JWR Articles: Live Event - An Octoroon (Director: Peter Hinton) - July 30, 2017

An Octoroon

2.5 2.5

Everything is black and white

In Assistant’s words from the early going, “The point of this thing [live theatre] was to make you feel something.”

And so I did: huge disappointment that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ redo [An Octoroon] of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 look at slavery in Louisiana [The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana] just prior (relatively) to the American Civil War had the audience in stitches so many times that it felt like racisms was/is a laughing matter; considerable admiration for the superb acting skills of André Sills, performing as the present-day playwright’s alter ego, BJJ, the hapless plantation owner, George, and personification of evil M’Closky: deftly employing a thong then angry whiteface before splitting himself in two¾with black-and-white makeup/hair and costuming (marvellously realized by designer Gillian Gallow). His performance alone makes this production a must-see; outrage with the portrayal of Wahnotee: the rum-loving American Indian¾as happened in the original performances¾was given to a white man with “redface” (Patrick McManus gamely taking on the challenging role) left an especially sour taste even as Canada’s long-overdue inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has only succeeded in getting nowhere fast.

In apparent agreement with Jacobs-Jenkins, program annotator Jennifer Buckley asserts that “Internet-connected devices…can convey almost any kind of cultural product or experience more easily than theatre can.” What a sad day indeed if it’s true that digital devices have usurped the notion of shared experience and performances that¾once the “curtain” rises¾cannot be paused, fast-forwarded or PVR’d for future use. Accordingly, for those who subscribe to Buckley’s premise, the artistic trusts for many forms of live theatrical productions worship at the altar of lowest common denominator (look no further than this season’s Androcles and the Lion for another chilling example (cross-reference below) to put bums in seats).

How marvellous it might be if there were to be a renaissance in trusting the art to speak its truth as originally conceived, yet [referring to a photo where the subject’s nose seems to be larger than it’s owner’s impression]:

            Dora: But, sir, it ain’t agreeable.
            Scudder: No, ma’am, the truth seldom is.

Or if prejudice/racism could be banished from civilized conversation, attitudes and actions:

            George [to Octoroon, Zoe]: You are illegitimate, but love knows no prejudice.

Would that centuries of bitterness could be swapped for everyone feeling like we are all in this world together:

Zoe: Yes, I’d rather be black than ungrateful! Ah, George, our race has at least one virtue¾it knows how to suffer.

Here’s to a resurgence of theatre that dares to tell it like it actually is rather than assuming to know what theatregoers are craving. JWR

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