Above: Sarah Ogden and Colin Smith. Below right: Anthony Standish. Photos by Rob
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Re-contextualised and directed by Nakkiah Lui
Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival
Bille Brown Studio
Season: September 16 – October 8. Running time: 100 minutes without interval. Bookings: 1800 355 528
Well, now for something really different; very different and very funny. Black is white and white is black; slavery is in fashion and slaves are complacent and seemingly content as they go about their daily chores. Every type of comedy device is used from boom-boom gags to straight out slapstick and costume and delivery jokes as the brilliant cast spoke the lines in 19th century melodramatic tones with some delicious over-acting.
It was all very funny.
An Octoroon was originally an American theatrical melodrama written in 1859 by Irish writer Dion Boucicault. It was set in Louisiana and told the story of a slave owning man who fell in love with an octoroon, as anyone with just one-eighth black blood was called back in the day.
American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took the tale and turned it on its head to make it an hilarious, often slapstick comedy. Then Australian playwright Nakkiah Luimaking took on the play as director, did some juggling, and reset the action on a farm in outback Queensland. The plot is convoluted, but easy to follow,.
This is the final production in the Bille Brown studio before being turned in the Bille Brown Theatre and the current layout was changed. There was seating on both sides of the long, white painted, bare oblong stage.
The plot is set by BJJ, played with great comic timing by Colin Smith, who, clad only in a pair of white underpants, tells us he is a black playwright with a play about an evil slave-owner. However he can’t get any white men to play the villain and so, with a jar of body paint turns himself white to play the part himself,. He also triples up as slave George and the black hat villain M’Closky, which leads to some amazing comic work with a blonde wig and a black hat as he plays both roles at the same time, including a fight, with hilarious consequences.
Anthony Standish plays an Irish playwright, presumably Dion Boucicault, who paints himself brown and the plays two more characters. It’s crazy stuff.
But some of the funniest scenes are plaid by the women - Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Elaine Crombie are Dido and MInnie , a pair of pretty foulmouthed house slaves whose satirical dialogue has hidden teeth, as it highlights how their culture and traditions have been stolen. The language is far from politically correct with an explosion of the “F” word, a “C bomb” and constant referral to black slaves with the “N” word.
But a telling hint of oppression comes when Minnie and Grace talk about the slaves “running away committee” and can’t see the point of running away because out there is nothing but bush!
Chenoa Deemal ads to the fun as the pregnant field slave Grace, who carries her other child (a Golliwog doll) in a back sling.
How the whole thing managed to be inoffensive I‘ll never know, but it was and was simply funny.
Anthony Taufa, with another triple characterisation, has great comic timing in all of his the roles. Sarah Ogden in an amazing crinoline multi-coloured gown was the gloriously Colonial, lady, as a neatly over-acted Dora.
Shari Sebbens played Zoe, the Octoroon of the title and was so much more a genteel “white” lady that Dora.
The play runs a hundred minutes and not one of them is wasted.