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An Octoroon (The Orange Tree, Richmond)

**JUST ANNOUNCED: An Octoroon will be transferring to the National Theatre in Summer 2018! More information can be found here.**


What you gonna do once you free? You just gonna walk up in somebody house and be like,‘Hey. I’m a slave. Help me?’

The European premiere of the OBIE Award-winning play 'An Octoroon' by Pulitzer Prize nominee Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Ned Bennett returns to the Orange Tree to direct following Pomona, which transferred to the National Theatre and Royal Exchange Theatre.

"The play uses the plot of the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon…as the starting point for a bigger, wilder, more hilarious play about the tremendous, often tragic difficulties of identity, and life, for us all." The New Yorker 

Judge Peyton is dead, and his plantation Terrebonne is in financial ruins. Peyton’s handsome nephew George arrives as heir apparent, and quickly falls in love with Zoe, a beautiful ‘octoroon’*. But, the dastardly M’Closky has other plans — for both Terrebonne and Zoe. (*an 'Octoroon' is a person of one-eighth black ancestry)

"A wildly imaginative new work" Village Voice, New York

"coruscating comedy of unresolved history… may turn out to be this decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today" Ben Brantley, New York Times

★★★★ The Guardian, Susannah Clapp: 'Bold, excessive and surging; Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s ingenious reworking of a 19th-century slave drama continues an exceptional new lease of life at this tiny theatre':

'What Paul Miller has done at the Orange Tree is exceptional. He took over the tiny, congenial, staid theatre three years ago, just as it was stripped of its Arts Council grant. He has made a name for it as a beacon of experiment. New writers. New directors. New actors. But he has also combined invention with rediscovery. 

Villain and hero are played dextrously by Ken Nwosu, who is required to take both parts in a fight: dark moustache versus a blond wig. Kevin Trainor is a fine, buoyant Boucicault. Special honour is due to Vivian Oparah who, fresh from the National Youth Theatre, mesmerises as a gorgeously gobby slave girl. An Octoroon ended its sold-out, extended run yesterday – but it will bob up again. '


★★★★ The Independent, Paul Taylor: 'This is an energising production, unafraid of the necessary madcap messiness':

'Director Ned Bennett and his cast are wonderfully on the wavelength of the hectic ingenuity and high-energy ambivalence of the approach to the material in their European premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Obie Award-winning play. 

Black actors wear whiteface (juggling blonde wig and moustache-mask and getting into fierce fights with himself, Nwosu performs a brilliantly berserk treble as gentle George and the dastardly villain, M'Closky). White actors wear blackface. Boucicault himself, amusingly resurrected by Kevin Trainor as a squiffy Irishman, marvels that you can now use performers of colour (“You really save on make-up”), but obstinately smears on the red slap so that he can reprise his hit role as Wahnotee, the Native American wrongly accused of murdering a slave boy.

In convening a dialogue between past and present, Jacobs-Jenkins's most engaging and expressive creations are the two sassy house-slaves, Minnie and Dido (beautifully played Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole), who banter about life as a 19th century chattel and the uncertain future in an idiom closer to Queen Latifah: “What you gonna do once you free? You just gonna walk up somebody house and be like, 'Hey, I'm a slave help me?’”

This is an energising production, unafraid of the necessary madcap messiness, and it whets the appetite for Gloria, another piece by the same writer which has its English premiere at Hampstead Theatre next month'

★★★★ The Guardian, Michael Billington, ' blackface meets whiteface in quicksilver drama':

'The actor who plays BJJ – in this case, the astonishing Ken Nwosu – goes on to don whiteface and appear as both the heroic George and the villainous M’Closky. This leads to a hilarious scene in which he switches between the two characters engaged in a fight to the death.

the execution perfectly matches the quicksilver skill of the writing. In addition to the resourceful Nwosu, who deserves to be honoured in end-of-the-year awards, there is a host of fine performances. Kevin Trainor as the bombastic Boucicault, Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole as a pair of closely bonded slaves, Celeste Dodwell as a cracked Southern belle and Iola Evans as the eponymous heroine are all first rate.'

★★★★  The Times, Dominic Cavendish, 'This play about race issues is the theatrical version of the Chapmans painting over Goya prints — messy, inspired and invigorating':

'Just as we’re falling for the sweetness of Iola Evans as George’s beloved, Zoe, we get a burst of Celeste Dodwell in sunglasses as Dora, a brash mockery of an outspoken Southern belle. Oh, and George and M’Closky are played in whiteface by the same actor who plays Jacobs-Jenkins — a name-making lead turn from Ken Nwosu. [...]

it’s too ingenious to resist for long in its sincere attempts to repurpose something both significant and outmoded. Ned Bennett’s production serves it beautifully too. Kevin Trainor plays a swearily Irish Boucicault, sticks on redface to play a Native American. The white Alistair Toovey sticks on blackface to play “Nigger Pete”. Even the props have more than one identity: a plastic white baby doll wears blackface to represent a slave’s child. Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole play two slaves who talk sincerely, but in contemporary vernacular. The conventions of melodrama are invoked and inverted. It’s messy, inspired, invigorating. An impressive calling card from a writer who is having a bit of a London summer: his play Gloria opens at the Hampstead Theatre in June.'


★★★★, Matt Trueman, 'Branden Jacobs-Jenkins remixes this 19th century play into a dazzling deconstruction of racial representation':

'As in his first play Neighbors, seen at HighTide in 2013, Jacobs-Jenkins deploys minstrelsy to expose and exaggerate the racism in such representation. Ken Nwosu plays the playwright himself, BJJ, who "can't even wipe my ass" without someone reading a racial critique. He applies white face to play Boucicault's hero George and his villain M'Closky. Kevin Trainor, meanwhile, plays Boucicault himself, redding up as the near-dumb Wahnotee, while a third actor, Alistair Toovey, plays two slaves in thick black face, looking to god like he's just hopped off a jar of Robinson's marmalade. It's all deeply shocking, but darkly hilarious; satire at its most scornful.

With a savage and sophisticated sense of irony, Jacobs-Jenkins sinks his teeth into the relationship between representations and reality. His hero's blonde and blue-eyed; his villain, moustachioed with a mwah-hah-hah laugh. Iola Evans' sweet-faced Zoe gets a bow and a blue-dress, the picture of pretty innocence, while two house salves, Minnie and Dido (Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole) spout sass like home-girls, undercutting our stock sense of both slaves and contemporary black women at the same time.

The original play sometimes disappears beneath all this, with the basic plot over-burdened by everything loaded on top, but Jacobs-Jenkins leaves no escape from the connotations that attach themselves to colour, traits and physicality. They become infused and entangled with feelings, and both Elliot Griggs' lighting and George Dennis' sound, channel-hopping between hip hop and Theo Vidgens' smooth cello score, makes clear the manipulation at play. That, Jacobs-Jenkins suggests, was Boucicault's crime. He twisted the truth for the sake of drama.

This is such fine-tuned theatrical thinking – from ideas of inheritance and dilution in the nature of an octoroon itself, to the focus on Boucicault's camera plot-device that sharpens the question of how we see past and present. When blousey Dora (a riotous Celeste Dodwell) poses for a portrait, she tries out postures of stock femininity, slut drops and saloon dolls, before opting for a bizarre balancing act.

Ned Bennett's production dives right in to the dark, testing humour, and draws committed and brave performances from a game cast. His DIY staging both dissects theatre and revels in it, and Georgia Lowe's design is deceptively simple, with freshly peeled paint a neat mark of the play's contrived authenticity. Everything tunes you into the way you watch the play and so changes the way you see the world. That's the mark of a good show: An Octoroon is as good as an eye transplant.'

★★★★  The Stage, Fergus Morgan, 'totally bonkers':

'Ned Bennett's production – the piece's European premiere – realises the madcap mania of Jacob-Jenkins' text well. [The] cast – led by the furiously multi-roling Ken Nwosu [...] capture its hectic perversity, aided by Georgia Lowe's vaudevillian design, Elliot Griggs' virtuosic lighting, and Theo Vidgen's cinematic score.

An Octoroon is a play that refuses to kowtow to the audience's preconceptions, that dances with stereotypes and teases relentlessly with sly race politics. At times, this playfulness can lapse into gimmick, and one wishes Jacob-Jenkins would strip away the artifice and make a simple, unobscured point. But that denial is all part of the fun in this daringly deconstructive rollercoaster.'

★★★★, Aliya Al-Hassan:

'In the opening scene, Ken Nwosu plays the role of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins(BJJ) himself. He appears in his underwear and socks, recalling a possibly fictional conversation with his therapist. He is natural, funny and completely engaging.

Nwosu swtiches between three roles; that of the frustrated playwright, a gentle Southern plantation owner George and a murderous slaveowner M'Closky. Each character has their own wigs, hats and moustaches. Nwosu starts by switching the costumes deftly, but as the speed ramps up, begins to forget M'Closky's moustache or puts it on askew, which adds to the farce of the scenes. A fight scene between the two men is both manically funny and cleverly executed.

Among a very strong cast, one of the highlights of the production is the dialogue between slaves Minnie (Vivian Oparah) and Dido (Emanuella Cole), showcasing smart mouths and some very modern parlance. Oparah is particularly sharp and funny, with a beautifully natural pace and rhythm. Cole's subtle and nuanced performance, particularly in the final scene, is perfectly judged.

Celeste Dodwell has great fun with the role of heiress Dora. In her increasing desperation to attract the attention of George she is affected, totally over the top and occasionally hilarious. Her massacre of the southern American accent and, what she believes, of the stereotype of the Southern Belle, is painfully funny. Kevin Trainor also excels in his role as Playwright: effete, camp and overdramatic.

Slavery and the black experience in America are subjects that are challenging to a British audience; can we laugh at black stereotypes? How many divides in society are as a result of race? This production demands thought and consideration. It forces the audience to confront uncomfortable issues and yet remains funny and incredibly engaging. Another triumph for the Orange Tree Theatre.'


Evening Standard, Fiona Mountford: 'Provocative [and] Playful':

'With this dazzlingly playful and sharply provocative look at ideas of race, representation and the nature of theatre itself, the punchy Orange Tree, which scandalously lost its regular Arts Council funding three years ago, proves itself once more to be one of the most risk-taking theatres in the capital.

The prologue is unbeatable, as BJJ (Ken Nwosu, terrific) mulls in a firecracker of a monologue on what it means to be a ‘black playwright’. Ned Bennett’s dancing, darting production – which teasingly includes white-face make-up for a black actor – then takes us to Louisiana for a stripped-down whizz through the original story.

Particularly cherishable down in Louisiana are two black slaves (Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole) who now speak in a sassily 21st century idiom about the need for some me-time. Nwosu continues to swap roles, and wigs, with aplomb. A postscript question for the Arts Council: could the Orange Tree have its money back now, please?' 'Dynamic, Fresh & Ruthlessly Frank’:

'About thirty seconds in to An Octoroon, I knew I was at the start of witnessing something very special; by the end, I had been completely blown away by the bite and verve of this electric production that puts race, and specifically its impact on representation in theatre, squarely in its sights.

The acting performances across the board are impressive but special mention has to be given to Ken Nwosu who doesn’t so much as double up but triple up to play the three central characters – the contemporary playwright, his alter ego, George – the hero in the story – as well as the villain, M’Closky. His energy levels are awesome, as is his agility in jumping between the emotions and nuances of these different parts. But his delivery is also impressive. The play actually starts with a long soliloquy from him as BJJ, the playwright, but such is Ken’s command of the stage that time spent with him alone is captivating and intriguing.  

At the finale, BJJ remarks that the intention was to make us feel something, and, well, that is achieved with ease. There are moments of joy and hilarity, and there are moments of fear and confusion. And there are also the very necessary moments of pained discomfort. This show is terrific. If I could take you all to see this, I would.'

New York Times, Matt Wolf: 'Ripping Up the Rule Book in ‘An Octoroon':

'Some plays rip up the rule book, but not many, by the end, tear up the stage floor itself. Then again, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon” is such a singular achievement that one watches with a mixture of disbelief and awe as the young English director Ned Bennett meets the audaciousness of the writing with a reckless bravura all his own.

But even the most progressive audience may find that this production of “An Octoroon” carves out territory all its own. Rarely do you encounter a giant rabbit sharing what is left of the stage with characters in blackface, whiteface or redface. Then there’s a barely clothed stand-in for the playwright who proceeds early on to make good on one of many eyebrow-raising stage directions in the text: “He very, very slowly and very, very stoically proceeds to give himself a powerful wedgie.” Excuse me?

Stick with it, though, and the apparent anarchy of both the play and Mr. Bennett’s thrilling embrace of it snap into place, the title riffing on a popular 19th-century melodrama (“The Octoroon” by Dion Boucicault) to make all manner of nonpolemical points about race, identity and the very workings of the theater. You’ll leave either scratching your head or exhilarated, as I was, by the production and the comparatively recent English embrace of the full range of Off Broadway fare.

Pausing on occasion to engage the audience directly, the actors appear as if embarked on a prolonged dare. And playing a panoply of roles that include the authorial surrogate known as B.J.J., Ken Nwosu shifts from earnest to florid and back again, inviting us into the apparent fun house that is Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s imagination — until the writer locates an image so potent that a playgoer’s ready laughter starts to freeze.'


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Photographs: Richard Davenport/ The Other Richard

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