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In America, there will always be the ugly mirror that is our history. Writer Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s play An Octoroon, as staged by director Joanna Settle and set designer Matt Saunders, surrounds that looking glass with reminders of that ugliness.
Holes in the floors of the stage represent the many untold horrors that surrounded slavery, depicting the hidden stories that no one would be able to tell. Trickster figure Br’er Rabbit (Aaron Bell) creeps around the holes, digging up relics and what seem to be secrets of the old plantation, never saying a word, but looking out at the audience knowingly. The jaggedness of two gaping holes in the stage floor — holes that were never filled —make them a part of the play itself.
One old stain from the plantation era still haunts African Americans today: the difference between house slaves and field slaves. Minnie (Jaylene Clark Owens), a house slave, and Dido (Taysha Canales) remind us of the ugliness of either station. Dido asks Minnie would she fuck the new master in an innuendo-filled scene played for laughs, but Minnie reminds us of the reality of their situation when she replies, “I don’t think it is about choice.”
The plantation has to be sold, which means the slaves are sold also. An auction stand is rolled out, and as each slave is sold, he or she is placed in a chicken coop. At this point a young African American woman angrily jumps up and leaves the theater. I wish she had stayed. The shared history portrayed is inescapable, and it demands that whites and blacks confront it together.
A gigantic mirror faces the audience from the rear of the stage. At the end of the play, an image of a lynching — two African Americans hanging from a tree — is projected on it. The audience, which has just been laughing, is thrust into complete silence. What grips the heart and minds of everyone in the theater is the looks of the whites in the picture. They are looking toward the camera, and they are smiling.
There are no smiles in the audience, just silence.
For Mark Cofta’s review, click here.
What, When, Where
An Octoroon by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Joanna Settle. Through April 10 at the Wilma Theater, Broad & Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. 215-564-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
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