I recently went with the Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS) office to see An Octoroon at the Mixed Blood Theatre and was pleasantly annoyed throughout the entire performance.
The performance itself was outstandingly bizarre, being that it was a play about a play. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the playwright, wrote An Octoroon as an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, a 19 century performance about an affair between an octoroon woman and a white man. For those unaware, an octoroon refers to a person who is one-eighth black. It was a melodramatic comedy that addresses slavery during the Antebellum South and incorporates present-day language and characters.
The play was as comedic as it was disturbing. Casting only several characters, actors wore whiteface, blackface, and redface. Seeing this in person, on the stage right in front of me, was a jarring experience. Hearing of actors painting their skin to portray persons of a different race is one thing, but seeing it in person is entirely different. I found myself constantly wondering if it was really happening.
Throughout the production, I found myself asking that question every time the crowd laughed. Now, the play is supposed to be funny; it is a comedy. However, I found out very early that the crowd and I laughed during different times. For example, the crowd laughed about the blatant stereotypes presented about ‘Indian’ character (white actor in redface), while I could not get over my permanent cringe-face.
The audience also laughed at a character that said “At least in present day [you] can use actual negroes.” The audience continued to laugh at how ‘Indians’ are not around anymore, references to rum and ‘slave mixers’. Not only that, but there was laughter after a long moment where horrific pictures were shown. That particular part was intentional so the audience could see how easy it was to get wrapped up in societal norms and expectations. I continued to cringe each time the audience laughed at the most disturbing instances, especially when members encouraged the ‘lynching’ of a man.
I am still processing it all, and I am probably going to be processing it for the rest of my life. The production will continue to run Nov. 13 and 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. Admission is free on a first come basis and the box office opens two hours before the show; seating starts 30 minutes before the show and is general admission. I encourage all who can to go see it because it’s a wonderfully bizarre production that everyone should get the chance to see.