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An Octoroon

a Comedy
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

COMPANY : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 5432

SHOWING : January 26, 2019 - February 24, 2019



Trouble has been a-brewin’ at the Terrebonne Plantation since Judge Peyton died. Money is running out, an evil overseer is up to no good, and the heir to the estate is in love with someone he shouldn’t be. MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (author of the AE hit "Appropriate") turns a nineteenth century melodrama on its ear in this combustibly hilarious, riotously subversive romp that hurls the antebellum south into a direct collision course with 21st century cultural politics.

Slave Isake Akanke
Zoe Kylie Brown
Playwright/Wahnotee/LaFouche Kyle Brumley
BJJ/George/M’Closky Neal A Ghant
Minnie Candice McLellan
Grace Parris Sarter
Paul/Pete/Assistant Ryan Vo
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Boo for Boucicault
by playgoer
Sunday, January 27, 2019
We start out with a mini lecture on Dion Boucicault, a 19th-century playwright and impresario. Well, actually there’s first some pre-show dumb show comedy from Br’er Rabbit (the engaging Curtis Lipsey), but the play proper starts with the white jockey-clad Black Playwright (Neal A. Ghant) coming out and discussing Boucicault and his smash play, "The Octoroon" as a result of a session with his psychiatrist (also portrayed by Mr. Ghant). He’s soon joined by the similarly dressed Mr. Boucicault himself (Kyle Brumley). They introduce the goings-on while they put on white face (Mr. Ghant) and red face (Mr. Brumley) as an assistant sharing the dressing room (Ryan Vo) puts on black face; the explanation being that contemporary white actors refused to participate in such a racially incorrect piece.

In the re-creation of "The Octoroon" that follows, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins populates his cast with these men playing multiple roles and with five females. We have a trio of black slaves (Isake Akanke, Candy McLellan, and Parris Sarter) who speak and interact in contemporary fashion and a duo of more privileged women (Brandy Sexton and Kylie Brown) who perform in more of the stylized fashion of 19th-century melodrama. It’s all done for laughs.

We get the basics of the plot, except for the details of the ending of "The Octoroon." In 19th century America, the one-sixteenth black heroine (Ms. Brown) died at the end of the play, to prevent the suggestion of miscegenation with her marrying a white man, while in Europe a happier ending was allowed. In "An Octoroon," the last we see of her is spiriting off a bottle of poison. In Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’ retelling, we get the projected photograph of a lynching before going off in more humorous directions, leaving the fate of our heroine up in the air while (semi-spoiler alert) something else comes down from the air.

Donya K. Washington has staged the show effectively on Leslie Taylor’s set, although columns on the plantation house that forms the back part of the set may briefly block an actor from certain vantage points in the audience. A curtained proscenium has been built downstage, suggesting an old-timey theatre with the lights around it, the footlight cans, and the placard frames to the side that indicate act numbers. April Andrew’s costumes range from the pink bunny ears and dropped-crotch, cotton-tailed pants of Br’er Rabbit to antebellum fashions. Zach Murphy’s lighting uses more effects than were available in the 19th century, but they support the mood of each scene. Kate Bidwell LaFoy’s props, while not extensive, are very effective. The visual aspects of the show are good, if not overwhelmingly so.

Sound is another matter. Pre-show music consists of selections that would be right at home in a minstrel show. Part of the pre-show dumb show and the early part of the play involves actors using a remote control to click the music to a different selection. Those selections are very loud. At least in one occasion, the volume is dialed down with the remote control. But the loudness is an assault on the senses.

The fight choreography by Amelia Fischer and Connor Hammond is terrific. There’s one fight in which Neil A. Ghant is portraying both the hero and the villain as they’re engaged in hand-to-hand combat, and it’s one of the delights of the show. A slap is beautifully staged at a more serious point in the script.

Performances don’t have an ensemble feel. Ms. Brown is superb at melodramatic gestures and stances, and her speech patterns ring as utterly sincere while at the same time containing a touch of send-up comedy. Ms. Sexton has more of a contemporary delivery, and her performance smacks of parody. Mr. Ghant triumphs as the villain of "An Octoroon," while his hero seems wanly stagey and his distinctions between the playwright and the psychiatrist aren’t clear-cut. Mr. Brumley is quite good with his accents, but doesn’t seem well-suited to his role as a drunken native American. Of the others, only Ms. Sarter really lands her performance, getting some big laughs as she misses a slave escape due to oversleeping.

The varying levels of performance suggest that Ms. Washington may have been more of a blocker and editor than a director, telling people where to move and approving or editing their individual choices in performance rather than enforcing a cohesive production style. But the way the show is written, it could be argued that a by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach is appropriate, since the white actors intended for many roles had to be filled by less-than-ideal replacements. In any case, "An Octoroon" is an entertaining contemporary revision of one othe most popular 19th-century melodramas. Sure, issues of race are raised, but the light-hearted tone makes it all go down easy.



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