Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story contained a racially and culturally sensitive reference that was offensive. It has been removed and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution deeply regrets the reference and we apologize to our readers.
In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' 2014 play "An Octoroon," a black playwright who goes by BJJ appropriates a 19th-century Irish dramatist's melodrama about a verboten love affair on an antebellum Louisiana plantation.
For his raucous commentary on the history of race in America, Jacobs-Jenkins constructs a play-within-a-play that shatters realism and uses face paint to parody and magnify the grotesque horror of racial stereotypes, ultimately delivering a dangerously funny, wildly theatrical and wholly original head trip.
For her Actor’s Express production, director Donya K. Washington deploys a gifted company of actors and a top-notch design team to stage a show that, for all its outrageousness, comes off as remarkably crisp and elegant — in rhythm, tone and visual conceit. In the city that begat “Gone With the Wind” and Uncle Remus, in a nation where racism is so persistent that it seeps and creeps into the highest seats of power, “An Octoroon” is timely and essential.
And yet, if Jacobs-Jenkins leans toward theater-as-pulpit, his sermon is so layered with ideas, comedy and pop-culture riffs, from Confederate anthems to hip-hop, that it manages to be both amusing and corrosive in the same beat: an equal-opportunity satire in which no one is spared.
His story begins on a personal note, a monologue wherein the disaffected BJJ (Neal A. Ghant) recounts a conversation with his therapist. When the counselor asks BJJ to name a playwright he admires, he comes up not with August Wilson nor Suzan-Lori Parks but Irishman Dion Boucicault, author of 1859’s “The Octoroon.”
The next thing you know, a drunken Boucicault (Kyle Brumley) has entered the story, and Ghant applies white-face to play both love-struck plantation owner George and the pernicious old Judge M’Closky. Brumley, as the European playwright, paints his mug red to play a Native American character. And Ryan Vo smears his visage black to portray an ancient slave named Pete and a naive young one named Paul.
Then off they go to Terrebone Plantation, which is unraveling in the aftermath of its owner’s death, and populated by his surviving slaves and blood relations, who in some cases happen to be both. Dido (Isake Akanke), Minnie (Candy McLellan) and Grace (Parris Sarter), slave women who talk like they live in the present day, are required to wait on hoop-skirted Dora (Brandy Sexton) and Zoe (Kylie Brown), who speak in the sultry drawls of antebellum caricatures. (Think Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes.)
Perhaps I should mention that there’s a mostly silent Br’er Rabbit in a bunny costume (Curtis Lipsey). He does some clowning and remote DJ-ing, and changes the placards that announce the beginning of each new act, a la Victorian-era vaudeville.
To frame it all, scenic designer Leslie Taylor appropriately conjures the look and feel of a carnival or minstrel show. A proverbial antebellum mansion lurks in the background, but far from imposing, it’s a ghostly structure of slate and chalk. April Andrew dresses the slave women in loose-fitting mismatched skirts and kerchiefs, the white women in tight-waisted 19th-century attire, with cameos, pearl buttons, white gloves.
As the story unspools, there’ll be a murder, a cover-up, declarations of love, and the revelation that a person who’s been passing for white is actually an “octoroon” (one-eighth black), at which point there is much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, particularly as the slave auction looms.
There are gestures, expressions and situations here, by turns hilarious and terrifying, that are too ridiculous to put into words.
Brown is terrific as the scandalized Zoe. Ghant does a good bit of scenery-chewing as he switches Jekyll-and-Hyde-style from George to M’Closky, with genius timing. Sexton delivers a delightful spoof of a dewy Southern magnolia with an accent as thick as honey. I could go on and on. For instance, Vo’s take on the cantankerous, verbally abusive, and hunchbacked old Pete kind of blew my mind: Where does this voice come from?
In the end, “An Octoroon” is a remarkable piece of reverse minstrelsy that can be read as a parody of a long-forgotten melodramatic potboiler, or as a scathing, up-to-the-minute cultural critique. It is a wildly sophisticated and provocative play that appears to spin out of control. In fact, its level of coarseness and farce requires considerable care and craft to harness. Actor’s Express can handle it, thank you.
Through Feb. 24. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $20-$50. Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St., Suite J-107, Atlanta. 404-607-7469, actors-express.com.
Bottom line: Super-smart look at race, unafraid to laugh at itself.