Youth Review: An Octoroon

“While Australia doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve, its always covered. How do you roll up the sleeve? How do you get to the heart? Sometimes we need to tell stories to tell the truth.” - Director Nakkiah Lui

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Director Nakkiah Lui knew exactly who their audience was and how to speak to them. Lui’s re-contextualisation of An Octoroon shapes the 19th century slave melodrama by Irish writer Dion Bouciacault into a densely packed 2 hours of Australian history not worth skipping. The original play died out in popularity due to its storyline following a plantation owner falling in love with a girl who was an illegitimate daughter of the former owner and an ‘octoroon’. The play became a risky move for directors as it deals with such an intensely racist period in time, however, Jacob-Jenkins as well as Lui took this and made it so very relevant again. 

 

On September 21st I visited Bille Brown Studio to see An Octoroon Co-presented by Queensland Theatre  Company and  Brisbane Festival. In all honesty I was nervous walking in, Australia’s history with racism, identity, culture and theatre is often quite taboo. When such themes have been addressed  previously, it can be very hit and miss depending on the audience. In saying that, after seeing this play I have spent the weekend stressing about not finding time to go back to Bille Brown Studio to see it again, before its closing date October 8th. 

 

From the direction to the sound design this play was packed with detail, each character developed and evolved so deeply I found it impossible to pick favourites. Notable mention goes to Colin Smith, Anthony Standish and Anthony Taufa, all three men played three characters each, all of which was done to an absolute 'T', somehow never confused who was playing who. A highlight I found was that there was no ‘comic relief' or ‘co-stars’, everyone gave their all and were hilarious at times, but also distressing and emotion stirring at others.

 

While discussing An Octoroon with others I continue to hear words being thrown around like provocative, outrageous and radical, however, when I think about An Octoroon one word springs to mind; honest. Although the play was genuinely hilarious, unsettling and comforting all at the same time, it knew what it was.

 

 When the play ended and I looked around at fellow theatre goers exiting the room, it became abundantly clear what I wanted to address in my review.  In Lui’s Directors Notes she states:

 

“while Australia doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve, its always covered. How do you roll up the sleeve? How do you get to the heart? Sometimes we need to tell stories to tell the truth.” 

 

And that is exactly what they did, they told a story that reflected our history, the cast, the lighting and the sound all forced the audience to stare the point of the play square in the eyes, this is our history, and An Octoroon just gave us the perfect opportunity to pay respect to that history. The play was so intently moving I could write pages analysing each detail, but it’s much easier if you just go and enjoy it for yourself. 

 

By Charlie Ruhle 

An Octoroon 

16 September - 8 October.

Bille Brown Studio, Queensland Theatre