In our present political climate, blackness has become not just a lightning rod, but also a victim of reductive, uncritical thinking, both from the right and the left. And so I’ve been looking forward to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ much-lauded An Octoroon, a postmodern riff on Dion Boucicault’s 19th century hit melodrama, The Octoroon.
Jacobs-Jenkins is certainly one of today's more astute and alert playwrights (War, Neighbors) and he wastes no time in taking the knife to the jugular of bad ideas. BJJ (short for Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins) -- played by Lance Gardner in a precise, searing performance -- ambles out onto the stage and says, “Hi, everyone. I’m a ‘black playwright.’ I don’t know exactly what that means.” It’s a sharp first jab, throwing out what seems like an obvious declaration and then immediately dismantling it with good-natured bafflement.
All BJJ wants it is for us to share in his predicament. Even though he’s black, he wants to be free to be more than black -- an artist who might, for instance, write a play about “talking farm animals.” When a literary manager excitedly responds that BJJ is “deconstructing African folktales,” he shoots back, “Bitch! I’m not fucking deconstructing any fucking African fucking folktales.” One might say that this is a man who wants both in and out of America’s racial quagmire.
The coup-de-theatre of Jacobs-Jenkins' smart opening is that BJJ is preparing for a role in his reimagining of Boucicault’s melodrama. He’s going to play both the white hero and the white villain of the piece. As we listen to him plead to escape the restrictive racial categories of our age, he’s smearing himself with a clown's white makeup and donning a floppy-haired wig to embrace the restrictive racial categories of the past.
What follows is Boucicault’s plot, a fair number of Boucicault’s scenes, and Jacobs-Jenkins' own sensibilities and concerns. The past is, of course, a great place to have fun and to make fun of: knowledge is superiority and the present always has a surplus of hindsight. And so it’s not just race that Jacobs-Jenkins sends up, but also the cultural and theatrical sensibilities that produced the American melodrama.