Tuesday, May 17, 2022
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Unicorn Theatre, UMKC Theatre Department Present An Octoroon

In

An Octoroon, produced by the Unicorn Theatre alongside UMKC’s Theatre Department, is a study in provocation. The play breathes new life into Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, which tells the story of a recently bequeathed southern plantation barely standing on its last leg. The production confronts racial injustice in a playful and bizarre way that leaves the audience with a purposeful twinge of uncertainty.

Before we are launched into Boucicault’s story, set in the Antebellum South, we are given an intimate glimpse into the playwright’s (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins) mind. Rufus Burns opens the show as BJJ, a less than subtle allusion to the author who’s attempting to work out his depression through his work in the theatre. BJJ’s plan to channel his fascination with Boucicault’s was almost foiled by a lack of white actors willing to play the part of southern, planter class gentlemen.

Burns gives BJJ a manic, obsessive quality that sets the stage for many of the later characterizations. He tells us he has no idea what it means to be a black playwright in America, in between huge gulps of booze. The playwright’s reflections on his frustrations with the current social climate take a more theatrical form when he starts painting on white face for the evening’s production.

From left: Cinnamon Schultz and Rufus Burns.
From left: Cinnamon Schultz and Rufus Burns.

He is soon joined by Boucicault (Logan Black), who engages the audience with his own musings regarding his forgotten legacy and the evolution of theatre as he prepares to fill the role of an Indian by wearing red face. To top off this racial roleplay, Assistant (Michael Thayer) puts himself in blackface. And we’re still only a few minutes in.

What follows this introduction is a very funny cartoon-like satirization of Boucicault’s intensely melodramatic story. Rufus Burns does triple duty as his character from the frame story tackles the roles of George and M’Closky, Boucicault’s protagonist and antagonist.

Cinnamon Schultz is an immediate audience favorite as Dora, a ditzy southern heiress who is so awful you can’t help but love her. It is a testament to Schultz that she stands out among the many intelligent, comedic performances.

Rasheedat (Ras) Badejo and Amber McKinnon are also crowd pleasers, imbuing their roles as house servants who pass the time gossiping about other slaves with charm and chemistry. They were easily my favorite part of the night. Not only did they have me doubling over in laughter, but the anachronistic element of their performance quietly rings with thematic significance.

Thayer does not hold back as Pete and Paul, and keeps the audience laughing (both at his performance and the uncomfortable realization that you just laughed at a slave in black face acting ridiculous and simple).

The actors all shine in their roles and it is clear they’re having fun onstage. The play is packed with energetic and ironic performances. At times the self-awareness and overly satirical melodrama get a little tiring, but BJJ and Boucicault break character to move the plot along before the shtick grows too old. The reimagining of Boucicault’s play reminds me of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who was one of the first to strategically distance his characters from the audience’s emotionality. The problem with this is that there are moments when we don’t feel very invested in the details of Boucicault’s story. These moments are often followed by something absurd and are easily forgotten.

UMKC graduate student Peter Morgan.
UMKC graduate student Peter Morgan.

The play is compelling and the examination of race is both abrasive and sly. An Octoroon doesn’t deliver its commentary in a nicely packaged, easily digestible moral soundbite. Instead, the play purposefully leaves it audiences a little confused, instilling in them the same lack of clarity expressed by the playwright in the show’s opening moments.

When I first left the theater I was a little frustrated at my inability to comprehend the play’s message. There was clearly an underlying social commentary, but what were these artists trying to say? I reflected on the final statement, made in a deadpan address directed straight towards the audience, that the whole point was to make you “feel something”.

The confusion I felt isn’t the fault of my own misinterpretation or lack of understanding. It is a reflection of the complex and unsettled racial climate in our country, which is expertly displayed for us in this anarchic and occasionally dizzying, but ultimately very effective piece of theater.

An Octoroon runs through Dec. 26th. Tickets can be purchased at the Unicorn Theatre or online at unicorntheatre.org.

 

sdanley@unews.com

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