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AN OCTOROON Royal George Theatre/Shaw Festival
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Aug 4, 2017, 14:52
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Shaw Festival
Through October 14
AN OCTOROON Royal George Theatre/Shaw Festival

The best part of the Shaw Festival’s “An Octoroon” is the work of André Sills as the star and narrator of this melodramatic tale of the Old South in the last days of slavery.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took Dion Boucicault’s play “The Octoroon,” and turned it into this play, built around Sills as BJJ, George and M’Closky.
It’s also a lecture into theater history, where White people put on blackface and sometimes whiteface and Black people put on blackface and whiteface because of the enforced social conventions of the day.
Sills’ characters has jokes about “White guys” not wanting to come near parts in this show because of the paint.
Sills’ work will also remind you of that old "Star Trek" episode “Let That Be Your Last Batttlefield,” the one about the guy with whiteface on one side and blackface on the other in a lethal struggle with the guy who is the reverse.
This play revolves around every stereotype possible about the ante-bellum South, most accurate.
To me, one of the most fascinating characters is Sills’ George, the heir to the bankrupt plantation who has been living in Paris off the sweat of the slaves on Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana, without a qualm.
When he arrives back home, he finds out the slaves are to be auctioned, partly because of machinations by the overseer with a whip and neighbor M’Colosky, who wants Terrebonne and Zoe (Vanessa Sears) who is the daughter of the former owner, Judge Peyton, George’s uncle and a slave.
If you think that’s implausible, ask Thomas Jefferson’s descendants
George and Zoe are in love but she tells him that can’t happen because she’s a slave.
Really?
It might remind you of that melodramatic novel and musical, “Show Boat.”
Much of the story is the two house slaves, Dido (Lisa Berry) and Minnie (Kiera Sangster), and their narration of what’s going on, with information from the craven slave Paul (Ryan Cunningham), who’s a White guy in blackface.
Threaded through all of this is Br’er Rabbit (Samantha Walkes), that symbol of Black storytelling and subservience.
It’s all very melodramatic, which made Boucicault a star and rich, back in the day.
While it’s possible to not know the brutality of slavery and the evil way it operated against the enslaved, “An Octoroon” may not be the best way to learn of that since it seems truly unbelievable.
As Jacobs-Jenkins makes clear, it isn’t.
The show is worth seeing for the marvelous work by Sills, even in the chaotic way the story is told.

A.W.

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