About two weeks ago I had the amazing experience of seeing An Octoroon at ArtsEmerson/C1. And in the time since I have been mulling it over again and again. I felt like I understood the major goals of the piece: lampooning blackface and minstrelsey, the underrepresentation of people of color in entertainment, humanizing the slave subplot, and devaluing the resolution of the archetypal white story arc.
Yet I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around why adapt Dion Boucicault’s, The Octoroon. Why this play?
I understand it’s incredible popularity at the time. I understand that it was a white story, for which, the title character’s mixed decent was merely a plot device (as it was played by a white woman). I understand that it addressed the taboo of slave owners sleeping with, raping, or potentially loving their slaves. I understand it premiered 100 years before the American Civil Rights Movement. And I understand that it was Public Domain and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins could adapt and comment on it freely.
What really seemed to drive it home for me was when I discovered actor, writer, and director, Dylan Marron‘s YouTube project and blog Every Single Word. On this YouTube channel he edits some of America’s most popular films to only feature the lines said by people of color.
I clicked on the links to films I knew were almost two hours in length, yet Marron’s edits, a foreboding 0:08 seconds. Title screen, film soundtrack, black screen, video over. These were films I had enjoyed in the theaters, yet neglected to consider how whitewashed they were. At then end of each video is a screen titled “Featuring:” which in many videos is blank. In others, the POC ask questions of the protagonist, offer plot sensitive material, or narrate events. The videos longer than 0:08 seconds end up leaving a sensation just as unsatisfying.
There was one that resonated with me in an unsettling way. Marron began using the Oscar recipients for Best Picture from 1927-1940. I watched the video featuring the 1930 winning film, Cimarron and I found myself disgusted. In the film a young African-American boy appears to be the only significant character of color. From the clips he’s featured in, he spends a majority of his scenes on his knees—pleading with a white man, happily singing while working, trying to adopt white apparel, making faces, and finally, dying while crying out his master’s name. (Watch the video)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is not merely in conversation with The Octoroon, he is in conversation with history. He is saying, open your eyes and examine our history of representation in performance. Are these practices we, as audience members, will continue to support? Will we continue to pay money to filmmakers, TV shows, theater companies that—for whatever reason, be it ignorance or institutionalized racism—program whitewashed material with token POC characters stripped of any human substance?
“I’m not saying that any of these films are racist. I’m not saying that any of these filmmakers are racist. I’m saying that the system that they’re contributing has some deeply racist practices,” says Marron in an interview with The Washington Post. This is what Marron and Jacob-Jenkins are highlighting. That without active engagement and awareness of the historical lineage of the entertainment industry, we lose sight of the true gravity that whitewashed media has in our contemporary society.
An Octoroon is a necessary, cultural indictment questioning how and why we consume art.
As a audience members, we must begin asserting our influence on history. We must demand equity in representation and substance. We must support and empower artists who combat institutionalized racism in the entertainment industry.