Book Review: The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault
America is ashamed of its history. America is a nation built on and reliant on a system of oppression; the foundation of the country was created off the genocide and systemic oppression of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). The consequences of this system of oppression has sent waves of trauma through generation after generation in this country. The arts have always been a tool to express and reflect on our national values. We will be discussing the nuances in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon and ultimately the responsibility of the artist in the world we live in. Jacobs-Jenkins uses the melodramatic minstrel style to illuminate the absurdity of the white supremacy and how we are all complicit in it.
Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon was a widely popular form of entertainment when it premiered. It was the pinnacle example of how entertainment can use elements of life to a great effect. The Octoroon became the gold standard of the melodramatic genre. In fact, audiences loved the melodramatic style of storytelling so much that it became a standard in its own right. People sought to be affected by the content they consumed.
It is no coincidence that, even in a seemingly progessive community, educators still center whiteness and eurocentric perspectives through the content they select and present in class. For example, at Millikin University’s SOTAD we are still using The Crucible as a standard of excellence in American dramatic literature, but we do not have a standard to educate students on the experiences of the indigenous and enslaved people in that narrative. Students are not expected or required to contextualize how white supremacy influences the events in that narrative because the same expectation applies to their lives outside of the classroom. I would argue that Boucicault sought to uphold white supremacy’s hold on The United States by literally presenting the plight of systematically oppressed and enslaved people as entertainment.
The question “who is this for?” arose in mind when I read both versions of this narrative. Reading Boucicault’s The Octoroon in 2021, I could not help but to imagine there to be more nuance than the playwright originally intended. Boucicault crafted his characters based on stereotypical figures that the audiences of his time could recognize. He was aware of white supremacy works but he did not seek to challenge, comment on, or change it. For example, Zoe and George’s relationship is a pivotal part of how the playwright seeks to define the audience's morality. Boucicault sought to validate the racism, misogyny, and all the intersections in-between, but Jacobs-Jenkins is challenging the status quo by forcing the audience to engage with their morals by using this melodramatic style of storytelling. We see evidence of this in how the show ends in each version. Boucicault infamously has an alternate ending where Zoe and George end up together, but it is often not performed in the United States from fear of encouraging the idea that black people should be treated like human beings. In contrast, Jacobs-Jenkins uses the framework that Boucicault has crafted to challenge white supremacy. For example, in An Octoroon, Zoe is aware of her social status but the audience sees how her bias works against her in how she treats the other black people in the show. Zoe does not use her privilege to speak out against the racist system that keeps other black people enslaved, but she uses it to benefit her individual experience. She is distraught when she learns that she is considered property but her anguish is with the circumstance not the system. By inserting characters like Dido and Minnie, the audience gets a glimpse into how absurd it is that someone can only empathize with an enslaved person only after they have become a victim of that same unjust system as well.
Jacobs-Jenkins is framing how two things can be true and how these complex truths create the reality Americans live in today. In one way, he is showing how audiences today can consume a theatrical performance that is not only entertaining but also challenging them to actively and holistically participate in it. Jacobs-Jenkins wants the audience to feel the same way the enslaved people in this narrative do; like any good melodrama, the audience should feel emotionally tied to this narrative through its characters. Therefore the audience in An Octoroon should feel that there is nowhere to escape. The playwrights are aware that in order for any show to work it must demand the audience’s attention, and the artists have a responsibility to use that attention purposefully. Boucicault is using it to perpetuate toxic ideas that fuel white supremacy but Jacobs-Jenkins is using the audience’s attention to draw a parallel between the absurdity of the minstrel style and the absurdity of our current reality.