Majestic Repertory Theatre’s Troy Heard describes melodrama as a theatrical form where “there is no gray zone. It’s white and black.”
But “An Octoroon” complicates the picture, and then some, to offer a scathing view of race in America, then and now.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ award-winning play — at Majestic Repertory through Nov. 18 — definitely “fits in with the theme” of the company’s “Revolutionary Season,” Heard notes. “It’s extraordinarily politically aware, if not politically correct.”
It’s also “easily the most difficult show I’ve ever tackled,” the director adds, describing it as “a white male’s interpretation of a black man’s reconstruction of a white man’s play about race.”
That’s because Jacobs-Jenkins, a 2016 MacArthur “genius” grant winner, based “An Octoroon” on Irish-born playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama “The Octoroon.” (Note the change in title articles.)
The original focuses on the doomed romance between a Louisiana plantation owner and his beloved, who bears “the mark of Cain” because “one drop in eight” of her blood comes from a black ancestor.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ performers subvert the original, however, through code-switching, with black playwright BJJ (Jason Nious) donning whiteface to portray both plantation owner George, newly arrived from France, and the scheming, villainous overseer M’Closky.
Through the magic of the theater, Boucicault (Adam Dunson) also turns up — both as himself and, after applying red makeup, as Wahnotee, “the friendly neighborhood drunk Indian,” Heard notes. “It’s such a terrible stereotype.” (Boucicault himself played Wahnotee during “The Octoroon’s” 19th-century heyday, he adds.)
Speaking of terrible stereotypes, Boucicault’s assistant (Richie Villafuerte) dons blackface to play two plantation slaves — one old and deferential, one young and mischievous.
Three female slaves (Breanna McCallum, Jillian Austin and Destiny Faith), meanwhile, “talk like it’s 21st-century America,” Heard says — at least until white characters enter, at which time they revert to Uncle Remus-style dialect. (While we’re on the subject of Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit also pops up from time to time, hopping around the stage — and into the audience.)
Watching the performers apply their racially identifying makeup during “An Octoroon’s” in-your-face opening scenes “makes the audience implicit in the action,” Heard explains, showing “the process to code-switch and transform.”
In the play’s opening scene, playwright BJJ — who notes that “most of my best friends are white” — ponders the complicated omnipresence of “the race problem in America.” That’s before he and Boucicault, who mysteriously materializes, engage in a spirited game of dueling F-bombs.
As “An Octoroon’s” action shifts to antebellum Louisiana, scenes unfold before old-fashioned backdrops reminiscent of 19th-century melodramas. (“THRILLING!” screams one that depicts black slaves picking cotton. Another, which shows a slave auction, shouts “SHOCKING!”)
Jacobs-Jenkins’ “writing is so strong — it’s hysterically funny,” Heard says. At the same time, “he peels back scabs and throws it right back in your face.”
As a result, “you’re very actively engaged with this show,” according to the director. “This is not something you can come and sit down and receive passively.” In other words, “if you want just a relaxed night at the theater,” don’t expect “An Octoroon” to fit the bill.
Heard wouldn’t be surprised if some audience members walk out rather than experience the gut punches that accompany the play’s caustic humor. Yet “people leaving is not a bad thing,” he reasons. “It shows that you provoke dialogue within them.”
■ What: “An Octoroon”
■ When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 18
■ Where: Majestic Repertory Theatre, 1217 S. Main St.
■ Tickets: $25 (majesticrepertory.com)