One Playwright’s ‘Obligation’ To Confront Race And Identity In The U.S.

Posted in Arts, Audio, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-02-18 03:25Z by Steven

One Playwright’s ‘Obligation’ To Confront Race And Identity In The U.S.

Code Switch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity
All Things Considered
National Public Radio

Jeff Lunden

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins may be only 30 years old, but he’s already compiled an impressive resume. His theatrical works, which look at race and identity in America, have been performed in New York and around the country. Last year, Jacobs-Jenkins won the best new American play Obie Award for two of his works, Appropriate and An Octoroon.

An Octoroon is currently playing at Theater for a New Audience in New York…

…Over the past five years, the young playwright has written a trilogy of highly provocative and fantastical explorations of race in America. In Neighbors, a family of minstrels in blackface moves in next to a contemporary mixed-race family. In Appropriate, a white family discovers their dead father belonged to the KKK. His latest, An Octoroon, is a loose adaptation of a play written more than 150 years ago that deals with identity and race.

“They are all kind of like me dealing with something very specific, which has to do with the history of theater and blackness in America and form,” he says. “And also, my obligation, as a human being with regards to any of these themes.”

It is Jacob-Jenkins’ self-examination that drove Ben Brantley, the chief drama critic for The New York Times, to rank An Octoroon on the top of his best pays list last year. He saw it at Soho Rep, a tiny off-Broadway theater.

“[Jacobs-Jenkins] starts off from self-consciousness, which you would think would be a crippling place for a playwright to begin,” Brantley says.”But his self-consciousness isn’t just particular; it’s national, it’s universal. And it’s the self-consciousness of realizing that we don’t have the vocabulary, the tools to discuss race.”

The play, based on a 1859 melodrama by the Irish-Anglo playwright Dion Boucicault, tells the story of a young man who’s about to inherit a plantation and falls in love with a woman who is an octoroon — seven-eighths white, one-eighth black.

Director Sarah Benson points out that, in the original, all the parts had to be played by white actors…

Read the entire article here. Listen to the story here. Download the audio here. Read the transcript here.

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AN OCTOROON: THE OCTOROON an essay by James Leverett

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2014-11-23 20:38Z by Steven

AN OCTOROON: THE OCTOROON an essay by James Leverett

The Soho Repository
New York, New York

James Leverett, Professor (Adjunct) of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism
Yale School of Drama

There is melodrama in every tragedy, just as there is a child in every adult.”
–Eric Bentley, Life of the Drama

A Suggested Walk

I hope by this point you’ve already purchased your ticket for An Octoroon. I also hope that it is a nice evening when you attend, and that you will want to discuss and extend your experience of the production afterwards… Or you may also just want to sweep it out of you mind…In either case, when the show is over, take a left when you leave Soho Rep., go along Walker Street a half block to the corner, take another left onto Broadway and walk north across Canal, through Soho, across Houston into Noho (cartography gets murky here), and across Bleeker. Slow your pace and go over to the east side of Broadway if you haven’t already. Your aim is to get a better view of what’s on the west side of the street (or used to be). I hope you will look up at the spectacular 19th-century cast-iron architecture all along your tour…

The Octoroon

After Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel of 1852, together with an immediate procession of stage versions), The Octoroon is the most prominent contemporary fiction about American slavery. In many ways, Boucicault’s play fits the pattern of Victorian melodrama. Zoë, the Octoroon, is the suffering heroine, although much more strongly drawn than her Gothic predecessors. Originally played by Agnes Robertson, at the time Boucicault’s wife, she chooses her own destiny, even though hers is the fate of a victim. The unmistakable villain is Jacob M’Closky, undoubtedly modeled after Stowe’s lustful, murderous Simon Legree. Both characters are from the North, both end up in Louisiana, both are in the market for slaves. George Peyton, the romantic lead, is brave and central to the plot but recedes somewhat in the presence of the others.

As with most Victorian melodramas, The Octoroon, has a large supporting cast. Most of them are there, not only to help along the plot, but also to add variety to a popular entertainment. They are part of the newspaper aspect of the genre and create a world containing a range of social classes, ages, occupations, localities and nationalities.

Most pertinent to this play are races, particularly those of African descent, and they are represented with unprecedented specificity. In addition to the octoroon (one eighth black), there are in the cast list a quadroon (one fourth), a yellow (mixed race), and Whanotee, an Indian chief of the “Lepan” tribe (probably a misspelling of the Lipan Apache). Boucicault himself played the chief. His well known mimetic ability surely helped him to negotiate the character who, when not altogether silent, speaks a fictional “mashup” of French, Mexican and what is supposedly his native dialect, which includes “ugh.” Most of the supporting characters also have some comic function, which is fundamental in most melodrama. Scholars consider the genre to exist between tragedy and comedy, but leaning toward the latter, especially because of the almost inevitable happy endings…

Read the entire article here.

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Returning to an ‘Impossible’ Role

Posted in Articles, Arts, Interviews, Media Archive, United States on 2014-11-23 19:27Z by Steven

Returning to an ‘Impossible’ Role

The New York Times

Alexis Soloski

Amber Gray on ‘An Octoroon,’ at Soho Rep

Leaning against an upright piano, Amber Gray bent her voice and body to a song’s harmonies — tapping her feet, drumming her fingers, bowing her head, and turtling her chin forward and back.

A restless, dynamic performer, Ms. Gray recently appeared as the scheming Hélène in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” She was now rehearsing for a much more innocent role: the title character of “An Octoroon” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

A disquieting adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s controversial 1859 melodrama, which opens on May 4 at Soho Rep, the play centers on a tragic love affair between the heir to a Louisiana plantation and Ms. Gray’s Zoe. Though raised as a decorous Southern lady, Zoe is one-eighth black, an inheritance that condemns her to the slave auction block.

After her musical rehearsal at the New 42nd Street Studios, Ms. Gray, who has the sort of careless glamour that can make a Baja jacket and acid-washed jeans seem very nearly elegant, retired to a futon in the green room. She spoke with Alexis Soloski about terrifying musicals, biracial identity and playing a difficult scene. These are excerpts from the conversation…

…What was it like to grow up as a biracial child overseas?

I was too young to really understand a lot of it. In the military school systems, kids were mean. People would call me mulatto all the time. My dad was like: “Don’t let people call you that. Say that you’re mixed. Say that you’re biracial.” My parents were really careful with me. They were clear that you can’t separate out the two sides. You’d be denying half of yourself if you did.

Before you became involved with “An Octoroon,” did you read the 1859 version?

I did. I got really emotional reading it. It struck a chord. Most other mixed and biracial people I know have at least one secret or lie in their family, have at least one person who is choosing to pass or is passing and doesn’t even know it. That theme is so common. I have a half sister who didn’t know she was half black until she was 11. I’m interested in telling these stories because it is my family’s history…

Read the entire interview here.

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Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

Posted in Articles, Arts, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2014-11-23 17:08Z by Steven

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

The New York Times

Ben Brantley, Chief Theater Critic

‘An Octoroon,’ a Slave-Era Tale at Soho Rep

Some people are paralyzed by self-consciousness. The playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is inspired, energized and perhaps even set free by it.

You could say that he transforms self-consciousness into art, except then you have to ask what art is, as Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins surely would. How about into entertainment, then? No, that sounds too unequivocally pleasurable and guilt free. Well, let’s just say that Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins turns self-consciousness into theater, and that this is a lot more stimulating than it sounds.

Some degree of self-consciousness is inevitable for any latter-day dramatist taking on Dion Boucicault’sThe Octoroon,” which is what Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins is doing in the exhilarating, booby-trapped production called “An Octoroon” (those articles make a difference!) that opened at Soho Rep on Sunday night. Though a huge hit in this country in the mid-19th century, “The Octoroon” would appear approachable on today’s stages only with a set of very long, sterilized tongs.

It is, first of all, an unabashed melodrama, with all the handkerchief wringing and mustache twirling that term implies. The story it relates is an incident-crammed weepy of forbidden love in the slaveholding South, where social status is measured in drops of blood. (Octoroon refers to someone who is one-eighth black.)…

…The basic plot of this “Octoroon” is Boucicault’s, more or less. Its title character is the beauteous Zoe (Amber Gray of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”), the daughter of a slave and a recently deceased plantation owner. Zoe is beloved both by the plantation’s worldly and gentlemanly new owner, George (Mr. Myers), and by its former overseer, the evil M’Closkey (Mr. Myers again), who wants to buy the place for himself.

That’s Plot A (or most of it; I didn’t mention the local rich girl, played in high burlesque style by Zoë Winters, loves George, too). There’s a Plot B, but I won’t go into detail about that one, except to say that it involves a lovable rapscallion of a slave boy (Ben Horner, in blackface) and his pal, an American Indian, I mean Native American or … heck, I’m all tongue-tied now. Anyway, he’s played by Mr. Wolohan, in redface.

Oh, relax. It’s only a play, isn’t it? Except one of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s points is that nothing that deals with race in this racially conflicted country can ever be reduced to an easy showbiz formula, whether satirical or uplifting. His “Octoroon” invites us to laugh loudly and easily at how naïve the old stereotypes now seem, until suddenly nothing seems funny at all…

Read the entire review here.

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The Octoroon: Early History of the Drama of Miscegenation

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2010-11-27 01:03Z by Steven

The Octoroon: Early History of the Drama of Miscegenation

The Journal of Negro Education
Volume 20, Number 4 (Autumn, 1951)
pages 547-557

Sidney Kaplan, Instructor In English
University of Massachusetts

From the moment of its birth the American democracy has appeared to some of its best champions as the perfect subject for Aristotelian tragedy. Could the democracy with an overwhelming reservation be anything other than the hero with a fatal flaw? The essence of slavery, complained Jefferson at the close of the Revolution, was the “perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other”; he trembled for his country when he reflected that God was just and that his justice could not sleep forever. One ramification of this peculiarly American tragedy—the “problem” of passion between black and white—has been a staple of our stage for almost a century. From Boucicault’s The Octoroon in the decade before Gettysburg, through O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun in the era of the first World War, to Hughes’s The Barrier of the current guilty hour, the drama of miscegenation has packed box and balcony throughout the land.

Putting aside the question of its dramatic merit, it is easy to see why Boucicault’s play, from the historian’s point of view, is the most interesting of the genre; for not only did The Octoroon for the first time, effectively and sympathetically, place a Negro in the center of an American stage, but also, in the troubled time of its premiere, despite all its meagerness as play or tract, it became a small portent of impending crisis and irrepressible conflict. As Joseph Jefferson wrote, thirty years after its first night, The Octoroon “was produced at a dangerous time”; for the slightest allusion to the peculiar institution served then only “to inflame the country, which was already at a white heat.”

Three days after John Brown had been hanged in Virginia, the curtain arose on The Octoroon in New York. On the evening of December 6, 1859, just as Brown’s coffin began the last lap on the journey North to the quiet Adirondack farms, the Winter Garden

Read or purchase the article here.

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Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

Posted in Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United Kingdom, Women on 2009-10-12 23:07Z by Steven

Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

Duke University Press
272 pages
13 b&w photographs
Cloth ISBN: 0-8223-2105-X, ISBN13: 978-0-8223-2105-7
Paperback ISBN: 0-8223-2120-3, ISBN13 978-0-8223-2120-0

Jennifer DeVere Brody, Professor, African and African American Studies
Duke University

Using black feminist theory and African American studies to read Victorian culture, Impossible Purities looks at the construction of “Englishness” as white, masculine, and pure and “Americanness” as black, feminine, and impure. Brody’s readings of Victorian novels, plays, paintings, and science fiction reveal the impossibility of purity and the inevitability of hybridity in representations of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and race. She amasses a considerable amount of evidence to show that Victorian culture was bound inextricably to various forms and figures of blackness.

Opening with a reading of Daniel Defoe’s “A True-Born Englishman,” which posits the mixed origins of English identity, Brody goes on to analyze mulattas typified by Rhoda Swartz in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, whose mixed-race status reveals the “unseemly origins of English imperial power.” Examining Victorian stage productions from blackface minstrel shows to performances of The Octoroon and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she explains how such productions depended upon feminized, “black” figures in order to reproduce Englishmen as masculine white subjects. She also discusses H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau in the context of debates about the “new woman,” slavery, and fears of the monstrous degeneration of English gentleman. Impossible Purities concludes with a discussion of Bram Stoker’s novella, “The Lair of the White Worm,” which brings together the book’s concerns with changing racial representations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This book will be of interest to scholars in Victorian studies, literary theory, African American studies, and cultural criticism.

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