Sometimes, as playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins explains to his audience, the best way to work through something is to write it down — or act it out. He does both in An Octoroon, a semi-update of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama about a newly appointed plantation owner, his evil nemesis, and the mixed-race girl they both desire.
Jacobs-Jenkins is trying to work through the perennially sticky issue of race, not just in the arts but in the world itself. It's a play that wants to Say Something, but often settles for tossing out half-formed suggestions and hoping its audience picks up the slack.
Ryan Woods, portraying the playwright stand-in BJJ (along with George the hero and M'Closky the villain), explains to the audience at Stage West that he's trying to figure out what it means to be a "black playwright" in America today.
So of course he conjures up the Irish Boucicault (Justin Duncan, of dubious accent) and they set about staging a modified version of the original play. We're told a lack of actors of the correct race means they'll be applying whiteface, blackface, and redface (and in the case of ensemble member Christopher Lew, bunny ears).
It's a conceit that veers dangerously close to a gimmick, especially since the actors' makeup sometimes takes a backseat to the convoluted story. Boucicault's twisty plot is as melodramatic as it is tangled, so much so that even the actors abandon its outrageous action near the end in favor of simply describing the big finish. But modern commentary rarely accompanies the occasional character break, especially where the women are concerned.
As the titular person of one-eighth black ancestry, who has lived as a free woman but is technically a slave, Morgana Wilborn often looks lost. Granted, her ingenue character is inherently overshadowed by the hilarious duo of Kristen White and Bretteney Beverly, playing two gossipy slaves; Camille Monae as the oft-pregnant field hand; and Nikki Cloer as the shallow Southern belle who pines for George.
Though every character is, at its most basic, a stereotype, Duncan and Christopher Llewyn Ramirez are tasked with some of the most cringe-worthy racist portrayals. Under Akin Babatunde's direction, each is handled gracefully.
But as Bob Lavallee's startling set indicates, with its eerie field of nooses and tumbling cotton puffs that later transforms into an old-fashioned stage, we're not supposed to feel at ease. And it doesn't feel like Jacobs-Jenkins' script is either.
An Octoroon runs at Stage West through September 30.