By Matthew McKenna
The play “An Octoroon,” originally created by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault in 1859, has been brought to the SOHO Theatre for A New Audience and retold in a different light by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Originally a dark and tragic romance with a lot of racism, Jacobs-Jenkins lightens the tone by turning it into a comedy with modern elements. This play is recommended for people old enough for a rated R movie and it is advised not to take any children because of its racist elements.
What makes this play unique is how the male actors play multiple roles. The cast features Austin Smith, who plays George, the humble man from France, and M’Closky, the man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Haynes Thigpen plays the Native American Wahnotee and a comedic version of Dion. Ian Lassiter plays Pete and Paul.
Amber Gray plays the octoroon known as Zoe, a humble and beautiful girl who falls for George.
Supporting cast members also do a great job and feature Mary Wiseman as Dora, and the other slave workers Minnie, Dido, and Grace who are played by Danielle Davenport, Pascale Armand, and Maechi Aharanwa.
The general plot of the story follows the death of a plantation owner who hands over the estate in New Orleans to his nephew George. Dora, a local girl, falls in love with George, but he falls for Zoe, who is one of the slave hands and is also the daughter of George’s uncle.
As the two begin their affair, the villain M’Closky wants Zoe for himself and develops a plan to force George to give up the plantation, therefore having the ability to claim the slaves for himself. Chaos only begins with the death of the boy Paul, who is one of the slave workers on the plantation, and his Native American friend Wahnotee is accused of the murder.
The acting in this play was well done by each one of the actors and the comedic elements had the audience laughing. Most of the funny jokes came from Minnie and Dido, who were the outspoken slaves on the plantation. Other comedic elements came from the actors breaking the fourth wall.
Thigpen’s portrayal of Dion was very funny and he had a good Irish accent. Lassiter’s ability to switch from young boy to old man in a heartbeat was well done. Smith’s performance was also good, switching from hero to villain–especially in a particular scene towards the end.
Gray’s acting ability is shown greatly when audience members see Zoe’s struggle. Wiseman’s portrayal as a dumb Southern girl was also funny. Another good element of the play is how real the costumes looked, and each had its own personality.
Jacobs-Jenkins did a great job with the limited resources he had, but its also his flaw as well, mainly when it comes to set design. Another aspect the audience would disapprove of is how the actor Austin Smith took a page from Neil Patrick Harris by coming out in his tank top and underwear before the play even began.
Telling his struggles as an actor with his therapist being the audience was also unimportant.
When Smith and Dion started swearing loudly and repeatedly at each other, it had the audience nodding their heads. The male actors also put on their make up in front of the audience along with changing into costumes in order to get into their roles.
Jacobs-Jenkins also used a photo from the 1960s of black people being lynched to get his theme across.
Overall, this modernized version of the play in itself was good and entertaining to watch. It could have done better without the beginning, however.