At times during playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” a Berkeley Repertory Theatre West Coast premiere directed by the ingenious Eric Ting, you might find yourself laughing in a way that’s both deep and achingly rueful.
At the same time you could feel heartbroken.
This boldly satirical, metatheatrical adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama “The Octoroon” has its way, playfully yet uncompromisingly, with the legacy of slavery.
It subverts every possible, and socially unmentionable, aspect of the aftermath of that legacy, and confronts our present-day struggle to come to grips with issues of racial identity.
The play-within-a-play is Boucicault’s histrionic tear-jerker about the plight of an octoroon (someone who is one-eighth black) in the antebellum South.
In Jacobs-Jenkins’ conceit, it is adapted and staged by a contemporary African-American playwright, BJJ (played by the excellent Lance Gardner). Because all the white actors have dropped out, BJJ takes on several roles. In whiteface.
The melodrama itself is a hilarious mashup that combines anachronistic and period dialogue and presents stock stage characters and other stereotypes, all played to perfection.
They include: the angelic octoroon (Sydney Morton), forbidden by miscegenation laws to marry the hero (Gardner); the wealthy, mustache-twirling villain (Gardner again) who’s determined to seduce Zoe, buy the plantation and ruin everyone’s life; the ditsy, dim-bulb white woman (Jennifer Regan) in love with the hero; the two house slaves (Afi Bijou and Jasmine Bracey); the field slave (Afua Busia); the rascally “pickaninny” (Amir Talai, in blackface); the white Irishman Boucicault himself (Ray Porter), who observes, while smearing on redface and donning a feathered headdress to play an Indian, that you can actually have “Negroes in plays” nowadays — but you have to pay them; and a masked Br’er Rabbit (Lisa Quoresimo) playing jaunty tunes on an upright piano.
Terrific set and costume design are by Arnulfo Maldonado and Montana Blanco, respectively.
Jacobs-Jenkins aims, among other things, to achieve a Brechtian effect: to make the audience experience a real emotion in the moment, and at the same time be aware of the theatrical device that prompted that emotion.
That is indeed what transpires throughout “An Octoroon”: moments in which the audience is utterly silent, during which you’re likely to feel, viscerally, the weight of our country’s painful history; moments when you might become aware of the strange quality of your own laughter; and one exquisite scene at the end of Act 1 that seems to express a grief too intense for words.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes July 23
Tickets: $45 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org