‘An Octoroon’ at Woolly Mammoth

In the theater — as in politics and history — context is everything.

In a play like “An Octoroon,” now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre through June 26, everybody brings some context: critics, actors, artists and, for sure, the audience on any given night. Obie Award-winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has written a play about — oh, let us count the stuff: slavery, race, history, the theater, how we talk and think and what we bring to the play.

But it’s especially about race.

I came to the play after four straight nights of watching a reboot of “Roots,” the long-ago super-television event about the effects of slavery on the American psyche. On the way to the play, riding on a Metro bus, I heard a black woman talking animatedly about the infamous 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi.

I felt more than a little primed to consider “An Octoroon,” a play that messes with the minds of everybody. Jacobs-Jenkins, for one thing, suggests that what slavery did to the American psyche was to make everybody, black and white, a little and a lot crazy.

Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t let you — or himself — off the hook. He doesn’t make things easy for you, because why should you be laughing so hard (or trying conspicuously not to) in a play that takes a moldy old mid-19th-century play by an Irish American playwright with the mouthful name of Dion Boucicault, sends it up and lets it come crashing down like a bomb.

We’ve heard of these plays of course. They were hugely popular in their day, somewhere between “Our American Cousin” and minstrel and vaudeville shows. Apparently, they included petting zoos, according to Boucicault himself.

“An Octoroon” lets you in on its jokes and game plan right away. We see a man — a thin black man — applying white makeup to himself. He’s the playwright, telling us about the play, about himself and about the problem of mounting such an enterprise.

“The thing was, they ran out of white people to play white people,” he says knowingly. And so here he is, putting on makeup and costume, to play not one, but two white characters: one a sweet, intellectual, caring nephew of a deceased plantation owner, the other a white-trash overseer type who’s become powerful and wants to take over the place — lock, stock and prettiest slave. Needless to say, in a red wig, boots and other accessories, they look almost exactly alike.

This is Jacobs-Jenkins biggest conceit, a total mashup of identities: Jon Hudson Odom is playing the narrator-playwright BJJ and George and M’Closky; James Konecik dons red makeup to play both Boucicault and Wahnotee, a Native American who is part of the plantation; Hispanic actor Joseph Castillo-Midyett dons black face to play a, well, servile, servant.

The action is at Terrebonne, a Louisiana plantation fallen on hard times and close to having to be sold. Its new owner, George Peyton, inherited the place from his kindly uncle. Meanwhile, the plotting, scheming and cruel M’Closky is plotting to get the plantation by any means necessary. Not only that, but Peyton is in love with the charming, beautiful Zoe, the illegitimate daughter of his uncle, a fact of race that makes her one-eighth black, or an Octoroon. Furthermore, she remains the property of the estate.

Throw in a rich, blonde Southern belle named Dora, who wears a bright-blue dress so wide that watching her navigate the stage is kind of thrilling in a cruel sort of way; she seems about to levitate to the ceiling at any moment. Actress Maggie Wilder handles the physicality of the part with amazing grace, as if all the world was one big wide sidewalk.

The characters and the classic melodramatic plot — all that’s missing is a heroine tied to the railroad tracks — are straight out of a long-lost genre. What the playwright does with it something else again. There is a kind of reality to the play that it seems like a theatrical drone landing from the past to do serious damage with our minds. Not that anyone plays it straight; two of the female slaves, played with perfect comedic timing by Shannon Dorsey and Erika Rose, have the verbal punch of players right out of a black reality show like the Braxon family, scattering contemporary phrasings — “It’s crazy, right?” — like bouncy bonbons.

Speaking of acting, Odom is a commanding presence, but when he turns into two parts at the same time, which includes an onstage fight, he becomes dexterity made perfect, and wholly funny. And the young actress Kathryn Tkel gives the cliché part of Zoe a deep warmth that makes her 100-percent real.

Jacobs-Jenkins — he’s only 31 — has achieved some miracles with this play. In “Appropriate,” another of his plays staged by Woolly Mammoth several years ago, he explored the Faulkneresque undercurrents of Southern families. In an “An Octoroon,” he’s become a smooth, if unpredictable entertainer. Even as he sends the source up to high heaven, he’s also achieved the basic task of any melodramatist worth his salt by making us care about the characters, then surprising us at every turn.

You notice things in this production: you notice other people, you notice your own reactions — not just in critical terms, but in comfort and discomfiture. Because even and especially now, in the world of Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter and violence in the cities, we don’t know how to act, except on stage, what mask do you put on with perfectly appropriate timing when you hear the N-word constantly being used casually, as an insult or a description? How do you react to the way the playwright at one point tries to end the hopelessly complicated melodrama with a shocking photographic image that almost shuts the play down?

The play is a kind of fun-house mirror. Everything and everybody is exaggerated, made ridiculous and uncomfortably real. It’s like nothing seen on an American stage today. Go see it — not because its good for you, because it may not be — but because it’s that good. And bring the context.

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