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by Martin Denton · October 1, 2006
The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault, is a lively and exciting melodrama of the kind they don't write for the stage anymore (though they write them for TV quite a lot; they're called soap operas). Set on a plantation in Louisiana in 1859, it's centered around the love between handsome George Peyton and beautiful Zoe, a love that's not only forbidden (for reasons I will get to in a moment), but also severely in jeopardy in that Zoe is also loved by both the kind-hearted but unsuccessful current overseer Salem Scudder and the evil and villainous former overseer Jacob M'Closky; while George is being pursued by Dora Sunnyside, the rich daughter of a neighboring plantation owner, whom George just may need to marry if he is to save his aunt's plantation. George's late uncle had been ruined financially—deliberately in one case and inadvertently in the other—by his overseers; unless a remittance arrives in time from Liverpool, the Peyton place (sorry) will have to be sold at auction.
Boucicault also works into this yarn such thrilling details as a fire aboard a ship, a battle between a Cherokee Indian and one of the main characters, and a newfangled camera, one of whose plates (or "dishes," as one of the slaves guilelessly refers to them) contains incriminating evidence of murder and thievery. It's pretty much non-stop action and romance, the kind of simplistic but riveting drama on which the American entertainment industry was built. Boucicault, the Irish American playwright who also gave us The Poor of New York, The Shaughraun, and London Assurance, knew a thing or three about stagecraft.
But of course I've been deliberately talking around the Big Sensational Concept that fuels the whole play, and that's the plot point given away in its title: Zoe is an Octoroon. She is the daughter of a quadroon slave and the late Mr. Peyton; Mrs. Peyton, for reasons of her own that are never clearly divulged, has raised Zoe almost as her own child (and as a free woman). With only one-eighth Negro blood, Zoe easily "passes" for white, and of course George doesn't realize that she is what she is until it's too late. (The laws of the time, and certainly the mores of slave state culture, forbade miscegenation, and as anybody who's ever seen Show Boat knows, even one drop of Negro blood was enough to make someone "black" in the eyes of the law.)
Eventually comes the big "confession" scene, where Zoe tells George the truth:
That is the ineffaceable curse of Cain. Of the blood that feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black—bright red as the rest may be, that one drop poisons all the flood; those seven bright drops give me love like yours—hope like yours—ambition like yours—llife hung with passions like dewdrops on the morning flowers; but the one black drop gives me despair, for I'm an unclean thing—forbidden by the laws—I'm an Octoroon!
Dramaturgically, it's not much different from Marguerite telling Armand that their love can never be; but in 1859 (two years before the Civil War) this was sensational stuff in the United States, and in 2006 it's almost impossible to listen to.
Which brings me to the controversial aspect of presenting The Octoroon after 150 years of progress in race relations: the whole world of the play—which was written to be performed and seen exclusively by white people, remember—is predicated on an assumption of the inferiority of blacks to whites. This sits so uneasily on modern audiences that it can't help but inform the experience of seeing this play, even though race (as opposed to slavery) is not the main thing that it's about. Why produce it, then; why see it?
Because this is our heritage. Slavery happened in the United States; plays depicting what used to be called the South's "peculiar institution" in a sentimental manner happened too. We need to see them up close and understand them and the insidious effects they had/still may have on attitudes in our nation.
And Metropolitan Playhouse has, bravely but not unsurprisingly, made the smart choice to let us see The Octoroon, warts and all, more or less as it was, certainly unexpurgated. Boucicault's flair for drama still shines through, even as the broad style in which he wrote sometimes clashes with the more realistic acting style preferred by contemporary performers and even as words and notions that feel horrendously racist often make our skin crawl.
Roe's staging is brisk and exciting, played out on a spare but effective set that's moved around by the actors as required; costumes by Melissa Estro are especially effective, notably the gowns worn by the female characters, which peg them on the socioeconomic scale with great efficiency.
The performances are variable, with particularly effective work coming from the ladies in the cast. Sarah Hankins, in her New York debut, is terrific as Dora, imbuing her with qualities that make us root for her even though she's clearly not the heroine of the piece. Wendy Merritt finds real goodness in Mrs. Peyton, letting us understand that in her time it was possible for a woman to view herself as a good "Christian" without once doubting her entitlement to own other human beings. In the title role, Margaret Loesser Robinson does a beautiful job playing passive tragedy, managing to make Zoe both fragile and sturdy at the same time.
The piece's five African American characters are portrayed with dignity and humanity by Lee Dobson, Alia Chapman, Alex Ubokudom, Tryphena Wade, and Justin Stevens. Arthur Acuna is very effective as Wahnotee, the Indian, who figures prominently in the machinery of the plot despite speaking no English. (The presence of this character offers interesting insight into the attitudes of the times: Wahnotee is depicted as a godless savage addicted to "fire water," an even more demeaning stereotype than that applied to the play's black characters.)
The Octoroon is tough to relax into and just enjoy in 2006. But this was provocative popular entertainment 150 years ago, and from that there is plenty to glean, even today.
Reviewed by Nancy Ellen Shore
Published on BackStage.com on October 4, 2006.
Copyright 2006 VNU Business Media, Inc. All rights reserved.
When Dion Boucicault’s provocative melodrama The Octoroon opened in New York in 1859, its audience’s deep divisions over slavery mirrored the bitter North-South rift that would soon erupt into civil war. And while America has done much to eradicate racism in the past 147 years, its ugly residue remains, making this vibrant, richly detailed, movingly acted revival a welcome addition to fall’s theatre offerings.
Set on a Southern plantation run by a good-hearted widow, the play centers on the doomed love affair between her dead husband’s illegitimate daughter, Zoe, and her European-educated nephew, George. Zoe bears the stigma “octoroon”—her mother was a quadroon slave, the daughter of a mulatto and a white. Boucicault is a master of the “well-made play,” and his fast-paced tale of romance, intrigue, lust, greed, murder, and prejudice—complete with stolen letters, a fire, and poison—is peppered with impassioned speeches voicing the ideas that were sweeping the country toward war and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Director Alex Roe’s production is a masterpiece of inspired staging that brims with life, featuring brilliant ensemble work: Wendy Merritt’s kind, stoic Mrs. Peyton, determined to preserve the values of her beloved husband; Michael Hardart’s confident, idealistic George; Alia Chapman’s hymn-singing Grace—especially moving when she begs the man who bought her husband to buy her; Alex Ubokudom’s well-meaning, obedient Solon; Sarah Hankins’ Dora, a giddy Southern belle whose integrity is revealed through adversity; Tryphena Wade’s capable slave Dido; and Justin Stevens’ teenage Paul, irreverent toward both races and Boucicault’s forward-looking embodiment of the first generation of free blacks. And as the plantation’s head slave, Old Pete, bent over his cane but still commanding respect through his wisdom, humor, and spiritual strength, Lee Dobson creates a memorable, richly nuanced portrait. When Old Pete climbs onto the table in the disturbing slave-auction scene, insisting he can work despite his age and saying, “See, I can still dance,” as he hops about pathetically, he drives home the utter degradation and dehumanization of slavery.
Equally engaging are Ray McDavitt’s well-meaning Southern gentleman; Arthur Acuna’s intensely physical Native American; John Rengstorff’s slave auctioneer; Andrew Clateman’s captain; and David Lamb’s quintessential 19th-century villain, Jacob M’Closky. Roe’s only directorial misstep is having Lamb deliver internal monologues directly to the audience. And given the play’s considerable length, the scenes in which a terrified, guilt-ridden M’Closky barrels through swamps could be considerably tightened. Roe himself (replacing Mike Durkin) made an attractive, understated Salem Scudder, a conflicted businessman whose financial missteps push the plantation toward ruin, though his delivery was sometimes unintelligible.
The only uneven note is sounded by Margaret Loesser Robinson, whose Zoe seems acted, not embodied. With every element in place—appearance, diction, emotion, gesture, expression—to give Zoe life, the character hovers just under the surface. Perhaps as the run continues, Robinson will let go and give Zoe the freedom she craves.
Melissa Estro’s colorful costumes perfectly evoke antebellum Louisiana—from Paul’s knickers with suspenders to Dora’s stunning, many-layered belle-of-the-ball gown.
Margaret Loesser Robinson
Photo © Noam Galai
Alia Chapman and Alex Ubokudom
Photo © Noam Galai