Available Light’s Provocative, Slow-Burn Triumph of An Octoroon
Available Light opens an exquisite production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon directed by Matt Slaybaugh. Slaybaugh and the cast grab the audience by the lapels and strap us into a roller coaster through the twisted American landscape of race, class, and identity. They create a ride full of shocks, thrills, and riotous laughs that never turns away from the essential question of what right we have to that laughter.
An Octoroon riffs on Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon. The Boucicault was a raging success in its day and is now a curio, a proto-Imitation of Life. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version starts with “BJJ,” (David Glover), addressing the audience directly with, “I’m a ‘black playwright.’ I don’t know exactly what that means.” He sets up his investigation of the earlier play by recounting a conversation with his therapist in the light of a single light bulb – a gleaming “reality” signifier.
The production turns that signifier inside out with the next scene: Glover covers himself in white face paint, pausing the music to contradict himself and then cast doubt on the new confession, all while indulging in gestures that call back to classical theater and aggressive artifice. Past and future explode as Jordan Fehr appears as “The Playwright” from the 1800s. Glover and Fehr have an extended ballet/duet using only variants of “Man, fuck you,” mirroring and jousting, energies flowing between the two – versions of the same man and still distinct character in a way that’s modern and tells us lots has not changed in the 200 years since.
The shifting nature of reality here underscores the power of our unseen systems – capitalism feeding slavery, misogyny and class desensitizing other subjugation – and the power our symbols have to keep us going and to grind us down. Again and again, Available Light hits a jaw-dropping symbiosis between text, actors, and director that’s the apotheosis of what theatre can be and do.
Glover is magnificent throughout. He never loses the justified anger, calculation, and intense belief in the theatre’s power to transform of the BJJ character: that light shines through artfully moth-eaten holes and frayed edges in his period-hammy portrayals of the new plantation owner George Peyton and scheming overseer McCloskey. He embodies these various people and stands apart; teasing out the emotional appeal of a cliché where it works and with no time for anything reductive or simplistic.
Jordan Fehr is a coiled spring you can’t take your eyes from. His smoldering intensity is the fuel that keeps the play flowing, and his keen gift for deadpan and physical comedy makes offensive jokes explode like depth charges because those of us from a place of privilege are laughing before the hook catches.
Beyond the verbal sparring mentioned earlier, there’s a sequence burned in my brain that illustrates the chemistry between these two actors and the artistry of this production. Fehr – playing an American Indian – fights Glover – playing a white overseer – so the audience has to sort through knowing what the play tells us is happening in the face of the evidence of our eyes: we’re watching a white man kill a black man in a heavily racially coded and eroticized manner. The production trusts us enough to read through everything on stage and doesn’t give us any slack if we can’t handle it. That happens again and again to salutary effect.
Shanelle Marie’s Dido and Wilma Hatton’s Minnie – house slaves who only slip into the clichéd anachronism of their context when white people are around – are the best characters in the play and it’s hard to imagine better performances. Hatton’s character has an older-sister quality that’s also hobbled by never leaving their existing plantation where Marie was, horrifyingly, won by their recent master in a poker game as a ten year old. There’s no veneer painting the characters as too-perfect, those two, we discover were not told when all the other slaves took advantage of the chaos and ran away. Hilarious, warm, and never where you’d expect. Tammy Davis, as Grace, the slave who missed running away because she “overslept” delivers that killing blow and in less stage time than anyone else makes one of the biggest impressions.
Dora Sunnyside (Amy Rittberger) and Zoe, the titular octoroon (Colleen Nerney) thread the needle brilliantly of commitment to their characters without sacrificing the modern edge and distance those characters need. Nerney has a monologue both heartbreaking and hilarious considering earlier comments which nails like watching a baseball player in her prime lean into a perfect line drive sending the ball sailing over our heads. Kristi Vuocolo plays Br’er Rabbit wordlessly, dancing and throwing things into the crowd, the usual trickster we associate with the character but also a harbinger of doom.
An Octoroon is – no two ways about it – a long play. The night I saw came in around two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. Slaybaugh’s production both demands and rewards careful, close attention. It gets pretty in the weeds toward the end of the first act when the play feels as though it cares too much about cornball plot machinations of the classic melodrama – for a while, we just see a recreation; it doesn’t feel like a commentary. And there’s ill-advised audience participation that comes out of nowhere which vanishes as quickly as it starts.
Maybe that act could be tighter. But a magical thing happened in the second act. Everything that seemed boring or tedious before intermission pays off big. I heard more gasps, more “Oh” s and more of the sound of pieces of the puzzle falling together in my head in the second act than any time I can remember in the theater.
One actor, half-lit in the dazzling, breakneck second act, says, “The whole point of this thing was to make you feel something.” It’s a brave play that comes right out and puts those cards on the table. An Octoroon has the confidence to spare it accomplished that task with grit and fury and it sang in its own, unmistakable voice. This is a play it’s hard to imagine another troupe in town tackling, the manner of work Available Light made their name with, and a triumphant end to a magnificent season. I’m looking at my calendar to see if I can see it again on my dime before the run is over.
An Octoroon runs through June 2 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Sunday, May 27, and 8:00 p.m. Thursday, May 31. For tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com.
All photos by Matt Slaybaugh, courtesy of Available Light Theatre.