You could say that two dramas share one stage at Soho Rep.: One is The Octoroon, Dion Boucicault’s electric 1859 melodrama dealing with slavery and race laws. The Octoroon premiered just two days after John Brown was hanged; as the Civil War loomed, the play became a huge hit, authored by a box-office-loving Irishman who was both of and ahead of his time. The other piece we concurrently watch is An Octoroon — the article switch is significant — a wildly imaginative new work by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Self-identified in the first scene as a “black playwright,” Jacobs-Jenkins both admires and disputes his predecessor’s melodrama. An Octoroon stages its author’s dizzying dialogue with Boucicault’s original as it unfolds, occasionally satirizing the older drama and sometimes re-authoring it.
In places that conversation gets explicit. An early scene finds an actor portraying Jacobs-Jenkins and another portraying Boucicault getting into a childish shouting match. Those authors later return to renegotiate the terms of both dramas’ endings — a discussion that includes a decision about burning down the theater with the audience in it — drawing additional boundaries between The and An.
More often, however, An Octoroon simultaneously gives us this great melodrama and its contemporary reverberations, a feat enabled by Sarah Benson’s excellent direction, which lets the show toggle seamlessly between these modes. To name just one device: A black actor (Chris Myers) plays a series of roles in whiteface, while white actors (Danny Wolohan and Ben Horner) take on problematic slave and Indian characters in blackface and redface. (This bold choice topples an old taboo in the American theater, long pained by the historical use of blackface in minstrel shows. Here, the device instead affirms the power of better-intentioned theater to understand history by trying it on.)
The Octoroon hinges on the fate of the foreclosed plantation Terrebonne, whose supposedly benevolent longtime owner has died after summoning his nephew George (the rightful heir, portrayed by Myers) from Paris. George becomes infatuated with the beautiful and upstanding Zoe (Amber Gray), who, unknown to her suitor, is one-eighth black (an “octoroon”). In Boucicault’s most powerful scene, deeply empathetic to all protagonists in a racist society, Zoe tells George her blood makes her “unclean.” When an evil overseer (Myers again) pilfers Zoe’s papers and plots her ruin, her freedom hangs in the balance.
In counterpoint, Jacobs-Jenkins revises and adds, most hilariously with Minnie and Grace, slave women who banter like they’re in 2014 as they sweep piles of cotton balls and dismiss “these white people . . . distracted with all they personal financial drama.” The incongruities get spiky as well as very funny: “I know we slaves and everything,” Minnie tells her friend, “but you are not your job. You gotta take time out of your day to live life for you.”
So many layers and ironies accrue, and yet, when the show halts near the end so the characters can contemplate an authentic lynching photo, Jacobs-Jenkins reminds us that all this role-playing exposes underlying racial realities. He’s aided and abetted by an adventurous, razor-sharp cast and a shrewd team of designers. An Octoroon might induce vertigo, but it insists that making theater can be the best way to talk back to history.