Capital Stage, the city’s cutting-edge theater company, opened its 13th season earlier this month with one of the best productions of a great play I have ever seen (and in my 70 years I’ve seen a lot of great plays). The play is “An Octoroon,” and it is such a profoundly important play (Obie Award best new play of 2014) that it demands the kind of attention it is getting in this production.
Let me start my long list of plaudits with the director of the production. Judith Moreland is a first-time director at Cap Stage. Her career to date has largely focused on acting, but her directing talents have been put to use previously at the UCLA School of Theater, where she currently teaches. In constructing the intricate scenes in this particular play, she lets the actors do their stuff but adds some touches that elevate the production. In particular, her choice of the song sung by the entire cast and the photograph displayed at the back of the stage at one point are critical moments in the play.
About the play itself, I really can’t say enough. Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins when he was 27 years old, it’s a masterpiece by a brilliant writer. For his play, Jacobs-Jenkins has taken the entire script from an 1859 play entitled “The Octoroon” and inserted it into his play. The original “Octoroon” was penned by the then-famous Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault, after he had visited the American south and witnessed the treatment of the black slaves there.
In his play, Jacobs-Jenkins places himself as a character (a “black playwright”) who takes the lead role in the play within the play (the original “Octoroon”). The play opens as he introduces himself and paints his face with white makeup, since he will be playing the two main white characters in Boucicault’s play. A second actor soon appears. He makes himself up with a red face (so as to play a Native American in the Boucicault play). A third character, an “intern,” is also introduced in these early scenes. He makes himself up with black face since he will play the male slave characters.
And then Boucicault’s play begins, and the script is followed closely, with only a few significant changes when the three men we first met break from their roles to speak to the audience and in the dialogue between the female slaves.
Boucicault builds his story around an enlightened white man, George, who is about to inherit a slave plantation (Terrebonne). Zoe, the octoroon of the title (octoroon is the word used to describe a person whose ancestry is one-eighth black and seven-eighths white; quadroon describes a person who is one-quarter black; mulatto is a person who is half black), lives on the plantation as a supposedly freed slave, and George, unbeknownst to her, is in love with her. But as the action begins, he is being wooed by another woman, Dora, who is a wealthy landowner who could save Terrebonne from bankruptcy if George married her.
The conflict in Boucicault’s play is caused by M’Closky, a racist carpetbagger who also covets Zoe (as a mistress, knowing her to be of mixed race). M’Closky connives to gain ownership of Terrebonne as a way to add to his wealth (and to secure the “privileges” attendant thereto, which would include making Zoe his mistress). The other characters are three female slaves, two male slaves, and the aforementioned Native American (called an Indian in the script).
Boucicault’s play was intended as a melodrama with the intent presumably to portray some of the aspects of slavery that might not have been apparent to his audiences. In this regard, the dialogue between the female slaves (updated in Jacobs-Jenkins script) gives the play much of its humor. And this play is laugh-out-loud hilarious in many scenes. More humor is provided in the switching of roles by the Jacobs-Jenkins character (as he occasionally plays both George and M’Closky in the same scenes). And the role of Dora is a down-right hoot, especially as performed by Lexy Fridell, who is terrific.
But so is the entire cast. It is headed by David Everett Moore as the playwright-turned-actor. His performance is worthy of the highest praise, as he easily passes as both white men, the saintly George and the evil M’Closky, even as he is really playing the black playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins. In one critical scene, Mr. Moore has a knock-down drag-out fight with himself as George and M’Closky exchange blows and wrestle with each other. It is a hilarious scene, but no small task for an actor, and Mr. Moore manages to make it completely believable by playing it straight. (The fight scenes were choreographed by Matt K. Miller, who also stars as the Native American and the judge who oversees the sale of the slaves later in the play.)
Other standout performances are rendered by Willem Long as the intern who plays the male slaves, and by Alexandra Barthel, Taylor Vaughn and Tiffanie Mack, who play the female slaves. Ms. Barthel and Ms. Vaught are especially effective in portraying the friendship they share, to the point that, even with a soap-opera aura to their scenes, I was fully committed to both of them, hoping their friendship would endure. And, not to be ignored by any means, Carissa Meagher is excellent as Zoe, innocent of any sense that she is a love interest as she tries to convince the man who loves her to take an interest in Dora (who has asked her to intercede on her behalf). Juan Chavez rounds out the cast.
As in all Capital Stage productions, the technical work is outstanding. Eric Broadwater has designed the set, which is a fascinating work in and of itself. Timothy McNamara is credited for the lighting design, Gail Russell for the costumes, Corey Winfield for hair and makeup, and Shannon Mahoney arranged the non-fight-scene choreography. And, finally, once again Ed Lee has perfectly designed and directed all of the sound, of which there is much, both music and effects. Graham Sobelman directed the music that closes the play.
I have mentioned that “Octoroon” is loaded with humor, and it is. It’s a very funny play. But it is much more than a comedy. And it is much more than a melodrama. What this play really addresses, more than anything else, is a history of injustice and our current society, which too easily finds excuses to avoid the truth of the social and legal ills that once existed and that still exist.
In that regard, “An Octoroon” may be too heavy for some, but it needs to be seen. This production of it needs to be seen.
Performances of “An Octoroon” at Capital Stage continue through October 1. Tickets and information are available at the box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464), or online (www.capstage.org).