photo by Paul Fox
photo by Paul Fox

I knew the show was pushing the right buttons when a third of the audience left at intermission. Company One and ArtsEmerson do not offer half-baked theatre, and playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t write for the fainthearted. This production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon did not flinch as it relentlessly pushed its audience to confront unpleasant historical legacies, to think about the implications the past has for the present, and to laugh and even enjoy themselves as they did so.

An Octoroon is a modern rewrite of the 1859 blockbuster hit The Octoroon, a melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. The Octoroon’s plot swirls around forbidden love, intrigue, murder, and goodhearted (formerly rich) white people taking care of their simpleminded and doting black slaves. There’s also a red-skinned “Injun,” a large boat fire, and a crime discovered by a fascinating contraption called a camera.

An Octoroon borrows a hefty chunk of Boucicault’s original text, and enhances it with appearances from Jacobs-Jenkins himself (Brandon Green) and a drunk, angry Boucicault (Brooks Reeves), with contemporary language, and with a self-consciousness of the fact that, even with more and more talk about “diversity” and “race-awareness” and “privilege” in American public dialogue, we are really not very good at talking about race.

Summer Williams directs this gimlet-eyed production in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box. The intimate space allowed us to see what the company wanted us to see: actors purposefully making multiple trips to bring props on and off, unfurled painted backdrops allowing for old-timey scene changes, etc. (scenic design by Justin and Christopher Swader). I’m not sure what the production values of the original show must have been like (what’s “[Exit, pursued by a bear]” compared to “[Re-enters, swimming],” or “[The steamer floats on at back, burning]”?). In this melodrama, a few props, some backdrops, and a heavy dose of cueing music give us all we need to know (sound design by David Wilson).

The setting? A Louisiana plantation. The goodies? The Peyton family, great at caring for their slaves, terrible at finances or handling paperwork properly. George Peyton (Green) is the handsome scion who falls in love with the octoroon, the gentle Zoe (Shawna M. James). Southern belle Dora Sunnyside (Bridgette Hayes) obliviously pines for George, with much petticoat swishes and the best tableaux poses in the entire cast. The baddy is M’Closky (Green, again, wonderfully), a dastardly villain with no scruples and a large, menacing, well-kept beard.

So much for the protagonists of Boucicault’s play. The real stars burst forth around the traditional A-plot, in the form of various house slaves, field hands, and other characters that once lingered in the dramatic background. Harsh Gagoomal stoops to play the ancient house servant Pete, a folk-figure as ludicrous in his worship of the Peytons, and in his quarrels with the other “no-account” slaves, as he was at home in his original nineteenth century context. Gagoomal turns sprightly as he morphs into Paul, the quadroon tap-dancing prankster all the white people like to fawn over. Paul’s best friend is Wahnotee (Reeves), an American Indian who inexplicably hangs around the Terrebone estate, sniffing out rum and dangerously wielding his tomahawk.

But then you get the third tier of characters. The “official” play opens with house slaves Dido (Obehi Janice) and Minnie (Elle Borders) doing chores. They gab, they whine, they throw shade at fellow slave, Grace (Amelia Lumpkin). Janice and Borders gave hands down the funniest performances in the whole show. Whether talking about the silly white people’s problems, or looking at signs they cannot read, or dreaming about their lives changing, these two women provided some much-needed pragmatic perspective in this melodramatic maelstrom. Seriously, they’ll make you laugh.

But this begs the question: did everyone feel as comfortable laughing during the performance I attended as I did? For that matter, did everyone understand how this play uses whiteface, redface, and blackface to subversive effect? Did everyone know the guy with the rabbit head wandering around the set at certain intervals was Br’er Rabbit (Kadahj Bennett), from the Uncle Remus stories? Why did some people freak out and leave this funny, bold, incredibly smart show halfway?

This production’s ultimate success may depend on how fruitful the pre- and post-show discussion is for each audience member, be it with fellow theater-goers, or with members of the Company One creative team. Dramaturgs Ramona Ostrowski and Haley Fluke provide useful notes in the program. ArtsEmerson posted a handy WBUR article about the play and this current staging. The more you understand how deeply rooted this play is in theater history, in American history, and in contemporary attitudes towards past and current race-related violence, the better your chances are of appreciating the show, the less likely it is you will leave in an offended huff.

Company One Theatre and ArtsEmersons production of An Octoroon is playing now through February 27th, 2016, at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Emerson/Paramount Center.