Originally published by HowlRound on March 26, 2015

Hayes Thigpen, Austin Smith, and Amber Gray. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, first presented in New York in 1859, bears more than a striking resemblance to its better-known stage sister, George Aiken’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which premiered in 1852. Both plays, in their attempts to create sympathy for slaves while also depicting actual black people as minstrels, have been called both abolitionist and racist. Both writers attempted to appease Southerners by making the villain and “bad” slave owner a transplant from the North, while the Southerners themselves are shown as loving and gentle with their slaves. Both plays encourage the kind of spectacle that mid-nineteenth century audiences expected: Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s flight of Eliza with her child across the river, while being chased by bloodhounds, can easily be likened to the explosion of a steamboat in Act Four of The Octoroon. Most importantly, both plays aim to create sympathy for enslaved people by centering their plots on a female octoroon (a person who is 1/8th black). White audiences then, were encouraged to empathize with a slave who looked just like them—not only do real octoroons often look white, but in both original productions, the characters were also played by white actors.

The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin spawned dozens of different adaptations, and the stage plays quickly became proto-minstrel shows, advertising the use of “real negroes” alongside live dogs and, in one case, an elephant, as part of their spectacle. But while Eliza’s flight across the ford has lived on in shows as recent as The King and I and resonances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Topsy can be seen everywhere, The Octoroon has largely faded from American memory and is only occasionally taught in American theatre history classes, probably because anthologists and professors find it slightly less offensive than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Until now, that is. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted The Octoroon into An Octoroon. A Theater for a New Audience remount of Soho Repertory’s original production, directed by Sarah Benson, runs through March 29th at the Polonksy Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version keeps many of the original characters, much of the dialogue, and the entire plot of The Octoroon. In fact most of his take on the story is embodied in the actors and staging instead of the text: Whereas in the 1859 production, the black characters were played by white actors in blackface, in An Octoroon, a black actor (Austin Smith) plays both the white hero, George, and white villain, M’Closky, in white face; a white actor (Haynes Thigpen) plays the Native American character, Wahnotee, in red face; and a “racially ambiguous ” actor (Ian Lassiter) who looks Native American plays two black characters, Pete and Paul, in blackface.

Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

Jacobs-Jenkins also reframes the play by writing a sort of prologue in which Smith plays a character named BJJ, who introduces himself as a black playwright and bemoans the tendency of critics to assume that all of his plays—even the one about farm animals—are attempting to deconstruct the race problem in America. Thigpen enters, watching BJJ a while before introducing himself as Dion Boucicault and bemoaning the fact that today he is all but forgotten as a playwright at all.

Smith and Thigpen don their respective white and red faces on stage, and, after Thigpen performs a stereotypical Native American dance to techno music under rave-like lighting, we enter Boucicault’s world, where George; M’Closky; Pete; Paul; the white woman, Dora; and the octoroon, Zoe, speak much of Boucicault’s text with the same melodramatic flair one can imagine actors in 1859 employing, but without most of the spectacle. Set designer Mimi Lien beautifully evokes a plantation with nothing more than a white stage covered with cotton. The playwright characters of Smith and Thigpen narrate the explosion of the steamboat. Director Sarah Benson adds to this Brechtian style by ending several violent scenes with the actors helping one another off the ground and offstage, as if to remind us that these people are not really trying to hurt one another.

Through these devices, as well as performance on stage by cellist Lester St. Louis  and the occasional appearance of a mystery man in a rabbit costume, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps reminding his audience that race, and therefore “the race problem in America,” is not just a matter of DNA (as it is for the octoroon), but rather a matter of DNA and history, heritage, and performance. All the time that has passed since 1859 serves only to make this mix more complicated. Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

What is conspicuously missing from the play is any commentary on the intersection of sex and gender with race. Though Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the original plot, in which George falls in love with Zoe but is prohibited from marrying her because of her racial heritage, all the while being courted by Dora, a rich white woman desperate for a husband to spend her money on, none of the narration deals with the disenfranchisement of these women. Additionally, while the three male actors play characters of different races, the central character, Zoe, is played by a light-skinned, bi-racial actor (Amber Gray), the white woman is played by a white woman (Mary Wiseman), and the two female slaves are played by black actors (Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand), indicating that the same fluidity of identity embodied by the men does not apply to them.

Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Furthermore, both Zoe and Dora speak the original text written by Boucicault, with only the length of Dora’s dress in any way removing her from her historical position, and are not given any opportunities for direct address or to engage in contemporary dialogue. And whereas Boucicault’s Zoe is given the opportunity, after she is sold to the villain M’Closky, to kill herself on stage, making a profound point about her unwillingness to go back to being a slave, Jacobs-Jenkins’ Zoe leaves stage with her poison never to be seen again. Finally, the two female slaves, played wonderfully by Aharanwa and Armand, speak neither in the manner of the educated playwright characters nor in the slave dialect of Boucicault’s slaves, but rather in a kind of urbanese reminiscent of Orange is the New Black’s Tastee and Poussey. Whether Jacobs-Jenkins intends to draw a straight line from slavery to contemporary urban culture, however, is unclear, as neither he nor the actors offer any explicit commentary on the women’s characterizations.

Without the deconstruction of sex and gender that would be accomplished by cross-racial casting, cross-sex casting, or having those actors speak for themselves directly to the audience, as the men do, the use of the dialect can be read to imply that contemporary black women willingly maintain a slave mentality—one of them uses modern language to repeatedly declare her excitement at being sold to work as a slave on a boat!—despite years of progress. On the other hand, if the playwright intends to show that ghettos have replaced slavery as a means of oppressing African Americans, or that black women have not gained as many rights as black men have since slavery, some commentary from the on-stage playwrights about the women characters would have helped clarify that point.

Instead, in the midst of a very funny, very moving, wonderfully designed, directed, and acted production of a play about the complexity of American identities and their unresolvable connection to our legacy of slavery and genocide, the central female character has become not more complex but rather more generic. She is no longer the octoroon, she is an octoroon.

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uncletomscabinbanner1.jpgOriginally published by The Atlantic

Miley Cyrus probably hasn’t studied much theater history. She was most likely completely unaware of the legacy of minstrelsy that influenced her performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards. She has nevertheless been heavily criticized for appropriating black music and dance while demeaning her black backup dancers. A few people have defended her against the accusation, and others have said that that they were unaware while watching it of what made Cyrus’s performance racist.

I’m not surprised. When I teach theater history to undergraduates I meet very few students who have heard of minstrelsy before I tell them about it. Even when I teach graduate students, I find that many of them think American theater history began with Eugene O’Neill. They are completely unaware that the first nationally popular American play was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, transformed onstage from an anti-slavery text into a racist spectacle whose influence survives till today.

Just as present-day filmmakers are on the lookout for bestselling novels that can be made into blockbuster films, 19th-century theater managers looking for hits adapted popular books for the stage. The first known stage version of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was performed even before the final sections of the serialized novel had been printed. The second production was part of an evening of entertainment that included a tightrope walker and a blackface burlesque of Othello. Though George Aiken’s somewhat faithful adaptation was the most successful version, Southern pro-slavery writers parodied the novel in productions that turned Stowe’s sympathetic portrayal of slaves on its head. Theater managers everywhere competed to have the most outrageous show by adding bands, songs, dances, even fireworks.

The popularity of the scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Eliza is chased across a frozen river by dogs led to the inclusion of more and more live animals in Tom Shows, including mules and even elephants. Eventually producers began casting “real Negroes” to bolster their claims of authenticity: Their shows, they boasted, depicted black life as it really was—full of happy go-lucky, animalistic should-be slaves. That these black performers still had to wear blackface betrayed the truth—the Tom Show idea of black life was not authentic at all.

Simultaneously, minstrel shows—combinations of skits, dancing, and music characterized by caricatured representations of buffoonish black people by performers in black face, slapstick situations, and a send up of aristocratic pretensions—rose in popularity from a working-class entertainment to a middle-class one. By combining the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the central tropes of minstrelsy, Tom Shows, as these spectaculars came to be called, presented song and dance representations of black life from a white perspective. Even after the Civil War, Tom Shows continued to tour the country and attract large audiences from all walks of life.

Just as these performances’ dances, like Jumping Jim Crow, were purportedly observed among real black people and then caricatured, Miley Cyrus, surrounded by black women half-dressed as animals, attempted and perverted a form of black dancing called twerking. Rather than aping aristocratic pretensions, like minstrel shows did, Cyrus sent up her own past as an innocent child by embodying the good girl who nevertheless knows she wants it. But it was minstrelsy just the same.

Audiences may not have recognized the tropes upon which Cyrus drew partly because even people who know about Tom Shows think of them as being performed by men. In reality, by 1871 America had at least 11 scantily-clad, all-female minstrel troupes performing in blackface. Even in male troupes, “wench” characters, played by men in light makeup (they were “yaller gals”) and depicted as possessing overwhelming sexual appetites, made public representations of eroticism a common element in Tom Shows.

Cyrus wasn’t wearing literal blackface in her performance, but the tradition of a little white girl at the center of a minstrel performance is as old as minstrelsy itself. One of the most popular characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Little Eva: the blonde, lily-white daughter of conscientious slave owners who is adored by white and black people alike. The uncivilized slave Topsy, who says that she cannot love anyone because no one has ever loved her, is nevertheless moved to tears by Eva’s death and vows thereafter to be good.

In 19th-century productions, Eva’s centrality to the narrative was made literal: The moment of Little Eva’s death put Eva centerstage, on her bed surrounded by mourning slaves. In at least one production, so many slaves appeared that the stage was full of them, while others peered in at windows and stood in doorways. In the more spectacular, upbeat adaptations, she doesn’t die but rather sings and dances with the happy slaves.

Tom Shows did not decline in popularity until well into the 20th century—only after they had made their impact in Hollywood. The metatheatrical 1936 film Dimples, featuring Shirley Temple as a young performer (Dimples) who is playing Little Eva in a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, combines the sentimental portrayal of the little white girl with the “isn’t she just cute as button dancing with those negroes” version. Her death scene brings about tears from the actors on stage and those in the on-film theater audience, and just as in the original story Topsy is redeemed by her ability to feel, the villain in the movie is redeemed by the sentiment evoked by Eva. As an epilogue to the play, the curtain comes up on a minstrel troupe, and Dimples dances at the center of a group of blackface performers.

Whether or not the creators of Cyrus’s performance know it, American entertainment has been so suffused with these images for so many years that they live in our shared subconscious and are often referenced without artists or audiences even realizing it. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has been praised for its mostly female, racially diverse cast, but it has also been rightly criticized for drawing upon black experiences to tell a white girl’s story. The creative staff of Orange Is the New Black or the talented actor who plays Crazy Eyes, Uzo Aduba, may not have been thinking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but both Topsy and the Crazy Eyes character are black women who were adopted and “civilized” by white parents. Crazy Eyes, like Cyrus at the VMAs, even sports Topsy’s iconic hairstyle.

Contemporary pop culture may be driven by Hollywood, but back in the day, it was theater—particularly traveling troupes like the Tom Shows—that created a shared national culture. This history will not go away, whether we acknowledge it or not. Without an awareness of the way the iconography of minstrelsy informed so much of the entertainment that has come afte

Cross posted at Ms.

Looking for an evening of entertainment that’s humorous, thought provoking, and possibly paradigm changing? The West Coast premiere of African American Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage‘s new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is your ticket. But it’s not your typical evening of theater.

Directed by Jo Bonney and featuring Sanaa Lathan (The Cleveland Show, Boss), this Los Angeles production chronicles, satirizes, and interrogates representations of race and sex in film and television in 1933, 1973, and 2003. Using a multi-media approach, it starts a conversation that resonates well outside the theater’s walls.

The plot centers on Vera Stark, a fictional composite of such real Hollywood actors as Theresa Harris, Hattie McDaniel, and Ethel Waters: women of incomparable talent relegated to playing maids and slaves. Vera is joined by her roommates–Lottie, an accomplished Shakespearean now going in for mammy roles, and visibly mixed-race Anna Mae–in a desire to secure speaking roles in a new Southern epic. Vera works as a real life maid for Gloria, an actor known as “America’s Sweetie Pie,” and the two have been close for years. Working together to fool the white producer and director into believing that they are actually a perky blonde virgin (Gloria), an illiterate woman so burdened by her heritage that she’s just got to sing the blues (Vera), a Brazilian from Rio de Janero (Anna Mae), and a mammy (Lottie), these ambitious women serve up a lot of drinks and a lot of laughs.

Act II opens with a clip of The Belle of New Orleans, the Southern epic in which the ladies were so eager to get parts. They did, and, we learn as the play takes us forward in time, the movie and Vera’s character specifically have become iconic. In 1973, Vera and Gloria appear on a talk show together, and in 2003, a panel of black academics discusses Vera’s legacy. The 1973 Vera Stark has become an alcoholic and is starring in a show in Vegas. Gloria, who left Hollywood to live in London, is in town receiving an award. Though it almost comes out, the world never learns the true nature of the relationship between Vera and Gloria; the academics can only speculate as to whether they were costars and friends, mistress and maid, lesbian lovers, or cousins. The audience of the play does learn the truth (SPOILER ALERT): Gloria is in fact Vera’s cousin and an octoroon.

Both acts travel at the pace of a Noël Coward play, and both investigate period specific cultural paradigms. In Act II we meet a Dick Cavett-esque talk show host, a ’70s rocker ala Mick Jagger, a black revolutionary poet with an African name, a Cornel West-like writer and film maker, and a black woman academic with a hyphenated name who keeps getting interrupted. Savvy audience members may also recognize references to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Camille and The Dutchman.

Nottage, a graduate of Brown and Yale and the recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Grant, is known for writing history-rich plays. For her 2009 Pultizer winning play Ruined she traveled to Africa to interview refugees and witness local traditional performances. For her break-out hit Intimate Apparel, she delved into the living and working conditions of urban African Americans in the early 20th century. Nottage told the Ms. Blog that for By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,

I researched the entire period, so I read about Hattie MacDaniel and Ethel Waters and Theresa Harris and found the films with them and just watched and watched. It’s really interesting to see representations of women in the pre-code Hollywood films versus the films just after the code. They have sexuality, they are independent, they’re self-possessed. They really resemble women that we know today. And then those women disappear for 20, 25 years and it isn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that we see representations of those women again.

But this isn’t just a history play. Very real and relatable characters allow the audience to invest emotionally and to enjoy watching how they deal with the boxes into which they’ve been put. And the comedy of the play, along with the powerhouse performances of the women in it, makes the production much more than an intellectual exercise. Director Jo Bonney shares,

We had always talked about it as having the quality of the screwball comedy of the ‘30s, and the thing was to just go there, to be unabashed, and believe that if in fact we got too serious it would feel like we were trying to hit people over the head with it. It’s satire, and satire has always been the cleverest way to point out social and political issues.

This satire definitely does it’s political job: the show is a genuine conversation starter about the extent to which stereotypes still guide casting in film and television. Bonney talks about the difference between doing it in New York and in Los Angeles:

Here I really hear people talking about it afterwards. And you can hear audible responses to references and moments that are really about the industry. At the opening a [couple of film directors] were talking about how potent it was to see it here. Once you’ve seen it, it exists within you, it’s become part of your experience. And I just don’t think you could ever really look at a script again or telling a story with that not in your consciousness.

To make sure people keep it in their consciousness, Nottage has created a virtual Vera Stark as well: Two of the fictional academics in the play have their own websites about her (Rediscovering Vera Stark and Finding Vera Stark). Nottage has even made a video documentary about her. She told Ms.,

The journey of the website is that you move from investigating [Vera’s] life, that’s very like the lives of a lot of those women, to these images of Ethyl Waters and Theresa Harris and Hattie MacDaniel and then to vaudeville. And so I’m inviting [the audience] to go a little deeper into an investigation of what it was like to be an African American performer at that time. It’s designed to lure people into probing deeply into these people’s lives.

At the very least, the women making this show are probing deeply. Click here to read more of their conversation and catch the show while you can!

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through October 28 at The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Photo of Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan by Michael Lamont.