Theatre Review: ‘An Octoroon’ at The Shaw Festival


Ryan Cunningham, Star Domingue, and André Sills. Photo by David Cooper.

It’s safe to say that The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake is commonly known for high-quality detailed productions on a typically classical scale. It doesn’t necessarily feel like the home for a strong subversive piece, but that didn’t stop the festival from producing the Canadian premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” now playing through Oct. 14.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Jacobs-Jenkins offers a reinterpretation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play “The Octoroon,” sprinkled with moments in the present. The play within the play (Boucicault’s play) depicts the happenings on the Plantation Terrabone as a new man, George, comes to take over the property following the death of his uncle, the previous owner. A villainous fellow slave owner, M’Closky, announces the plantation is for sale due to financial woes and plans to take all of the slaves, as well as the beautiful owner’s child, Zoe who is implied one-eighth black and is, therefore, the titular octoroon.

During the prologue, the playwright BJJ (an unstoppable André Sills), explains how his therapist encouraged him to explore writing this play and offers commentary on what the audience can expect. For instance, Sills blasts modern rap music following his monologue and sits at a makeup table to plaster his face in white makeup as he prepares for his roles as George and M’Closky (noting that all the white actors quit the production). He is joined by a playwright and his assistant, both white, who begin covering their faces in red and black makeup to play a Native American character and the other slaves, respectively.

There is a lot to unpack in this production, finely directed by Peter Hinton and designed by Gillian Gallow.  For this, I’d encourage every audience member to spend the pre-show reading the background pieces offered in the program. It’s not as simple as having a few moments in the present and performing a play within a play. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t waste his time with subtext, most pointedly when a certain stage direction is projected across the screen, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”

Sills is simply a powerhouse leader of this production. He is hilarious and grounded as BJJ and perfectly moves between that character and those of M’Closky and George. His energy and commitment never waver.

Additionally, Lisa Berry and Kiera Sangster as a pair of house slaves, Dido and Minnie, are a perfect duet. Their timing is impeccable and they easily steal the show. Vanessa Sears also charms as the lovely Zoe. But it is Diana Donnelly as Dora, a woman after George’s affections, that masters the true art of melodrama often relied upon in this production.. Her choices are hilarious and well-balanced.

Rounding out the ensemble are Patrick McManus, Ryan Cunningham, Starr Domingue and Samantha Walkes.

Gallow’s soundtrack is impossible to ignore. Her work stands out as its own character and adds a thrilling interpretive edge to an already interesting piece.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take an extra moment to emphasize the content warning for this show. The language and content is intense enough that certain audience members may not return after intermission. BJJ comments it is hard for theater to shock audiences anymore, but this production does and is worth every one of its 150 minutes.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including intermission.

Advisory: This show contains mature content and strong language.

“An Octoroon” runs until October 14, 2017 and is presented at The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.