In Critiques For The Culture’s latest contribution to GayRVA, Taneasha White and Brooke Taylor examine TheatreLAB’s An Octoroon, and ask: Did this play about racial relations in the 19th century — and today — achieve its intended goal?
Critiques for The Culture is a conversational podcast and radio show (on WRIR and WRWK) that focuses on the socio-political themes found within current movies, TV, and plays — covering all with humor. Hosted by two Black Queer folks of varying opinion, Critiques for The Culture aims to dissect our media, point out where we aren’t represented, and say what the rest of us are thinking. Taneasha and Brooke make up the CFC duo — a couple of Black Queer folks who love their community, and love watching TV and movies.
Critiques for The Culture is committed to uplifting the voice of the marginalized. We aim to discuss representation (or lack thereof) within present media, and invite you all to be a part of the conversation. Our critiques revolve around TV shows, movies and documentaries. In order to engage the local community, we have decided to venture beyond the airwaves and begin covering local plays for GayRVA.
Written by: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by: Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates
An Octoroon premiered in 2014 as an adaptation of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault original, The Octoroon, which premiered in 1859.
There is definitely a lot to this show. The main plotline, which provides the reason for the title of the play, surrounds one of the main characters, Zoe, and the discovery that she has Black blood in her ancestry. Though no longer used in present-day conversation, the term “octoroon” refers to someone who is one-eighth Black and therefore eligible for sale. There are multiple men vying for Zoe’s attention, resulting in the attempted sale of herself, and her family’s estate.
Another plotline in the play focuses on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, his personal struggle to adapt to the racism found within theatre culture, and his desire to stage this play in tandem with the racial themes that arise. An additional plotline is that of the Native American Wahnotee and the young Black character Paul, which showcases racial profiling and latent biases within the criminal justice system.
After speaking with the director, Dr. Tawyna Pettiford-Wates, and watching the show, it was evident that audience discomfort as a means to incite discussion was a primary goal for this show. For those who are unfamiliar with either this text or the work of Pettiford-Wates, the minstrel style of the show likely came as a shock, especially considering the recent discovery our Governor’s disappointing but unsurprising past.
Pettiford-Wates is both familiar and comfortable with minstrelsy as a genre, using this style as the crux of her company, The Conciliation Project. She says that through this method, we are able to “…peel away the layers of race, historic racism, and systems of oppression.”
Our Critiques for The Culture rating is based on representation of marginalized folks, showcased with our Black fists. Our overall rating is the quality of the play overall, independent of the representation that may or may not be there, represented with stars.
For me, the best part of the show was the lead actor getting down to Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck.” For those who are unaware, this is the unequivocal Black Millennial throwdown song. If it plays in public, everyone in the space is obligated to dance. It did what it was supposed to do, as far as getting the attention of the folks’ in the audience, but did it happen in the way it was intended?
We’re familiar with the concept of shucking and jiving, and while in 2019 we may not call it that anymore, there is still the idea that people of color are only good for entertainment — whether it be rapping, dancing, or throwing a ball. While the scene resonated with me, it was unclear if that clarity was consistent for the rest of the folks in the audience. This show is meant to act as a mirror, showing the audience more clearly how they have been perceiving others around them. I was left wondering if the non-Black folks in the audience saw their biases in the mirror, or if they just saw others laughing at the physical and outlandish humor that was presented.
As someone who works in activist spaces, I concur with the idea that spaces need to be carved out to have difficult conversations. I just wonder if the white folks in the audience picked up what the director was putting down, or if they just thought they were laughing at some clumsy negroes, witnessing enslaved women mirror the way they perceive Black women in America anyway.
As Black people in America, we are abundantly aware of our history in this country. I struggle with the notion that utilizing slapstick humor, the N-word, and imagery of lynched bodies is the way that change occurs. There was a scene towards the end where they flashed a real photo of a Black man who had been lynched. Though it aimed to serve as symbolism, it leaned towards trauma porn for me, as Black folks in the US are consistently bombarded with imagery of dead Black bodies. Social media has become the vehicle for modern-day lynchings, allowing images and video of those who have been murdered, via police brutality or otherwise, to circulate with speed, and with little censoring.
We know that during the time of legal lynchings, white folks used the imagery for postcards. They gathered their families around the trees from which our ancestors swung. They kept souvenirs of the dismembered. So again, the question is: who is this really for, and are these methods that you’re using plausible for that goal? 2.5 Black Fists.
I was drawn to the concept of “Black artistry,” as opposed to general artistry by someone who is Black. This topic arose in the very beginning of the show, when Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s character repeated that he was a Black playwright. Oftentimes, folks of color or of gender/sexuality outside of white or cis/het norms are categorized into a box, and given accolades based on those titles, rather than the talent as a whole. Instead of being seen as a great pianist who is Black, we’re titled a “A Great Black Pianist,” as if the threshold is different outside of whiteness.
The acting was well done. I appreciated the adherence to the style of minstrelsy. The rules of present-day theatre are different than that of the melodramas of previous centuries — we’re used to more natural blocking of characters, rather than the actors purposefully turning to face the audience head-on each time they speak. The music cues during each entrance and exit proved very humorous, and added a light element to the show. All of the characters were purposefully over the top to fit the style, and I applaud them all for doing so believably. 3.5 Stars.
The best-laid plans often go awry.
The play featured three enslaved women who all had darker complexions, and unfortunately their characters fell directly into common stereotypes of Black women: loud, inappropriate, and lewd. While the style of the play is minstrel, the depiction was not only uncomfortable but unnecessary, in my opinion.
Dido and Minnie were the two primary enslaved women that were shown, with Grace as a third that was presented later in the play. Dido and Minnie had more than one casually light conversation poking fun at the misfortunes of others on the plantation, or the prospect of other’s families being broken through the sale of persons. The topic of “sex” with a slave-owner arose, and they discussed which white men they would like to seduce — not to mention penis size.
For those of us who are familiar with African-American history, we can conclude that this is a scene that is meant to act as a mirror. Enslaved women were seen as salacious and insatiable, to the point where it was literally not legally possible to rape a Black woman in captivity. The notion was that Black women always want “sex,” regardless of how it is acquired, so there would be no point in debating whether the interaction was wrong. We are also familiar with the tropes of the “Welfare Queen,” “Angry Black Woman,” etc. So the laissez-faire attitude that was presented by Dido, Minnie, and Grace were caricatures of White America’s perception of Black women.
The prevailing issue, however, is that it probably wasn’t clear to a more far-reaching audience. For those that laughed at the conversations about “riding the Master”, it makes me wonder if they simply thought they were watching a live-action version of Jerry Springer, not a complex interrogation of race relations in America. Two Black Fists.
Making the audience uncomfortable was the director’s main goal. Mission accomplished.
Yet, I struggle to see the call to action. Having difficult conversations is a huge part of my chosen work in the world — it isn’t something I will ever shy away from. At the end of those conversations, however, everyone should be made aware of their role in the conflict and have action items for moving forward. Aside from the clear critique of using Native Americans as mascots, I failed to see these pieces within the show.
Perhaps this show and ones like it are simply meant to provide the spark for the conversation. I can respect that, but I ultimately feel that there was a disconnect between the intention and the impact. Black folks shouldn’t have to be re-traumatized (whether in the audience or on stage) in order for our white counterparts to potentially be rattled into action.
From a technical standpoint, the show seemed to be executed without a hitch. The music, lighting, stage props, and overall atmosphere were presented very well. I appreciated the multimedia approach that was taken. The actors’ performances were also great and their chemistry on stage was evident. 2.5 Stars.
TheatreLAB is known for pushing boundaries, representation of marginalized communities, and starting conversations — this play did not disappoint. There are still tickets left for the remaining shows, and this Friday, there will be a talkback discussion after the showing. Don’t miss it!
Check out theatrelabrva.org for more information, and then leave us a comment on our social media to tell us what you thought!
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