Theater Review: Harrowing, Hilarious An Octoroon at the Wilma

Despite the self-consciously clever production, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' brilliant play and the excellent cast win the day.

James Ijames and Campbell O'Hare in An Octoroon at Wilma Theater. (Photo by )

James Ijames and Campbell O’Hare in An Octoroon at Wilma Theater. [Photo by Alexander Iziliaev]

In the deliberately misleading opening of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ brilliant An Octoroon, we meet the likable, awkward “Black Playwright” (a character, not Jacobs-Jenkins himself, though the two seem linked). Wearing only an undershirt and briefs (somehow “tighty-whities” doesn’t seem the right term in this context), he describes a session with his therapist. It’s every patient’s worst nightmare; psychologically and physically, the vulnerable young man lays himself very nearly bare, and emerges from it more confused than ever.

Don’t be fooled by this clever false-front. There is not a hint of writer’s block in An Octoroon, where language, imagination, and images burst forth with hilarious and harrowing abandon. I can’t remember a more intoxicating evening of theater — or a more provocative one.

What follows that opening scene is an astonishing mash-up, built around The Octoroon, an 1859 melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. An Octoroon (note the different articles) retraces much of Boucicault’s plot — the sad tale of a mixed race young woman whose life is about to be torn asunder through a change in circumstances — quite faithfully.

But throughout, Jacobs-Jenkins inserts an anarchic, wicked playfulness that simultaneously honors Boucicault’s original and blows it up. I couldn’t explain it if I tried, and in any case you should discover it for yourselves. Just know that racial issues are front and center in the most sly and shocking way — including the use of whiteface, blackface, redface, and what I can only describe as tylerperryface.

An Octoroon may be the most imaginative and ambitious play since Angels in America, whose grand sense of socio-political fantasia it shares. Jacobs-Jenkins’ script has a bit of almost everything in it: melodrama, of course, also vaudeville comedy, contemporary satire, and poignant, heartbreaking realism.

What it does not need or benefit from is an additional level of directorial intervention, but that’s what it gets at the Wilma. Joanna Settle’s production is visually splashy and has its beautiful moments. Often, though, it is impeded by self-conscious, auteurist cleverness, including extraneous physical business, far too much winking at the jokes, and the Ill Doots, an onstage band whose original music punctuates the wrong things and slows down the action. The design work (scenery by Matt Saunders, lighting by Thom Weaver, costumes by Tilly Grimes) is exceptionally strong, as we’ve come to expect from the Wilma — but the vastness of the playing space sometimes adds to the confusion.

Happily, the fine cast (along with the play, of course) carry the day. Excellent work is done by all. If I single out James Ijames, Ed Swidey, Maggie Johnson, Jaylene Clark Owens, and Campbell O’Hare, it’s because they have the richest roles (in some cases, more than one role each).

In the end, this brave, astonishing play should be seen and savored by any serious theater-goer. From the minute I read it, I hoped the Wilma would do An Octoroon; everything about it (including its difficulty) seems right for them. Quibbles aside, it’s an evening you won’t forget.

An Octoroon runs through April 10. For more information, visit the Wilma Theater’s website.