EMAV Review: Discomfiting 'Octoroon' hits both a nerve and the funny bone



★★★★☆ - Delicious

Majestic Repertory Theatre stimulates thought, feeling, and hopefully conversation about the ever-timely issue of race relations in our nation with their unsettling yet rollicking presentation of the 2014 Obie-winning "An Octoroon," by Branden Jacobs- Jenkins. The prolific young playwright deconstructed and reimagined Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama "The Octoroon" to create a satirical adaptation that explores the nature of identity and how it's shaped by history and social constructs of gender, class, and race.

Set before the Civil War on Terrebonne, a Louisiana cotton plantation which is up for auction (slave inhabitants included) after the death of patriarch Judge Peyton, Jacobs- Jenkins refreshed and retained much of Boucicault's original dialogue and melodramatic format. Neither the playwright nor astute director Troy Heard tiptoes around the racially charged language, stereotypes, and circumstances that were prevalent at the time. By challenging perceptions through exaggeration the show intends to offend, though discomfort is eased by broad physical comedy performed by a refined cast, with great timing to match the crisp wit of the writing.

Jacobs-Jenkins also goes metatheatrical, inserting himself into the narrative as playwright BJJ (Jason Nious). BJJ is a black actor who plays two white characters--the hero George and the villain M'Closky--while wearing whiteface, which Nious applies as he addresses the audience at the beginning of the show. As George, the magnetic Nious hits all the right notes with his eloquent aristocratic mannerisms, pronounced southern dialect, genuine charm, and wild facial expressions. He effortlessly shifts to the slimy character of M'Closky and even battles it out with himself in a boisterous fight scene.

When the Irish Playwright (Adam Dunson) materializes like a vestige from the past who arrives to haunt the present, he and BJJ have a curse-off of epic proportions. Playwright paints his face red, transforming into the drunken Native American Wahnotee wearing buckskin and feathered headdress, while his Assistant (Richie Villafuerte) dons blackface to become the slaves Pete and Paul. The acerbic Dunson nicely nails an Irish lilt though he needs to project his voice more, while Villafuerte seems to have danced right out of a minstrelsy with his elastic movement and ruby red lips.

Zoe (Tiana Jones) is the titular octoroon, a virtuous young lady whose blood is one- eighths black. As the daughter of Peyton she was raised with the rights of a white woman, though his death leaves her freedom in question. She and George are in love and share sentimental scenes, while M'Closky schemes to have her for himself. Jones captures the sincerity and pure heart of Zoe, but she rushes the flowery language and hasn't yet found the little nuances in it. More performances should help her craft a deeper portrait of the semi-tragic character.

Southern belle Dora (Adriana Chavez) has the wealth to save Terrebonne and also has the hots for George. She chases him relentlessly and though he doesn't return her affection, the chemistry between Chavez and Nious is a comical cat-and-mouse match and they play off each other with well-choreographed swoons and flourishes. The wide-eyed Chavez is a blast as she flits about with a hyperkinetic energy, her eyelashes batting and fan dramatically snapping, right on cue.

Funny gems of the show are the quirky slaves Minnie (Breanna McCallum) Dido (Jillian Austin) and Grace (Destiny Faith). Jacob-Jenkins has ingeniously and authentically modernized their gossipy conversations. He imagines them like all women on a continuum of time, giving them a "Real Housewives" flair that blends with the melodrama but also provides a respite to it. Gossip is a universal human impulse because it's an essential way to get and disseminate information to manipulate and gain an advantage.

The women own their dialogue. McCallum is a wonder to watch as daydreamer Minnie, using movement to punctuate words with a shimmy here and a head shake there, and Austin as the melancholy Dido is her perfect comic foil with some nice poignant moments of her own. Faith as the pregnant, weary Grace shines with her memorable resentment of the other two, who are "house slaves" that get to "serve pancakes." And then there's their hilarious shenanigans at the auction, where the women use their feminine wiles to take control of their destiny.

The curious Br'er Rabbit (Conrad Kauffman) appears now and then, there's a sensational scene that provides a sobering image, and it's an intermissionless, two hour play. The scene design, by Design Ninjas, resembles a Victorian traveling show with its deceptively simple, hand-painted muslin drops that feature slaves in the cotton fields illuminated by the warm lighting of Marcus Randolph, Kathy Wusnack's earthy costumes evoke iconic Southern styles, and Cory Covell's dramatic soap opera-type sound adds to the humor.

"Octoroon" is an uncomfortably funny show about one of the most sensitive and divisive issues that we face as a nation today. It disturbs as much as it entertains.

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