Thursday September 07, 2017

Why Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins restaged the 19th-century slavery play The Octoroon

Playwright and MacArthur Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, pictured in New York on September 6, 2016

Playwright and MacArthur Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, pictured in New York on September 6, 2016 (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

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Unless you happen to be a theatre scholar, you probably won't recognize the name Dion Boucicault.

He was a 19th-century dramatist famous in his time but whose plays have since faded into obscurity.

One of his best-known and most controversial plays was The Octoroon — an octoroon being a person who is one-eighth black. The story follows the history of slavery in the pre-Civil War American South and it made waves for what audiences then saw as a sympathetic and human portrayal of slaves.

But today, most people consider it problematic and full of negative stereotypes about African Americans.

A re-interpretation of the play is creating all kinds of buzz this year at one of Canada's most prestigious theatre festivals. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play is called An Octoroon and is currently being staged at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Jacobs-Jenkins talks to Tom Power about the play's history and present-day relevance as well as the controversy around the current production.

— Produced by Vanessa Nigro