“An Octoroon” and the Modern Black and Green Atlantic

As both the most recent text of the course as well as our last, I think Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon” points to the complex hope of a world in which black artists can create works which are separate from the recycling of previous black narratives in America.  His prologue perfectly shows how Jacobs-Jenkins feels trapped by his works being put into a different box because he is a “black playwright” although he “[doesn’t] know exactly what that means,” and he just wants to create works to tell human stories, not necessarily always dealing with the race issue in America.  His aggression that people always try to place these bigger cultural burdens, such as the adaptation of African folklore when he merely uses animals to illustrate his own point, shows that he wants for his work to speak for itself and not be as tied down to one specific meaning.

This wish to use preexisting material to simultaneously move past these experiences because of the multiple levels of the play’s presentation and humor.  Most notably with its racially swapped casting, Jacobs-Jenkins uses this practice as a means to show that race is somewhat arbitrary and a social construct.  This point goes all the way back to our early readings of Gilroy and theory, so Jacobs-Jenkins uses these well known texts as his foundation for “An Octoroon,” while also moving drastically past these notions.  Even the title shows this sense of exhaustion with the abundance of the race question and critics viewing his work through a racial lens.  Moving from “The Octoroon” to “An,” Jenkins suggests that despite the incredibly modern and subversive elements which Jacobs-Jenkins adds to Boucicault’s original, this is just another play and that the novelty of racial mixing has worn off and become common now.  His use of humor during the play most clearly shows Jacobs-Jenkins’s belief that there is now enough time passed between the days of “The Octoroon” and his own time that not only can he adapt and deconstruct the themes of the original play and its context, he can laugh at it.  Although this concept for a play sounds controversial on paper, I don’t think that he explicitly makes these changes just to make an audience for his work because of mere curiosity.  Jacobs-Jenkins has clearly done his research, and makes a hard case for the reader that we still have to talk in certain ways about certain topics.  The fact that has the audience laughs at slavery and BJJ even encourages that laughter shows his belief that not only can these experiences can be joked about, they can also stop overshadowing African-American art to allow new black artistic forms to come into being.

Looking back over the semester, I thought it was only fitting to end on “An Octoroon.”  Not only does it apply multiple themes from across the class, even going all the way back to January, but it brings all this history together to put his own spin on it, making parts of the play nearly incomprehensible without the proper context of these older texts and plays.

One Reply to ““An Octoroon” and the Modern Black and Green Atlantic”

  1. I think the comedic elements in the play especially show how Jacobs-Jenkins breaks the racial protocol so condemned by Gilroy. Most of the black works we have read that touch on race have been incredibly serious dramas, but Jacobs-Jenkins is able to depict racial issues while still giving the reader a good laugh. Racial thinking has the potential to limit black authors to a very specific style because of fears of being insensitive to racial issues as you’ve hinted at. But Jacobs-Jenkins finds a good balance between drama and comedy, which shows that he can maneuver previous ideas set by racial thinking to fit his own style while still being respectful to his predecessors.

Comments are closed.