WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS: The Performance of Reaction in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon
When An Octoroon first premiered at Soho Rep in the summer of 2014, the intimate nature of the space made the production feel like a secret shared among guests, almost an inside joke that was received with a wink. As the production then transferred to Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, I was concerned that the production would lose some of its magic and messy spectacle, especially with the presence of an almost entirely new cast. However, with a larger audience and a more massive space, the brilliance of An Octoroon hit its stride. In taking on new epic proportions, it became the clear that the joke was on us, the audience, and our performance as participants.
An Octoroon hinges not just on the performance of race, but on the performance of the audience’s reaction to those images, and the playwright’s subsequent observation of that reaction. When Austin Smith as “BJJ” first steps on stage and tells us “I am a black playwright,” it is clear that the playwright’s gaze will never be very far. The first image he gives us is BJJ standing in a single spotlight, holding a microphone, tossing out a searing and hilarious monologue. It’s more stand up than straight drama, and the audience eats up this performance of a black comedian, one of historically acceptable roles in which White audiences consume Black culture. BJJ performs, we laugh, and the “playwright” watches us laughing at the performance. It is a metatheatrical cycle on steroids.
Once BJJ ushers us from the framing device and into the central drama of An Octoroon, our laughter is wrought with even more complexity. When the two slave women, Pascale Armand and Maechi Aharanwa, push mounds of cotton balls across the stage while speaking in vernacular, the laughter comes strong and often. But what has Jacobs-Jenkins gotten us to laugh at? The audience chuckles at the exaggerated way in which the enslaved characters code-switch once in the presence of their white owners, and we hoot and holler our approval.
Within the story of An Octoroon, the Black stereotypes are notable: the wise older male, the virtuous light-skinned beauty, the sassy Sapphire. These stereotypes came about as creations of White culture once slaves were moved from the field and into the house–in order to justify slaves’ close physical proximity to the White owning family, cultural stereotypes were formed so as to create images of Blackness as palatable as possible. These images have become so fiercely locked in American pop culture that they remain as rampant as ever, and in Jacobs-Jenkins’ retelling of Boucicault’s Octoroon, the playwright puts forth these images and succeeds in eliciting our problematic laughter.
The crucial brilliance of An Octoroon is that our laughter is not anonymous, nor ignored. In the theater of Jacobs-Jenkins, the playwright is a singularly unique voyeur, always present, always watching. Beyond the character of BJJ, who returns to address the audience throughout An Octoroon, the playwrights’ gaze is a very literal one. Partway through the first act, an actor dressed in an elaborate Alice in Wonderland-esque rabbit costume, walks onto the stage and silently performs a comedic bit of physical humor. The large rabbit masks conceals one of the best secrets of the show: the actor in costume is actually Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the playwright in the flesh. (The secret is partly given away later, when Jacobs-Jenkins returns to the stage later as a sea captain, sans mask, but with a subtle rabbit tail). The cartoon-like rabbit returns to the action multiple times throughout the course of the evening, with each bit funnier than the one before. However, while the rabbit goes unlisted in the program, the character name is listed in Jacobs-Jenkins’ script: “Br’er Rabbit.” So, as we laugh at the seemingly nameless rabbit, Jacobs-Jenkins’ has gotten us the guffaw at one of the most notoriously problematic emblems of appropriated Blackness, the “trickster” of Uncle Remus fame. And while we laugh at Br’er Rabbit, Jacobs-Jenkins’ is all the while observing us, the reaction he has created, and what he has gotten us to do.
In the final third of An Octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins becomes master of the coup de théâtre. While, by definition, the action is meant to provoke surprise, Jacobs-Jenkins has engineered those surprises in a very specific timbre. When the back wall of the theatre falls and blows a cloud of cotton balls over the audience, there are delightful gasps, almost whimsical in tone. But in another coup, a deeply nuanced turn is felt. Against the bare set, an image of a lynching is projected. Two men are hanging lifeless from trees, while surrounded by a mob of White onlookers. When the photograph first appears, the audience let out an apologetic yawp, and then went silent. It was as if the photograph jolted us into remembering what we had been laughing at all this while, and the image wrenched our remorse into the forefront. The photo remained projected for an extended period of time, which meant the audience couldn’t look away, couldn’t hide. But what was also revealed in that prolonged note were the harrowing details at the edges of the image. The White mob in the image had their faces not toward the two men that had just been killed, but rather, they were turned toward the camera. Several were smiling. A young couple in the corner had caketopper grins. Against a brutal reality, the White mob was gleefully posing, performing for the camera. This begs the question: when the audience let out their sorry sound, were we reacting? Or was it the performance of an apology?
The final moment of An Octoroon ends not only in song, but also in darkness. It is not an abrupt killing of the lights or a slow fade to black, but sustained, haunting minutes of pitch dark while the cast’s voices carry us to the end. After two hours traffic, An Octoroon successfully breaks the longheld theater warning never to leave an audience in the dark too long, for fear of losing their attention. Jacobs-Jenkins has us in his grasp, and so we sit there, enraptured. And somewhere nearby, the gaze is on us.