Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, directed by Nataki Garrett at Mixed Blood Theatre is just what today’s theatre needs: a contemporary coon show contrived by a witless, ham-handed hack whose guiding imperative is if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, bring on a boatload of B.S.
Adapted from Dion Bouiciault’s 1859 hit melodrama, this saga on Antebellum angst supposedly centered around a plantation owner’s hankering to marry the light, bright, off-White apple of his eye, comes off as a Chinese fire drill of stock characters you see coming a mile away, saying and doing exactly what you would expect of stereotypical caricatures — including Blackface (and, of all things, Whiteface). The plot, such as there is one, doesn’t even develop until halfway through the second act — at which point there’s still exposition stalling an already inert script — then stumbles and fumbles to an anticlimactic close.
It ends as it began with the Playwright (played by Jon Andrew Hegge) sucking the air out of the room with an ineffectual, naval-gazing narrative purporting to reflect on what it is to be Black, that keeps fishing for laughs as Jenkins passes off glib self-indulgence as sardonic wit. Garrett’s directing affords this unwieldy sham a lively pace to absolutely no avail.
What Jacobs-Jenkins is trying to do actually can be done by someone skilled at the craft. He’s attempting theatre of the absurd to satirize racist society with a humorous bent that ironically drives home the sober meaning and cruel consequence of the matter at hand. He is also out of his depth. And should leave such doings to subtle, more capable hands like, for instance Lonnie Carter (The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy, Lost Boys of the Sudan) who laughs at serious issues without dumbing them down via vapid slapstick.
Instead of delivering a sharp send up of slavery and its ills, Jenkins is so clumsy you are painfully reminded that, when it comes down to it, there isn’t a damned thing funny at all about being beaten, whipped, raped and sold — treated, indeed, worse than the lowliest livestock. And blatant insult he offers with an idiotically drunken Indian character simply does not belong on a stage in this day and age.
The production is not a total failure. Jasmine Hughes takes a deft turn as sassy sackcloth clad lass Minnie, lately of the field shacks, now a neophyte, trash-talking house Negress. Jamila Anderson is solid as her companion in bondage, stoically pragmatic Dido. Composer-pianist Eric Mayson provides splendid period music that giving the quaint feel of a silent movie.
This isn’t Jenkins’ first time palming off such fare at Mixed Blood. It’s the same caliber of dimensionless tripe he perpetrated there in 2011 with Neighbors, again contrivance and clichés, substituting minimally sketched types for actual characters.
If you missed one show this season, be glad Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is it.
An Octoroon ended its run at Mixed Blood Theatre November 15.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.