Making Jokes and History in An Octoroon

Dido and Minnie in An Octoroon

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.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

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.

Scene from An Octoroon (credit: Gerry Goodstein)

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.

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Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in African American history, particularly black protest in the early United States. He is at work on a manuscript titled “The Price of Citizenship,” which examines black activists’ efforts to construct American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Follow him on Twitter @63cjb.

Comments on “Making Jokes and History in An Octoroon

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    Yes, it was an extraordinarily brave production. The night I saw it another gasp came, at the end, when Minnie says to Dido, depressed at being called “Mammy” by the title character, “You can’t be bringing your work home with you.” Jacobs-Jenkins’s decision to end the play with these two darker-skinned characters is smart — Zoe (“the Octoroon”) might have been the most important and sympathetic character in 1859 but is not now. Whether she ends up married to the white master is far less interesting than what happens to the rest of the plantation’s inhabitants and how they come to know what they know about their options for the future.

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    Unfortunately, I saw a version of the play at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater several months ago, and it was a depressing example of how a decent script can go off the deep end, in the hands of the wrong director. This version was all about postmodern cleverness, including white actors in blackface speaking in the most humiliating kind of Uncle Remus accents. The young white female director, lauded Off-Broadway, went for “black” comedy, pun intended, in a slapstick, new-circus style, that I (African American) and my white friends found truly insulting. We couldn’t HEAR the play, for seeing the production! Instead of being left with “the horror of the institution,” we were given a bad joke at the expense of our people. I felt cheated.

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      I don’t intend to invalidate any aspect of the experience you and your friends had watching The Wilma’s production, but it’s worth mentioning that—having read Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and seen that production at The Wilma to which you refer—the race of each of the actors in that production (and the use of blackface, whiteface, and redface) was all as dictated by Jacobs-Jenkins in the script. He is very specific about his preferences and requirements for the race of each the actors, and The Wilma was true to those instructions.

      I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the intersection of race and gender in the play; I’m struck that the cross-racial play Jacobs-Jenkins demands in the script (mentioned above) does not extend to any of the female characters in the plot. Yet Minne and Dido’s relationship with one another feels so real, so powerful—such a strong assertion of their humanity.

      In fact, one of the things I felt like The Wilma’s production did best was to highlight Minnie and Dido at the heart of the story, really drawing out in powerful ways many of the aspects you so thoughtful address above, Chris. Thanks for the insights.

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