An Octoroon Final Thoughts

Branden Jenkins approach to An Octoroon was very unique. It is clear that he was inspired by Boucicault, but also challenge him as a playwright. Although it was not explicitly said, I saw the adaptation as professional competition. In addition, I saw Jenkins inclusion of Boucicault in the play as a tribute towards him. While the modern world may have overlooked him, Jenkins clearly admired Boucicault’s work and appreciated that he highlighted very real issues in a time where it was abnormal. With that being said, the competition was found in Jenkins attempt to challenge some of the representations that were in the original.

In discussion we talked about authenticity, and with An Octoroon, Jenkins clearly challenges that. From his casting to his dialogue, whether it was because of want or necessity,  he intentionally distinguished his work from the original. For example, Jenkins disagreed with the typical portrayal of slaves in theater. We don’t know how slaves actually talked. If anything, it was most likely far from the depiction presented through minstrelsy. Ultimately minstrelsy was an art form that valued the art over accuracy, therefore, the imitation didn’t need to be accurate. While Boucicault created his characters based on observations, he was still an artist that was intrigued with the art form.

With that being said, although Boucicault was alive during slavery, his depiction of slavery is not anymore authentic than Jenkins. Boucicault was an Irishmen who never experienced slavery. Likewise, Jenkins was black, but he too never experienced slavery. Jenkins’ comedic approach versus Boucicault’s observational approach are both acceptable in the world of minstrelsy. Minstrelsy was a form of entertainment that imitated black people. And imitations are not authentic. 

An Octoroon Presentation & Discussion Questions


I have attached a link to my presentation below. Hope you guys enjoy!  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the addition of the Prologue in An Octoroon do for the play as a whole? 
  2. Does the slave dialogue remind you of other work that we’ve seen (Especially in Act 3)
  3. BJJ believes that Boucicault’s original ending is the best version, and how Boucicault intended the play to be seen. What does that tell you about the evolution of theater?
  4.  Given what we’ve seen the past few weeks, if you are of the culture you are portraying, are you exempt from “crossing the line”?

Blurred Lines in “The Commitments”

While Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments show us the different ways Irish and Irish-Americans understand the black experience, I begin to think about the influence of black culture on other cultures. For example, through Jimmy and Joey, they are without a doubt influenced by soul music, and are moved by it. And even though a genre of music may have been created by a specific group of people, it does not belong to any one person/ entity. With that being said, in class discussion there were a lot of questions surrounding Joey and his legitimacy within the group. While we have come to the conclusion that his role was more deceptive than reliable, I would argue against that position. I don’t argue that his tendencies and actions were problematic, but I am not quick to label him as a fraud.

We come to understand that there is a difference in status between Joey and other members of the group. Therefore, their understanding of the music, and of black culture will naturally be different from each other. Joey seemingly is in a better financial situation than Jimmy and the others, which not only alters his experience of black culture, but of Irish culture. In addition, aside from the knowledge of the music, Joey has been in direct contact with, and has experience first hand the impact of soul music, which should mean that he is legit. Arguably, just because he surrounded himself with “those people” doesn’t mean he knows anything about them or their experience (but the same could be said for the band). Nevertheless, he is impacted by the music in some way. Even if his facade is in fact pretend behavior, it was most likely influenced by American culture. I say this because, although we have discussed the disconnect between Irish and Irish-Americans, if in this instance Joey represents the Irish-American perspective, he doesn’t seem to be in conflict with the other members. By conflict I am referring to a misunderstanding of each other’s Irish background.  Because it doesn’t seem that their issues are about their Irishness, rather their understanding of black culture. 

Along those lines, we see through The Commitments that the connection was being made from class and struggle. Jimmy and the other members were not black but yet connected with the music and with the culture. They were trying to associate with it, while maintaining their Irishness within the music. Yes, Joey formed a false-connection with the culture, but his lack of knowledge does not determine whether or not he actually liked the music. He doesn’t have to be able to recite all soul artists, or know everything about black culture (even though he pretends to). Even if he just liked one specific song, it is clear that he was impacted enough to want to put on a “charade”.  Whether it was joy, hate, or envy, the music makes you feel a certain way, and in that way you are impacted by it. 

In addition, I would argue that many cultures misunderstand the black experience, including blacks. For example, was InDahomey a misunderstanding of black identity or a redefining of black identity? The backlash that they received from the black community would suggest that they were wrongfully altering the black experience. Nevertheless, how is what Joey doing different? Maybe because he’s Irish and the two experiences are not the same. This may be true, but when you involve the arts (theater and music), the lines definitely get blurred.

Discussion Question 4/22

  1. Since art (specifically music) is meant to be expressive and have “creative freedom”, should artist be exempt from misidentifying with African American culture.
  2. Does the African-American/Irish analogy degrade both cultures because of the comparison between Black-Americans and Irish-Americans?  Also, do these analogies  connect the Irish to whiteness more than to blackness?

Influence of Religion

One thing that I have been thinking about since our discussion on Zora Hurston was the fact that she didn’t support conventional religion, specifically catholicism & christianity. From her point of view it is understandable as to why she opposes christianity, however, given her background and how her life turned out, I think it would’ve been beneficial for her to turn to some form of religion. I think her dislike of christianity was partially fueled by her resentment towards white people (amongst other personal views), but part of the reason I feel it could have been beneficial is because religion can be used as a tool to build communities. 

Specifically speaking towards the Renaissance and Radicalism article, after learning about the Harlem Renaissance and some of the trials and tribulations that black people went through in redefining the “negro identity”, black people were represented by many great figures but at times it seemed like they were not on common ground. For example, when the Irish were integrating within America they were very unified. From the jobs they participated in, to the messages they wanted to portray to the public. Irish nationalist organizations were formed based on their catholic background, and that allowed them to have a social & political presence within different communities. With that being said, if you look at the NAACP, although there was a common goal to ensure the rights of colored people, they are fighting a battle of color, and it would’ve benefited them to “change” the narrative. To a country that “claims” to value christian and catholic beliefs, if they would have taken the stance of being united based on their similar religious values, I think it would have made black people more unified and make it harder for the opposition to challenge them on the basis of color. 

Although there have been many great black leaders, they all approached black nationalism from different angles. Yes the ultimate goal may have been the same, but the steps to get there were too different. Christianity doesn’t have to be the religion that unites them, but when you have some blacks that are Christian, some that are muslim, and some that are non-believers, they are inevitably going to run into a problem. It is easy to oppress people when they are divided amongst themselves.

Breaking Barriers

Treating In Dahomey as a breakthrough musical is both beneficial and controversial. The representation from African American performers was groundbreaking for all art forms. In Daphne Brooks’ chapter Alien/Nation: Re-Imagining the Black Body, she explains the bewilderment of audiences, but also their amazement with the production. Williams and Walkers revival of the black body brought both confusion & appreciation with white and black audiences alike. The fact that white minstrel performers recognized these black performers as “professional competition” shifts the standard of minstrelsy as a racially demeaning form of art. With the introduction of blackface, there was intent to mock the black skin. Especially post-civil war, whites would not recognize blacks as “equals”. However, the ability for In Dahomey to perform well globally forces whites to recognize the legitimacy of black entertainers, and see them as people who are capable. Not only is this a big step for black entertainers, but a big step for the black people in general. This challenges the notion of “white vs. black”. 

With that being said, In Dahomey as a breakthrough is partially controversial because it was not the first musical to do world tours and be a global sensation. Furthermore, part of their use of blackface was to help audiences identify with the presentation of the black person. Although the play was revolutionary for future black entertainers, viewing the play as a breakthrough sort of fuels the idea of In Dahomey as spectacle (which is a whole other discussion). Contrary to what I mentioned earlier, this all-black cast that made use of racial stereotypes to identify with its audience also added to the relevance of minstrelsy & blackface. I wonder if without the civil rights movement, would this play have reinforced blackface as a parody. If that is the case, it only shifted the attention from blacks to another lesser group. Something similar to what Irishmen did with Boucicault’s Octoroon. They used theater as a means to integrate within American culture, and shifted the attention away from them. Not to say that this was the intention behind Williams’ and Walkers’ purpose for writing the play, but I wonder if they made things harder for other black people outside of entertainment.

Nevertheless, I think In Dahomey was a game changer for breaking racial-barriers. There is a level of respect, for not only the art but for the artist, when you can recognize a “lesser people” as talented and true craftsmen. To give credit to those performers and also see them as inferior would be contradicting. But then again, most of our history is contradicting. 

A Smart Transition

After reading Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent, I initially couldn’t make the connection between the Irish and the introduction of blackface. However, after our discussion, I not only have a better understanding of that, but a better understanding of Boucicault’s The Octoroon. I knew the Irish were integrating into American culture, thus taking advantage of any opportunity that would ease their transition into “whiteness”, but I didn’t know the full extent of their involvement. Not only was blackface a major success in the U.S, but it transformed the art of theater. And of course this comes shortly after the civil war. After learning about the vast number of Irish participating in the art, I began to question the legitimacy of the hate that was thrown towards them. It was as if the world was too broken up about the fallout of the civil war that they ceased to care about the silly notion of Irish not being “white”. Not to say that the success of blackface allowed the Irish to fully immerse themselves within American society without any hostility.  But White Americans could definitely appreciate a friend to help them mock the blacks. 


If you ask me, I would say that the Irish chose the perfect time to capitalize on the vulnerability of the country. Whether it was because they genuinely adored the art form, or because they knew they could benefit from it, the Irish managed to ally themselves with the majority of the US. What better time to integrate yourself within American culture when tensions are high and the focus is on this idea of “Black vs. White”. The timing was almost perfect. 


With that being said, now we can begin to question the intent behind Boucicault’s The Octoroon. Even with the many controversial aspects of the play, I was impressed with Boucicault’s ability to produce a play that was both entertaining and accurate at the same time. In my opinion, even when certain scenes seemed to be absurd, they only highlighted the contradicting logic behind the concept of slavery etc. However, the big question is, did he write this play for a love of the art or for profit? I think that regardless of his intent, the bulk of the play would have represented the society during that time. But, as we alluded to in class, motive would seem to affect the way we read the play. I think it would affect his choice in language, character synopsis, etc. This idea can be supported in his altering of the play for different countries/cultures. 

Fredrick “The Black O’Connell” Douglass

The question of whether it is insulting to call Fredrick Douglas the Black O’Connell is an interesting one. The issue of race is clearly present, even though Ireland’s economic problems aren’t necessarily racially driven. However most, if not all, of America’s issues are driven by some sense of racial superiority (Civil War, Mexican-American War, etc.), so it makes sense why Douglass could never overcome the biases towards him. We’ve discussed how race is a “made up” social construct that we as humans use to differentiate and identify ourselves, and in the McCann & Jenkins articles we see how even internationally race precedes other social issues. 

Nevertheless, Fredrick Douglass was not the first black man to visit Ireland, nor was he the only black person they had ever seen. Yet the color of his skin seems to belittle his intelligence. Despite his scholarly advantage over the people of Ireland, even the poor see him as “other”. With that being said, there is no doubt that the Irish people recognized him as a highly intelligent, well versed individual, and to even mention him with O’Connell is an honor, however, I see calling him the Black O’Connell as a backhanded compliment at best.  There is obviously a level of respect and admiration intended behind the comment, and there is even a sense of the Irish trying to relate to black Americans. But the fact that he had to be the “Black” O’Connell and not the “Next” O’Connell (or something along those lines), supports the idea of racial inequality. 

Jason Williams (basketball player)  would be a great modern day example of this sort of backhanded compliment. Williams, being white, was nicknamed “White Chocolate” because he was so good at playing the sport that he could be mistaken for a black basketball player. There was a large amount of respect intended behind the name, but it disregards his skill as a basketball player first. He was identified by his skin color before he was identified as a good basketball player. The same could be said about Douglass. 

The Perfect World

In part IV we get a look inside the Houyhnhnms society. We begin to see Gulliver is no longer hesitant, rather he longs to be a part of their society. Of course, the Houyhnhnms see him as a yahoo (a rude, noisy, or violent person), and they insist that Gulliver leaves them. This suggests that the Houyhnhnms are innately complete opposites of Gulliver. Aside from physical characteristics, even after Gulliver tries to adopt their ideals and practices, the Houyhnhnms never accept him as one of their own and always view him as a yahoo. This implies that something “innate” about the Houyhnhnms is decent, calm and controlled. Either that or they just simply hate Gulliver. This concept helps speak towards the Irish and their transition into “whiteness”.  White European Americans viewed White Irish Americans as lesser, even though physically there was no difference, which means that internally they believed that something about them was different. However, this idea works better with the story of Gulliver because we are discussing societies that are actually different species (Lilliputians, Houyhnhms, Europeans), and not just because of the social hierarchy of race. 

In class we discussed how Gulliver saw the society of these “magical horses” as perfect, and challenged whether an utopian society could exist without any action towards it. The Houyhnhnms were very intelligent and sat around all day and discussed, but didn’t actually do anything, yet their society was “perfect”. I would argue that the idea of a Utopia worked for the Houyhnhnms because they all shared a common desire and understanding. And although there were different animals a part of the society, they still fit within the structure of the society. If the society is already perfect, then I think it can remain perfect without any physical contribution. I think Gulliver is forced to leave because he threatened their society as an outsider who brought, not only a physical difference, but different views, beliefs and ideals. They always saw Gulliver negatively, therefore, he could not be apart of their society. Ironically, them kicking Gulliver out is a step in them taking action and maintaining their perfection.