AN OCTOROON | National Theatre, London

A play within a play sounds like a traditional —even tired— format to deliver theatre however Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is anything but.

The first Octoroon was penned by white Irish Dion Boucicault in an attempt to capture various strands of 1850s America including matters of race, society and technology. Over 150 years later, black American Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (BJJ) creates a quite remarkable hall of mirrors reflecting the absurd truths both of the original play and of modern American society. Writing himself into the play, BJJ (portrayed by the heart-racingly versatile Ken Nwosu) cuts an urgent narrative figure not dissimilar to Childish Gambino in This Is America. Toying with various problematic questions of racial identity, Nwosu’s opening soliloquy about his admiration for Boucicault’s work culminates in him applying thick white makeup which he wears for the duration, playing both plantation-inheritor George Peyton and villain of the piece Jacob McClosky. This sets the scene for an ensemble that move with skewering ruthlessness between freewheeling comedic turns and devastating moments of violence and honesty.

Say/write what you will about the opening 3 acts of An Octoroon, it is the fourth and final movement of the play that is Jacobs-Jenkins’ masterpiece. It feels like every inch of the Dorfman Theatre is put to use: every cubic centimetre is inflated with atmosphere and then deftly punctured as Nwosu’s BJJ drops in and out of narrator/character to illuminate the audience with historical context and basic human distress at the play’s intrinsic condemnation of normalised violence and prejudice in America.

This ensemble first came together at Orange Tree Theatre and each member deserves credit for boldly committing an unfathomable quantity of creative, emotional, physical and psychological energy. Probably the only way to get a ticket for this run is via the National’s excellent Friday Rush scheme. You’ll have to be quick and lucky on a Friday at 1pm to win a ticket for the following week — suffice to say it’s worth trying every week as theatre like this is rare, precious and utterly essential art.

An Octoroon runs at the National Theatre until 18 July (details here).

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