Capital Stage must enjoy playing with dynamite, because their current show provocatively tackles a loaded topic: the racism and slavery that are part of our country’s history, and the degree to which some old racial attitudes persist today.
The modern-day black playwright at the center of the story is interested in a play from 1859 called “An Octoroon.”
That title refers to a mixed-race person who is one-eighth black. It’s part of a precise set of terms widely used a hundred years ago – someone who was one-quarter black was called a "quadroon."
Gradually, the saga of our playwriting protagonist fades into a rewritten version of the 1859 melodrama. It’s a sort of mashup of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Gone with the Wind,” replete with fuzzy-wuzzy recorded music, recalling early black-and-white one-reelers.
But time is malleable in this show. Characters from the 19th century press a remote control and teleport into the present, dancing to throbbing electropop and offering sarcastic observations about modern times.
Just as suddenly, we flash back into melodrama, like this scene in which the young heroine, who is one-eighth black, confesses her hidden identity to a handsome white heir, who has just proposed. In 1859, that kind of marriage was impossible.
Girl: “George, you cannot marry me. The laws forbid it!”
White heir: “Forbid it?”
Girl: “There is a gulf between it, as wide as your love, as deep as my despair….”
The young girl is the illegitimate daughter of a recently-deceased plantation owner and one of his female slaves. She grew up as a member of the family. But she is one-eighth black and still a slave in the eyes of the law. When the plantation is sold, the girl is auctioned off, purchased by a villainous white overseer with a bullwhip, who lusts after the girl.
Auctioneer: “Mr. McClosky has bid $25,000 for the octoroon. Is there… any… other… bid? For the first time, $25,000. Last time! To Jacob McCloskey, the octoroon girl Zoe, $25,000!”
This contemporary retelling of an old melodrama throws in several wild cards. There’s a black actor performing in whiteface, a Latino actor in blackface, and a white actor in redface, playing a tribal warrior with a feathered headdress.
The crazy kaleidoscope is a tad disorienting, on purpose – it’s the playwright’s crafty way of getting you to reconsider things. And the show constantly grabs your attention by breaking rules of good taste – using terms like “piccaninny” and “happy darkie”, to say nothing of the n-word.
“An Octoroon” is a remarkable and innovative show, a raucous comedy fueled by deadly serious intent. It’s an audacious, high-risk maneuver, but it manages to shoot the moon. You won’t forget this one, if you have the nerve to see it.
“An Octoroon” continues through Oct. 1 at the Capital Stage in Sacramento. Read more about "Octoroon" playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in NPR's 2015 profile.