An Octoroon

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 12, 2017

Joseph Gibson and Alex Ramirez de Cruz
Joseph Gibson and Alex Ramirez de Cruz   

The challenging and compelling play "An Octoroon" is up now at Artists Repertory Theatre. Loosely, "An Octoroon" is a play about a play within a play about writing a play. But it is so much more, and the dense texture of this show is what makes it so intriguing and worthwhile.

"An Octoroon," is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' reframing of Dion Boucicault's play "The Octoroon" from 1859. With bold staging, healthy self-awareness and a phenomenal cast, this production offers a place for examining social constructs. Co-Directors Lava Alapai and Damaso Rodriguez have provided a biting, funny and audacious show with powerful reverberations.

At the center of the play is BJJ (ostensibly the playwright himself), who finds himself "stuck" as a writer and is encouraged to rework a play he admires, so he chooses Boucicault's melodrama about a one-eighths black woman who lives on a slave plantation. BJJ is played by Joseph Gibson, whose considerable talent is on full display.

Gibson also plays George, a "decent" slave owner, and M'Closky, the dastardly villain. Gibson is lithe and dynamic and absolutely riveting, at one point physically fighting with himself with only one hand, as the other holds the mustache identifying the villain. Fight Choreographer Jonathan Cole pulled off an impressive feat with this fight alone.

Joining him in triplicate roles is Michael Mendelson, who deftly maneuvers between an Irishman (Boucicault), a Native American, and a slave auctioneer. John San Nicolas is a physical marvel as a theatrical assistant, an old slave named Pete and a slave child.

This is a complex play.

The durable Ayanna Berkshire potently fills two largely physical roles, while Kailey Rhodes' flouncing Southern belle is so coy and cunning butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. In what could best be described as a "chorus," Andrea Vernae and Josie Seid are Minnie and Dido, two slave women who describe the action in back-porch gossip using today's vernacular. As a sign at the start of the show reads, "I don't know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you." Vernae and Seid are the comedic fulcrum that launches this show and helps make it a dazzling airborne wonder of danger and delight.

The melodramatic plot of the 1859 play on which this is based was intended to demonstrate the probative power of photography. Jacobs-Jenkins' version uses that vehicle to show something much less concrete. "An Octoroon" plays with our perceptions of race and class and cultural identity, and as it juggles these hefty ideas, we get to see them all from different sides, and see ourselves looking at them. Jacobs-Jenkins used "distancing" to remove emotional response, so while this show is fraught with demanding subjects, the effect is intellectualized instead of pulling emotional strings.

This production of "An Octoroon" is a compelling, exciting and stimulating show. The multi-use costumes by Wanda Walden are fascinating and beautifully designed, as they were changed repeatedly by all cast members onstage in the blink of an eye to denote character and scene changes. Music played a powerful role as well, as the fusion of antebellum South with today's music and language is energizing. Phil Johnson's composition and sound design added vitality and excitement to scene changes, which became part of the action as the actors danced to the music as the set pieces moved.

It was a daring gamble to produce such a multi-layered, cerebral play with so many moving parts, but this gamble pays off. "An Octoroon" is worth seeing and discussing and seeing again. This is what it looks like when a confrontational play is produced by a skilled production team with an accomplished cast; the result is a living, breathing work of art.

"An Octoroon" runs through October 1 at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St, Portland, OR, 97205. For tickets and information, call 503-241-1278 or visit

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.