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An Octoroon (Dorfmann Theatre, NT)

The Orange Tree production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkin's extraordinary play 'An Octoroon' - originally cast by Sophie - will transfer to the National Theatre (Dorfman) in Summer 2018.

The original cast are all participating in the transfer.

More information regarding the NT/ Orange Tree production can be found here

★★★★ The Sunday Times, Patricia Nicol:

'Ned Bennett’s production, transferred from the Orange Tree, is astoundingly well acted.'

★★★★ The Times, Ann Trenaman:

'The acting is top notch. Nwosu deserves to pick up an award and Iola Evans, as Zoe, almost floats through the whole play. Cellist Kwesi Edman provides a zinging melodramatic soundtrack. [The production] dazzles.'

★★★★ Metro, John Nathan, 'a daring exploration of race':

'Ned Bennett's production is terrifically acted, stunningly so by Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole as slave girls Dido and Minnie.'

★★★★, Sarah Crompton:

'What a bold, exhilarating piece of work this award-winning play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is. Given its British premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre, the production now arrives at the National Theatre like a heat-seeking missile, releasing its energy and power, its comedy and its deep, dark anger. Above all making you think. 

[...] The astounding Ken Nwosu plays three parts; he is the playwright, the good-hearted plantation owner George and his moustache-twirling nemesis, the evil M'Closky and he dashes extravagantly between them, with much swirling of cloaks and leaping across the stage, even at one point fighting himself.

The male actors around him don blackface, and even redface, to similarly switch between parts while four of the five women stay within race and within character throughout. There's a white heiress Dora (Celeste Dodwell), who loves George to no purpose, the distraught Zoe (Iola Evans) and two smart-talking female house slaves (Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole), whose conversation has a tang of the contemporary and whose resilience provides the play with its most moving scenes. Every single one of the eight-strong cast, accompanied by cellist Kwêsi Edman, is pitch perfect and utterly superb.'

★★★★  The Stage, Francesca Peschier:

'Nwosu embodies BJJ with a wonderful, dry New York wit and provides much needed islands of stillness in a sea of manic physicality. When BJJ transforms into the play’s lead and its villain, plantation owners of his interpretation, he literally leaps between the different characters. Alistair Toovey also shows off an incredible vocabulary of movement. His deeply uncomfortable, Uncle Tom house-slave Pete is a creation of purposeful pantomimic horror.

The slave women Minnie (Vivian Oparah) and Dido (Emmanuella Cole) are funny and complex. Their speech is peppered with warm southern slang, “guuuurl.” The play focusses on their friendship and their characters are more than the sum of their suffering. 

Boucicault credits himself as the inventor of the Victorian ‘sensation scene’, where the events and effects would erupt into spectacle. Bennett and his creative team push the envelope in every aspect to “make you feel something”.

In Act II, designer Georgia Lowe’s wooden floor is pulled up and flooded. This is a metaphor for the play, in which the surface you thought was safe to stand on constantly shifts. When BJJ, pouring petrol into the water, stands with his lighter aloft, he poses another question: what if I just burn this theatre down? Will that be a sensation? He doesn’t need to, in this production the fire has already been lit.'

★★★★ The Telegraph, Claire Allfree - 'messy, exhilarating and quite unlike anything else':

'“Hi everyone, I’m a black playwright,” are the first words we hear from Jacobs-Jenkins himself, played perfectly by Ken Nwoso, as he walks on stage in his socks and pants and proceeds, by use of face paint, to turn himself into a white man to the pulverising beat of sexually derogatory hip hop. It’s a breathtaking collision of taboo and cliché – and the production has only just begun.

Director Ned Bennett (we’ll be hearing more from him) gleefully ends up every artifice of theatre, from spotlights to soundtracks, to persistently reinforce the ways in which race and representation are indelibly linked. No more so than for Jacobs-Jenkins, who both turns racial politics into a sometimes jaw-dropping theatrical fun house while making clear that, as an artist, it’s a subject he feels trapped by.

The piece deploys its own shock-and-awe tactics too – to crude but unquestionably powerful effect. It’s messy, exhilarating and quite unlike anything else – but, while it’s great to see it on the National stage, the much smaller, unsubsidised Orange Tree theatre in Richmond got there first: this production premiered there last year.'

★★★★★ britishtheatre,com, Paul T Davies:

'The ensemble is terrific. Playing the playwright, the “hero” George and the “baddie” Closky, Ken Nwosu gives an astonishingly physical, energetic and powerful performance, literally leaping from one character to another in the second half. If there is to be a better male performance than his in London this year, then I’ll want to see it. Kevin Trainor is superbly mischievous and sardonic as the inhabitant of Boucicault, and Alistair Toovey conveys internal racism perfectly as house slave Pete. The women, with even more layers of oppression on them, are excellent. Iola Evans is hauntingly vulnerable as the Octoroon Zoe, Celeste Dodwell a brilliantly spoilt Grace and Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole comment and narrate on events with wry observations and humour. Each blackout leaves you wondering what you will see next, and Br’er Rabbit, (superbly physical Cassie Clare), is the stuff of nightmares. 

With the welcome news that Nine Night is to transfer into the Trafalgar Studios in December, I can only hope that An Octoroon will follow suite to a larger theatre or a further engagement. Until then, fight for a seat for this sell out run. It’s extraordinary.'

Exeunt Magazine, JN Benjamin - 'Defiance is at the heart of its genius':

'There are fourteen characters taken on by the nine-strong ensemble. Some double or triple up. Kevin Trainor is generous in his portrayal of Playwright/Wanhotee/Lafouche. Alistair Toovey handles Assistant/Pete/Paul with gusto. Ken Nwosu offers a truly dextrous performance in his BJJ/George/M’Closky. He literally leaps from role to role with grace and eloquence and is utterly captivating to watch. And then there are the women: a pair of house slaves named Minnie and Dido and a field slave named Grace, played with chutzpah by Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole and Cassie Clare. Celeste Dodwell is magnificent as the sympathetic southern belle Dora, and the eponymous Octoroon, Zoe, is portrayed with earnestness by a sweet-faced Iola Evans.

[...] When black plays are staged, the stakes are high and they must be all things to all people. An Octoroon is defiant in the face of the expectations of blackness, and this defiance is at the heart of its genius.

That isn’t to say I didn’t find it problematic; I did. And I tried really hard to hate it. But I could not – it is a masterpiece.'

★★★★★ The Upcoming, Laura Foulger:

'“I’m a black playwright. Whatever that means,” says Ken Nwosu in the role of dramatist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, dressed only in boxers and socks on an empty stage. In this understated way begins a play of such explosiveness and sprawling ambition you wonder how it escalated so fast.

The show is sensational too, with massive set changes, tricks worthy of a magician’s show and plunges into pitch darkness. It wears its liveness at the forefront, using the audience as props here and there, eliciting screams of nervous laughter from them at others. Nodding at all kinds of theatre and film that have gone before, it’s Brechtian and melodramatic and – thanks to a surreal oversized rabbit and some jagged strobing – it’s a little Donnie Darko-esque too. There’s musing on the medium of theatre, as BJJ ponders how to surprise an audience too used to photographic manipulation, then comes up with a heart-stopping solution.

And An Octoroon is frequently uncomfortable. Sat in the round, the audience can see each other’s reactions throughout and the characters frequently refer to the whiteness of the spectators. The production’s ability to shock is at the heart of its absurd humour, but also grants it a weightiness that can’t fail to leave a mark. This is theatre with the capability both to entertain and to effect change.'

Alt Africa Magazine:

'A stellar cast take on a layered text that one might conceive as easy to deliver from their faultless performances.''

Victoria Sadler:

'When I saw the European premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon at the Orange Tree last year, I felt like my spirit had caught fire. Here was, simply, the most dynamic, radical, exhilarating, intoxicating show I had ever seen in… well, years. Maybe ever. It was ferocious, risk-taking and relentless. Yet it blended sharp humour and biting satire with cutting observations on race, racism in theatre, and the issues of the white gaze.

Add to that combustible mix, Ned Bennett’s completely leftfield uniqueness and vision and the result was a production that will forever leave its mark on me. [The new National Theatre production of] An Octoroon remains as incendiary as the day I first saw it. In fact, it has grown in magnificence. And it hits me that I’m almost 400 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the plot of the play. Do you need to hear it again? Fuck it, who knows, but here goes. 

The lights don’t even go down to signal the start of the show. Simply, Ken Nwosu (God I love this man – someone give him all the awards) strolls onto the stage, stripped down to his Y-fronts and socks, and immediately starts engaging the audience directly.

His character is “BJJ”. Basically, he’s Branden, and his monologue winds it way through his therapy sessions and thwarted ambitions as he tries to explain how, as a black man, finding common thinking and role models in theatre has been a crushing non-starter. Yet all the while Ken is slowly yanking up his y-fronts higher and higher.

And you get it and you don’t. His monologue is funny and disconcerting, yet his disassociated movements seem arresting. Until it clicks. This a sly commentary on slave auctions, when black men would be forced to prove their worth to white buyers by a display of physical health. And, boom! The tone of this play is set.

[...] It’s clever, yes, but oh my god is it funny. The first half in particular is terrific and remains probably the finest first half I have ever seen in a theatre.

[...] All I can say simply is this, my ‘best show of 2018’ is highly likely to be the same as my ‘best show of 2017.’'

★★★★ Gay Times, Chris Selman - 'a bold and thought-provoking satire':

'An Octoroon is quite unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time. [...] An Octoroon is a play which regularly challenges its audience and poses a number of thought-provoking questions, although it rarely offers answers to them. Instead, it explores the legacy of slavery and considers the attitudes towards it and the language used to denote race. It’s a challenging and potentially caustic show which is likely to divide opinion, but we found it to be an intelligent, bold and thought-provoking satire, and one of the most memorable performances we’ve seen this year.'

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Photographs: Helen Murray

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