An Octoroon is a production of contrasts. Bright white stage and pitch-dark blackouts. Raucous comedy and stark reality. Black face and white face. Loud rap music and uncomfortable silence. The rights afforded to characters of white skin, and the treatment of all others.
A satirical comedy, it follows the story of a man who has journeyed to the property owned by his sick aunt, a property he will soon inherit along with the slaves who are kept there. With melodramatic flair, we learn that he has fallen desperately in love with one of the slaves, but that fate, with a helping hand from an evil neighbour and society’s deep running racism, has plans for them other than a happy ending.
Set in any country, this would be a confronting play about race. Set in Australia, where our own history with slavery is often swept so far under the rug it’s forgotten for select generations at a time, this story bursts from the stage, knowing its time to be told has well and truly come.
Adapted from the 1859 Dion Boucicault play, The Octoroon, by US playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the script has been re-contextualised by Nakkiah Lui to fit this production’s Australian setting. Lui makes her directorial debut with the play, and has been triumphant in creating a work of theatre that does exactly what theatre should do: uses story to mirror society back to the audience with stark clarity.
This effect is magnified by the clever set, a thin strip of white performance space placed between two sets of raked seating. There are moments where half the fun of watching this show is watching the audience opposite react to it, and moments when it’s hard to look across at the crowd, for fear that what you see there might too clearly reflect yourself.
The only criticism of the unique design would be that due to the steepness of the seats, at times it is difficult for higher placed audience members to see the stage. But there is something fitting for an audience of this play to be craning their necks to see the spectacle, almost jostling each other to get a good view of what’s going on and then sitting back, stunned, once they’ve caught a glimpse.
The cast are all outstanding. Elaine Crombie and Melodie Reynolds-Diarra play off one another as an expert comic duo. Crombie’s Minnie is superbly sassy, while Reynolds-Diarra brings depth to their scenes by playing Dido with perfectly measured degrees of light and shade. Colin Smith and Anthony Standish are each triple cast and pull off their challenging roles exceptionally. Their storytelling abilities play a big part in the success of the production.
There are times when the pacing of some scenes is a little off – actors speak too quickly over the top of laughs and jokes are lost, while some slower scenes feel as though they need a little jog along. These are kinks that should iron out during the season, as the cast and crew begin to understand how the audience will involve themselves with this play. It would not have been easy in a rehearsal room to guess how a full house would interact with this show, which is both exceptionally funny and deservedly confronting.
In 1859, The Octoroon played a part in igniting the debate that led to the American Civil War. The question now remains, over 150 years later, what effect will An Octoroon have here?
A Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival co-production
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director Nakkiah Lui
Venue: Bille Brown Studio | Queensland Theatre, Southbank QLD
Dates: 16 September – 8 October 2017
Tickets: $35 – $68
Bookings: queenslandtheatre.com.au | 1800 355 528