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theatre review

Ryan Cunningham, left, and André Sills star in the Shaw Festival’s performance of An Octoroon.David Cooper

Blackface, redface, whiteface.

American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's metatheatrical melodrama An Octoroon plays with fire – so it's no surprise that swaths of the audience went AWOL after intermission on opening night at the Shaw Festival.

Three years after it caused a major stir off-Broadway, this hot property is getting a number of high-profile productions all at once – in London, in Chicago, in Washington and in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where the Canadian premiere is directed by Peter Hinton.

An Octoroon, in its most straightforward sense, is a new adaptation of The Octoroon (note the article change), which broke the taboo of interracial romance when it premiered in 1859 and was a huge hit for the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault (whose London Assurance was revived a decade ago at the Stratford Festival).

The plot takes place on a plantation in Louisiana. George Peyton (André Sills) returns from Paris to discover that it and its slaves are on the auction block following the death of his uncle – and that the sadistic slave owner M'Closky is after the whole lot with his eye particularly on the titular "octoroon" Zoe (Vanessa Sears), who had been given her freedom, but now finds it imperilled.

A noble alcoholic "Indian" named Wahnotee, an ingratiating black boy named Paul and a white Southern belle named Dora are among the supporting characters in a plot that involves a crucial letter gone missing, a newfangled photographic apparatus and an exploding steamship full of cotton.

The Octoroon is a dramatic artifact that, because of George and Zoe's romance of those works, you might file under "progressive in its time" – but which, of course, was performed in blackface and features cringeworthy dialect and paternalistic attitudes now too problematic to stage without significant interventions.

Which brings us, properly, to An Octoroon. Jacobs-Jenkins begins his adaptation by coming out to talk to the audience in his underwear – at the Shaw Festival appearing in the form of award-winning actor Sills. "Hi everyone: I'm a 'black playwright,'" BJJ says, before he explains why he admires Boucicault's melodrama – and why he decided to adapt it at the behest of his therapist, who believes he may harbour anger against white people.

Sills is extraordinary in this prologue. He's alternatively charming, menacing, self-deprecating – and pulls the rug out from under the audience's expectations with almost every line as he blasts Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz's Throw it Up at high volume and slathers his face in thick white make-up to play both The Octoroon's white hero, George, and its white villain, M'Closky.

Next, BJJ brings Boucicault himself (played by the white actor Patrick McManus) on stage to don redface and perform the Native American character of Wahnotee (as the real-life Irish playwright did in his time).

That leaves one more taboo to bust in the prologue – as Boucicault's assistant (played by Métis actor Ryan Cunningham) puts on blackface to play the most stereotypical black characters in the play.

Here, the complexity of Jacobs-Jenkins's layered adaptation become clear: We're going to see stereotypes playing stereotypes – and characters wrestling the history of (and recreation of?) racist stage representations in front of our eyes. Did I mention there's also a giant rabbit that appears at odd intervals as if he's wandered out of Hinton's production of Alice in Wonderland last season?

If An Octoroon unsettles constantly with its aggressively angsty men in race-bending make-up, it also gets major laughs from the female performers who find themselves in this absurd remix of a 19th-century melodrama.

The standouts are Lisa Berry and Kiera Sangster, playing a hilarious and touching double-act of "house slaves" Dido and Minnie, moved from the sidelines of the action to its centre here. Diana Donnelly comes a close second as the heiress shocked by the love between George and Zoe; few have Donnelly's gift for physical comedy.

There's no doubt that An Octoroon is a provocation – pulled off with a totally committed cast and thoughtful, simple-by-his-standards direction by Hinton (that includes a smartly chosen soundtrack that ranges from Billie Holiday to Beyoncé).

I do wonder about changes in meaning to Jacobs-Jenkins's play when you the change its context from New York to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Shaw Festival has developed a corps of black actors over the years and produced a number of plays by black playwrights in recent seasons – so its playing around with blackface exists in some sort of wider context.

But the company, over all, has a controversial record when it comes to inclusion – and does not have the similar history of either hiring Indigenous actors, nor producing Indigenous plays. I'm not sure it's earned the right to play around with redface the way An Octoroon does here.

That said, Hinton improves on the original text's tackling of this area – eliminating a headdress and working with Cunningham to flesh out the Assistant's trajectory. (The exceptional designer Gillian Gallow, who also tackled Hinton's recent production of Louis Riel at the Canadian Opera Company, even adds in a few visual comments of her own.)

In the end, An Octoroon's impact at the Shaw Festival is slightly lessened in that it comes the season after Lisa Codrington's The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God – a similar show that both adapted a George Bernard Shaw story and functioned as a critique of the Irish playwright and the Shaw Festival and its less-than-ideal history regarding race and representation.

Codrington's satire was, in a way, softer, but also hit targets closer to home. An Octoroon is edgier, but also, in a way, safer for the Shaw. Then again, a decade ago, the festival's bowdlerized all the N-words out of its production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes; now it's blasting Lil Jon and that's just the start of it. Interesting times for those who stay to the end.

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