REVIEW: An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre & Brisbane Festival)

Where?
Bille Brown Studio, West End
When?
September 16 – October 8

Nakkiah Lui recontextualises Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play for Australian audiences and the result is a rare and knee-slappingly funny piece of theatre that explores race, culture and identity, as well as the nature of storytelling and theatre.

Shari Sebbens as Zoe & Anthony Taufa as Pete

Initially set in the American Deep South, director Nakkiah Lui has relocated the work to the banana plantations of Far North Queensland. Based on a 19th century melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault (who also features as a character in An Octoroon), who in turn had based his melodrama on a novel called “The Quadroon”, the play follows George Peyton (Colin Smith), newly arrived from France to inherit a plantation. He falls in love with his uncle’s illegitimate daughter, Zoe (Shari Sebbens), despite the attentions of wealthy Miss Dora Sunnyside (Sarah Ogden) and despite Zoe being the ‘octoroon’ – a derogatory term for a person who is one-eighth black – of the play’ title.

Sarah Ogden as Dora Sunnyside & Colin Smith as George Peyton

The plantation is in financial trouble, and overseer M’Closky (Colin Smith) wants to marry Zoe for himself – due to a legal loophole after the death of her father, she is still a slave under the law and so M’Closky plans to buy the property, and Zoe with it. Three female slaves, Minnie (Elaine Crombie), Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Grace (Chenoa Deemal) watch the madness unfold and hatch their own plans.

Chenoa Deemal as Grace

Outside of all this is a second play taking place – Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ alter-ego BJJ (Colin Smith) interacts with drunken Boucicault (Anthony Standish) and they don white-face and brown-face, respectively, to play their characters in the melodrama. “I am a black playwright,” BJJ announces to the audience in his opening lines, “I don’t know exactly what that means.”

Design by Renee Mulder, lighting by Ben Hughes, and composition and sound design by James Henry bring the whole show together, and Nakkiah Lui states in her program notes that is as much their vision as it is hers.



Queensland Theatre's Artistic Director Sam Strong commended Lui for her directorial debut, labelling An Octoroon "a play that many experienced directors may have run screaming from." Described by Brisbane Festival's Artistic Director David Berthold as "a great new voice in Australian theatre", Nakkiah Lui spoke about what she feels is one of the core tenets of this production: "The act of telling people a story is so incredibly generous," she said, "and that's the hope we have. That we still want to listen to each other. We're all people and we all can laugh."

Anthony Taufa as Pete and Anthony Standish as the auctioneer

Lui breaks down a barrier, giving us permission to laugh at this situation through slapstick, stereotype and outlandish melodrama, then abruptly holds up a mirror - not to make the audience feel ashamed at their laughter, but to remind us in a meaningful way of the real issues behind the humour.


Antony Standish’s playwright character suggests onstage that theatre is no longer novel, since we can experience so many things, but I've never experienced anything like
An Octoroon. This an important piece of theatre and I'd certainly recommend seeing it if you can. Nakkiah Lui's skilful work on this production also has me excited for her play Black is the New White, which debuted to rave reviews in Sydney and will open Queensland Theatre's 2018 season next February.


For more information or to buy tickets, visit Queensland Theatre’s website.