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An Octoroon | Interview with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Playwright

Brandon Jacob-Jenkins

What is An Octoroon and what is it about?

An Octoroon started out as a ‘radical adaptation’ of a play from the 1860s by Dion Boucicault which is called The Octoroon, but it somehow wound up something slightly different – or maybe even its own thing. The original Octoroon is set in on a failing Louisiana plantation in the antebellum era (the period prior to the American Civil War) and mainly concerns the fate of a young woman living on it, and how she gets caught up in the various scheming surrounding its foreclosure and takeover. 

What does the word ‘octoroon’ mean?

An ‘octoroon’ is a very antiquated word used to describe a person considered to be ‘one-eighth black’ – so crudely-speaking the equivalent of having one black great-grandparent. At the time of the play’s composition, to be even ‘one-sixteenth black’ in many states was to still be ‘black enough’ for the legal system to discriminate against you.

What inspired you to adapt/write this play?

I first encountered the play as a college student in an English seminar, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, how bizarre and disturbing and kind of dumb and offensive it is – while also still being, somehow, a great piece of theatre – which, let me say, is different from a great piece of writing. Anyway, my obsession just got to a point where I was desperate to see the thing staged and the easiest way to make that happened seemed to be to do it myself. Of course, my work did sort of take me in a stranger direction.

How does it feel seeing that journey of the play?

Kind of crazy. The play was commissioned by Soho Rep – this tiny, tiny, tiny 70-seat theatre in downtown Manhattan – and that’s all I was ever writing it for. And yet this is the play that’s managed to follow me wherever I go. I’ve been standing in the middle of a gas station in Texas, minding my business, pumping gas, and had someone will come up to me and say ‘Psst! I loved an An Octoroon.’ Also, the first time any of An Octoroon was ever heard out loud was actually on the Olivier stage. I met Mark Ravenhill back in 2010 and randomly mentioned I was working on an adaptation of The Octoroon. We got to fanning out over Boucicault and he was like, ‘They’re doing London Assurance at the National! We should get them to get you to do something!’ Next thing I know, I’m being flown over the pond for some public platform or pre-show event featuring a public reading of two scenes from this play I hadn’t even finished yet! So there’s a weird full-circle feeling of homecoming happening right now.

How are you finding the UK audience’s response differs from the US audience’s response?

I’ve been very moved by the positive response the play has received here. For so long, all I heard from British theatres is that my work was ‘too American’ – a response which I still don’t understand. But we’re also still in previews – so for all I know, the audience might start rioting!

In the play script you’re very specific about the race of the actors playing each character, and obviously the play features a character ‘whiting up’ as well as blackface and redface. Was that always integral to your vision of the production?

I think it’s important to mention that there is something slightly tongue-in-cheek about the casting breakdown you refer to, because I think a lot of what the play is trying to do – and a lot of the work I was trying to do at the time – is draw attention to inherent fallacies and lapses of logic in racial signification or representation. I’m more interested in the politics of actual bodies onstage – the ways audiences are conditioned or expected to project onto or identify with certain bodies versus others. How have our feelings about various bodies (brown, black or otherwise) as conduits for meaning or emotional value changed over time – or not?

Also: Blackface is a no-no in the States – and theoretically should be everywhere – but I was always interested in unpacking the ‘no-no.’ Why? Is it a no-no for everyone or just for specific people? What happens if I put a non-black and non-white actor in blackface – is it still ‘offensive’? If so, why? Let’s talk about what exactly is upsetting us, because it’s not the paint’s fault. Paint is just paint.

Anyway, that’s why the cast list is such a crazy document – there is an element of me trying to shore up conversation. I always say ‘Race’, to me, feels like the biggest theatre game out there.

What is your favourite play?

Do I have to choose? I like a lot of plays! A Streetcar Named Desire?

Who inspires you as a writer?

Besides Tennessee? Caryl Churchill, Octavia Butler, Brian Friel, Toni Morrison, Howard Ashman, Michael Bennett, Lloyd Richards, Alice Munro, Euripides.

What shows are you looking forward to seeing whilst you’re in London?

I’m kind of obsessed with Brian Friel – so I’m excited about Translations. Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre. Machinal at the Almeida. And then the LIFT festival, curated by the very wonderful David Binder, is happening, so I’m dropping in on a couple of those shows. I’m especially looking forward to seeing the first three hours of Taylor Mac’s utterly genius A 24-Decade History of Popular Music for the third time. Fun Home by my buddies Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori and Sam Gold at the Young Vic. There’s a lot of Americans here this summer, which is weird.

Are there any other plays you’d like to write a response to?
I just did a couple of crazy adaptations in the last year –  a version of The Bacchae called Girls for two dozen college kids, which was insane and a lot of fun, and then an adaptation of Everyman called Everybody – so I’m actually taking a little break to focus on some other stuff.

What is your favourite line in An Octoroon?

I don’t know why, but it’s one of Pete’s line from Boucicault’s original, which is also in this version. Perhaps because of Boucicault’s weird attempt at vernacular? Anyway, it’s: ‘What am gonna come ob’ us?!’

 

Find out more about An Octoroon.