Black and White

First produced in 1859, just two years before the dawn of the Civil War, Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon is a fascinating piece of theater history. It is an object of interest for a variety of reasons: the depiction of interracial romance in the age of slavery, the carefully balanced portrayal of North and South, and the first known onstage use of a camera, among them. A huge success at the time of its initial productions, the play is rarely performed now. This is in part because the tropes and structure of 19th-century melodrama lend the text a difficult to escape museum-theater mustiness. At its best, Alex Roe's production at the invaluable Metropolitan Playhouse overcame this creakiness, but it too often succumbed to the stiff formality of good-for-you art. Still, while "museum theater" is generally used as a derogatory term, museums are a crucial site of exploration for our shared cultural history.

The setting of the play is Terrebonne, a financially beleaguered plantation in Louisiana. Its owner having died, the plantation is about to be auctioned off in order to settle crippling debts. Mrs. Peyton (Wendy Merritt) is the widow of the judge who founded the plantation. Her nephew George (Michael Hardart) has recently arrived from Paris, where he has spent the past several years. Mrs. Peyton is worried about what will become of the life she has built at Terrebonne, and even more so about what will become of her remaining family members and slaves, for whom she has great affection.

Her greatest affection seems to be for Zoe (Margaret Loesser Robinson), the illegitimate daughter of the judge, whom Mrs. Peyton has graciously kept on as a member of the family. George is immediately attracted to Zoe, not realizing that she is an octoroon, the daughter of a slave woman who was herself of mixed race. It soon becomes clear that nearly every other man who passes through the plantation is smitten with her too.

Zoe's status as an object of forbidden desire drives the escalating crisis in the play. The villainous Jacob M'Closky (David Lamb), who has schemed his way to half-ownership of Terrabone, plans to buy the rest of the plantation at auction. Through a series of melodramatic devices, it is revealed that Zoe herself will be auctioned, her status as a freed woman invalidated by a legal complication and her chastity therefore threatened by M'Closky's machinations.

History lesson aside, the fun of the play is in the convoluted series of complications that drive the plot. Letters are found in hidden compartments, photographic evidence of a murder is discovered at the last possible moment, and romantic intrigues are pursued on wooded paths. Roe staged the action skillfully, never letting the small stage feel overcrowded by the large cast. The design elements, most notably Melissa Estro's costumes, effectively evoked the prewar South.

Stylistically, though, this production walked an uneasy line between the heightened theatricality of melodrama and a more naturalistic approach. The more successful moments were the larger ones. Women swooned and villains sneered. On the night I attended, several audience members were familiar enough with the form to add to the fun by audibly hissing when M'Closky revealed his despicable plot. Roe undoubtedly wanted us to feel for these characters and so toned down some of the more romantic scenes, but this resulted in an inconsistency of tone and pace.

The acting itself was somewhat uneven. Particularly strong were Wendy Merritt, charming as Mrs. Peyton, and Arthur Acuna as Wahnotee, a noble (but alcoholic) "savage." Acuna threw himself into the potentially offensive role with relish while winning both sympathy and laughter with the timing, grace, and physical discipline of an accomplished performer. Alia Chapman infused the relatively small role of Grace, one of Terrebonne's slaves, with a fierce focus and dignity. Mike Durkin, in an uneven performance as overseer Salem Scudder, delivered some of the production's finest moments.

A surprising number of the actors had trouble filling the intimate space vocally, and the dialect work was inconsistent. Several performers succumbed to the panicked flurry of overacting that tends to accompany barely remembered lines. I saw the opening night performance, and I am almost certain that this mostly strong cast will have settled more fully into their performances by now.

Despite its failings, The Octoroon remains a fascinating document of our cultural history and a chastening reminder that popular entertainment has often engaged courageously with the most difficult issues of any given time. This is the first installment of the Metropolitan Playhouse's "Black and White" season, a commendable project that deals not only with issues of race but also with the dangers and temptations of thinking about complex issues in absolute terms.

(A warning: the interesting program notes by dramaturge Peter Judd reveal the ending of the plot; you might not want to read them until after the show.)

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