An Octoroon Through November 19; Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m.; $25. Majestic Repertory Theatre, 1217 S. Main St., 702-423-6366.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play revisits a much older play—The Octoroon, written by Dion Boucicault in 1859. The original was a melodrama that hoped to elicit sympathy for the archetypal tragic "mulatto," while the new work puts the wounds of America’s history on display.
Like Br’er Rabbit sniffing audience members before the lights go up, this play gets in your face. The black playwright protagonist transforms himself into a white beau and his villainous foil, and other characters apply redface and blackface in front of the audience before the play ventures back to 1859.
Nearly the whole melodrama is staged, injected with some modern commentary. Racist caricatures are trotted out without transformation in later acts. What purpose does this have except to make the audience squirm? The show also runs two full hours, so the audience's obvious discomfort could be due, in part, to the lack of an intermission.
Jacobs-Jenkins, a black playwright, received the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play and was a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, but the staging of this production isn’t a full deconstruction, and the script explicitly states that it isn’t meant to be. It prods at our modern resistance to watching repellent caricatures in redface and blackface. The most moving point in the show is a projection of a lynching over the actors. I still can't decide if this is brilliant or slick gimmick.
To their credit, the actors work well with what they’re given. Jason Nious holds the play in focus as the playwright, heroic beau and cruel villain, jumping from character to character with tremendous showmanship. Tiana Jones as Zoe is sincerity itself, and all the supporting ladies bring air to a suffocating room.
Why choose this show above others that address salient points about race in America? Director Troy Heard explains: “An Octoroon fits the Majestic mission on several levels. One is to provide representation of the diverse community of Las Vegas. Secondly, it fulfills our focus of producing the American canon both old and new—in this case it’s Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new deconstruction of a classic American play.” Whether you agree with Heard’s directorial vision or not, this is a great opportunity to see 1859 in all its lurid detail.
One line in the show goes, "We just want to make you feel something." Sure, we feel a lot of things, most of them in revolt to the insipid views of the past. The insults to modern sensibilities run fast and loose, and the premise of "making you feel something" isn't enough to justify them.