The play ‘An Octoroon’ has been described by Ben Brantley of the New York Times as “this decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today. “Award -winning playwright Branden Jacob – Jenkins has updated the play which was originally performed in America as an 1859 melodrama. When the original story of a man who scandalously falls for a slave on his Louisiana plantation premiered in New York, it helped fan the flames of American Civil War.
This latest Queensland Theatre production has been adapted and subtly recontextualised to uncover and skewer Australia’s shameful history of slavery. Directed and adapted by Nakkiah Lui (Aboriginal artist and commentator) ‘An Octoroon’ comes to the Australian stage with a production that is incredibly powerful but also incredibly funny. I was delighted to be invited to the opening night of this hilarious satire which provided a provocative insight into the search for identity.
First bought to the stage by crowd – pleasing Irish impresario Dion Boucicault in 1859, this brash and provocative adaptation has stripped bare the original text and rebuilt it as a towering, immersive satire- a theatrical experience like no other. It perfectly blends the old and the new and will make some uncomfortable, will make some think, but most of all will entertain and make you laugh out loud as did the audience here on opening night.
On a sad note, as we take our seats, Elaine Crombie who plays Minnie, honours her grandmother – Evelyn Scott – a staunch advocate of the ‘YES’ vote in the 1967 referendum and leading Aboriginal rights advocate who had passed away that morning. It feels fitting to be honouring the ancestors who’ve paved the way by watching this powerful show. As Elaine says, “She will be watching over us today.”
Nakkiah Lui says that when she first read the ‘An Octoroon’, “It spoke to the experience and history of Aboriginal Australia. I wished I had written the play. I wondered why I hadn’t.”
The essence of the story tells of landowner George Peyton’s love for the beautiful octoroon Zoe and the ripples it creates all around them. It shows the divide not only between black and white but between field and house slaves, islanders and indigenous Australians, cruel whites and kind whites and everything in between. Lines are blurred constantly between the black and white by the use of black and white body paint and by the melding of Louisiana sensibilities with those of North Queensland. There are moments of modern music and sequins interspersed with Southern belle costumes and melodrama mixed in with moments of high drama and mystery all sitting comfortably beside some dark and often slapstick humour.
You can tell this is a labour of love for the cast. Many have to take on multiple roles which could be confusing but somehow is not through the use of simple props.
Colin Smith as BJJ/George and Mc Closky has a frenetic workload which he manages with speed and humour. Zoe, played by Shari Sebbens (who I’ve just seen in the locally filmed ‘Australia Day’) plays the forbidden love interest with suitable Southern charm and a lightness of touch.
Also from ‘Australia Day’ Anthony Standish who plays the Playwright/ Jonah and Lafouche charms with not only his accent but ability to move from character to character. Similarly Anthony Taufa shape shifts from Assistant / Pete and Paul seamlessly until I forgot that Pete and Paul were not two different people.
Elaine Crombie (Minnie) Melodie Reynolds – Diarra (Dido) and Chenoa Deemal (Grace) are all hilarious and Sarah Ogden seems to relish her role as ditsy, desperate husband seeking Southern Belle – Dora, lighting up the stage in her colourful costume.
‘An Octoroon’ is probably different to any play you’ve ever seen. It’s exciting and provocative but mostly energetic and oh, so funny. It could have made you feel very heavy and uncomfortable but this play managed to make you laugh out loud whilst also encouraging you to think about race relations in a different way, across time and place. ‘An Octoroon’ is playing at the Billie Brown Studio – Queensland Theatre as part of the Brisbane Festival. It runs until the 8th October.