Transforming the Past to Change the Present--Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon

Written by guest blogger, Verna A. FosterVerna Foster_MD_Blogger

A happy combination of circumstances led me to write about An Octoroon. I have been working on contemporary dramatic adaptations, especially plays that adapt other plays, for some years. I also take a perhaps critically unfashionable pleasure in nineteenth-century melodrama. So I was excited to read a couple of years ago that a young African-American dramatist, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, had written an adaptation of Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon. If I like this play, I decided, I will write about it.

Before I had even finished the Prologue, in which Jacobs-Jenkins as the character BJJ explains his feelings about being a black playwright and talks about melodrama with intelligence and an appreciation that appealed to my own pleasure in the genre, I was hooked. "I love this man," I thought. The journey to completing my article "Meta-melodrama: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Appropriates Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon," appearing in Modern Drama this fall, proved even more exciting than I had anticipated, allowing me to adopt all the approaches to drama that I find most fruitful.

I could work comparatively with Boucicault's and Jacobs-Jenkins's texts: the adaptation retains the plot (white hero falls in love with beautiful "octoroon," who poisons herself rather than being sold to white villain) and much of the language of its source but also incorporates striking innovations, updating, for example, the dialogue and personality of the enslaved characters. I could demonstrate how An Octoroon worked in performance in Soho Repertory Theatre's brilliant production of the play, staged in 2014 and 2015. And though semiotician Marco De Marinis once described the spectator as the "black hole" of theatre studies, I could fortunately ground my discussion of audience response (important to both Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins) in a huge number of reviews, blogs, and interviews engendered by Soho Rep's production.

An Octoroon is a "meta-melodrama" (Jacobs-Jenkins's own term). By drawing on Boucicault's aesthetic techniques, Jacobs-Jenkins makes his play work as a melodrama, arousing in its audiences contrasting emotions of laughter, pity, excitement, and horror. At the same time through refocalization, an updated sensation scene, racial cross-casting, and other Brechtian techniques, he deconstructs Boucicault's racist assumptions, making the nineteenth-century melodrama both appropriate and often uncomfortable for a racially mixed audience in the twenty-first century. Spectators found themselves getting involved in the action, laughing, and then questioning their own and other audience members' laughter.

Jacobs-Jenkins' well-attested manipulation of his audience's response adds a new wrinkle to adaptation theory. For his own contemporary political purposes, he adapts not only his source play and the melodramatic genre in which it is written but also the response that genre typically elicits. Effectively, he adapts the audience.

Since writing my article on An Octoroon, I have become even more conscious of the valuable cultural work productions of the play can perform in creating a space for the often difficult discussion of race relations in America, a discussion that seems to be more necessary now than ever. In particular, Jacobs-Jenkins's call for a multi-racial cast and for racial cross-casting (a black actor in whiteface, a white actor in redface, and a Native American actor in blackface) suggests both a comic undermining of stereotypes in the manner of Brecht and the kind of cultural and racial inclusiveness that has inspired audiences of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop Hamilton. If one wants to change the present, it is possible, in the theatre at least, to transform the past.

Verna A. Foster’s article, “Meta-Melodrama: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Appropriates Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon,” is published in MD 59:3, 2016.