In 1859, Irish writer Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, which concerns an interracial romance on a Louisiana plantation, opened on Broadway. Posters around the city celebrated the “Slave Auction and the Burning Onstage of the Steamboat, Magnolia.” A smash hit, abolitionists hailed it as an anti-slavery play, while others termed it pro-Southern. The New York Times denied it any politics at all, writing, “Nothing in the world could be more harmless and noncommittal.” Of course, this “harmless” piece featured blackface, broad dialect, and several attempted lynchings, which may explain why one of the great stage successes and scandals of the 19th century is so seldom revived.
But starting on June 19 at P.S.122, playwright-director Branden Jacobs-Jenkins will present The Octoroon: An Adaptation of the Octoroon Based on the Octoroon, a new version of Boucicault’s melodrama. With fewer resources and a smaller cast than the original, this Octoroon may not make audiences scream and swoon as it did 150 years ago. Yet the play’s conversation about race and identity may still prove timely and affecting.
If one were looking for a playwright to author an adaptation of this provocative script, one’s thoughts might naturally turn to Jacobs-Jenkins, who found himself, rather unwillingly, at the center of much media ado when his first produced full-length play, Neighbors, debuted at the Public Lab last season. The play, about a contemporary mixed-race family who encounter a house full of blackface performers next door, attracted three Times articles before it had even opened, one of which described it as “one of the most sustained shocks of the season,” a very reductive vision of the piece, which ultimately received mixed reviews.
Jacobs-Jenkins says he first encountered The Octoroon in a book on slavery narratives and experienced a strange déjà vu: “It’s one of those plays that have always been in my head somehow.” He found himself particularly intrigued by the controversy surrounding the play, the several endings that Boucicault wrote for it, and the questions it raises about the relationship of drama and politics, about high art and low. After discussions with P.S.122’s Vallejo Gantner and Gavin Quinn, of the Irish theater company Pan Pan, Jacobs-Jenkins decided to adapt it with Quinn directing. Several weeks into rehearsal, though, Quinn left the project, Jacobs-Jenkins taking over as director. (Neither he, Quinn, nor Gantner would comment on the departure.)
Jacobs-Jenkins has made several authorial interventions in the script, most centering on the slave characters. In place of Boucicault’s broad vernacular, Jacobs-Jenkins has substituted new language, some of it contemporary and colloquial (“They were some cool-ass white people”), some of it more straightforward and designed to expose the social realities Boucicault’s script smoothes over. Jacobs-Jenkins finds the dialogue a challenge, remarking, “I don’t know any slaves, especially not any slaves from Louisiana in 1859. So I’m not sure how to present their language.” He has contemplated at least one further addition to the script, a new speech at the top of the play.
As writer-director, he has had much to sort out. What degree of comedy to employ, how much genuine emotion, how much sensation? Should blackface be used? How should the play be contextualized for spectators who have long since made up their minds about slavery? And how will he ever fit a whole burning steamboat on to the P.S.122 stage?