Offensive blackface imagery has been ubiquitous recently, from revelations about various politicians wearing blackface as students (Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring) to Gucci’s black knit balaclava embellished by bright red lips that spurred a boycott of the company’s “blackface fashion” (Gucci has since issued an apology and pulled the sweaters). To make matters more complicated, all of this has come to the fore during Black History Month.
Blackface will be used this month at Pittsburgh’s Kinetic Theatre — but this time to make a point about racism and stereotypes in the award-winning play “An Octoroon.” The play, which will be performed at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side from Feb. 15-24, “uses a historical lens to satirize and comment on issues of race and class in modern culture,” said Andrew Paul, the producer of the Kinetic Theatre in an email. “Not for the faint of heart, the production contains scenes wherein actors of different races appear in white face, red face, and blackface to accentuate the author’s message. I’ve seen the play twice in performance and find it mesmerizing.”
An “octoroon” is a person who is one-eighth black, and the play, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is adapted from Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 19th-century melodrama set on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. The plot of the new play remains true to Boucicault’s original script: The owner of a plantation has died, and his estate is in financial ruins. When his nephew arrives as heir apparent, he falls in love with Zoe, a beautiful octoroon.
In Kinetic’s production, Zoe is played by Los Angeles-based actress Sarah Hollis, who is half-black and “fully Jewish.”
“My mom is Jewish, I had a bat mitzvah, and I went to Hebrew school three days a week,” said Hollis, in Pittsburgh last week rehearsing the show. Her father, she said, is an African-American Unitarian minister, who also embraces Judaism and attends Shabbat services weekly at a Conservative congregation in Boston.
Hollis grew up in the 1990s when “it wasn’t extremely popular to be a child of mixed race,” she said. “Until recently, you didn’t see as many interracial relationships as you see now. And it was different growing up. You didn’t see as many kids who were mixed.”
She was raised “predominately around Jewish and white kids, and not really connected to my African American history until I got much older. I didn’t go to ‘black school’; I went to Hebrew school.” As a result, she tended as a child to identify most prominently with the struggle of the Jews and their history.
Although the relationship between blacks and Jews has been fraught at times, the two communities share much in common, she noted, including the fact that, until fairly recently, Jews were not viewed in America as white.
Still, blacks and Jews have “differentiated from one another to assimilate” into white America, she said. “I have had to embrace both sides.”
While scrolling through Instagram last week, Hollis saw the Gucci sweaters, and was reminded of the controversy with Prada figurines resembling black caricatures that hit the shelves last December. Both incidents created a social media uproar.
Blackface, although “shocking” now, has long been part of American history, she pointed out.
“Look at [the 1915 film] ‘Birth of a Nation,’” Hollis said. “People were in blackface; that was not an irregular way to portray people of color because they couldn’t be hired all the time.” In fact, she noted, Boucicault’s original play “would have been performed in blackface.”
“We can all don a face to fit in, and we also all have our own struggles with racism,” Hollis said. “‘An Octoroon’ asks you to go deeply inside yourself and take off your mask. There is an intolerance we can relate to in all of us. As much as we want to be tolerant of all people, even being intolerant of intolerant people shows a level of intolerance.”
The play, which is a comedy, “makes people uncomfortable in what they find funny,” she said. “It is a little shocking and it is not suitable for children.”
While the subject of the play is “race in America today as seen through the prism of race in America circa 1859,” its topic “feels so current,” Paul explained. “Right now, we have the governor of Virginia facing calls to resign because of a medical school yearbook photo in blackface. We have actor Liam Neeson confronting outrage over comments he made about an ugly racial incident from his youth. This topic is so huge and so potentially inflammatory, and yet Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins has chosen to address it and confront our preconceptions about race and identity. The play is at times both laugh-out-loud funny and purposefully offensive but ultimately forces its audience to come face to face with its own prejudices.”
“An Octoroon” was recently named by The New York Times as “One of the 25 Most Important Plays of the Past 25 Years,” and won an OBIE Award in 2014 for Best New Play. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.