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An Octoroon review at National Theatre, London – ‘asks more questions than it answers’

Ken Nwosu and Alistair Toovey in An Octoroon at National Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Murray Ken Nwosu and Alistair Toovey in An Octoroon at National Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Murray

At the National Theatre, a mixed-race actor in black face paint is repeatedly saying the “N word”.

Having transferred from the Orange Tree in Richmond, where it was staged in 2017, An Octoroon is still, as its meta-playwright quips, “surrounded by white people”. There are moments in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play that pierce right to the heart of the violence and racism that is threaded into our cultural history. It is an insurrection of minstrelsy, yet it remains questionable whether laughing at slavery can ever be truly subversive.

Nwosu reprises his role as Jacobs-Jenkins’ alter ego: BJJ. He is circled by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault (Kevin Trainor) author of the original version and once the most popular dramatist of the Victorian stage.

The play tells the story of Zoe, an “octoroon girl”, the one-eighth black daughter of a slave and slave owner, who goes from being a free woman to someone’s property due to an administrative oversight. In adapting this play, BJJ lays bare its unreserved racism and ramps up the ridiculousness.

Performed in the round, Ned Bennett’s production is relentless, with the shocks coming thick and fast. It has gained in pace and intensity since its first outing. Elliot Griggs’ lighting design is extraordinary, moving from unembellished houselights to actual fireworks. It is anarchic, messy and gobsmacking.

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. But, when these women are later shown oiled and stripped on a slave block, it is hard to separate this production from Hollywood’s frequent reduction of exploited black and brown bodies to set dressing. The brutality is under-interrogated.

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.

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Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ radical reboot of the 19th-century racist melodrama is sensational but asks more questions than it answers