Last weekend I saw a performance of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins‘ play An Octoroon, which is a reimagining of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, a popular 1859 melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. There is a kind of humor inherent in using pieces of The Octoroon, with its excessive melodrama and absurd stereotypes, such as the moments when Zoe, the titular octoroon, wallows in the tragedy of her “mulattoness.” But what I found most interesting about the play are the ways that Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins finds and creates humor for his enslaved characters, especially Dido and Minnie, a mismatched pair of enslaved women who are truly the stars of An Octoroon. By imagining these women’s stories, Jacobs-Jenkins transforms a racist play with a minor critique of southern justice into an exploration of enduring problems of racism and injustice and the misremembering of American slavery.
The biggest laugh in the performance I saw came in the play’s final scene when Dido, in the slave quarters, complains to Minnie about their owners’ problems. Minnie, who we might call a “free-spirited” slave tells Dido that she should worry less. “I know we slaves and everything,” Minnie says, “but you are not your job.” An Octoroon was remarkable to me because of the ways it explored the personalities of these enslaved women, including their senses of humor. At the same time the play crafts jokes through the circumstances of slavery that convey critical truths about the history of the institution. The humor of an enslaved woman echoing a self-help manual is tied to an important statement about the breadth of bondpeoples’ lives.
Boucicault’s 1859 play condemns certain problems of justice in the old South, represented in a thwarted effort to lynch an American Indian man accused of killing a well-loved enslaved child. An Octoroon extends that critique of racist injustice, connecting the “lynch law” that Boucicault denounced to the long history of lynching after emancipation. The play requires audiences to see connections among slavery and freedom and racism and injustice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The play also pursues a valuable historian’s goal, attempting to do justice to the experiences of the enslaved, especially through Dido and Minnie. Their conversations convey a world of experience far beyond the work of the plantation—borrowing among neighbors, romantic and sexual desires, and parties, or “slave mixers.” An Octoroon does critical imaginative work that fleshes out the history of enslaved humanity. And so it is important that Dido and Minnie are given the last word in the play, a conversation in which they dream of the kinds of opportunities they might have in a different place, under a different owner.
An Octoroon leaves audiences with the fundamental horror of the institution, the fact that it was a system built around the captive labor of individuals who were so much more than their jobs. For centuries, millions of people with ideas and dreams, people who made jokes and made friends, were bound, transported, and driven because of legal and economic systems designed to help others control the contours of their lives. What I found so interesting and important about An Octoroon is that it brings that injustice to the stage with both a sense of humor and a sense of tragedy.