As the show moves into a more abstract theatrical form, it also gradually darkens in both message and tone, until one devastating (but not to be divulged) coup de theater reminds us that there’s a very sharp point to all the fun.