Vol. 31 No. 1

“Anyway, the Whole Point of This Was to Make You Feel Something”: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the Reconstruction of Melodrama

by Rosa Schneider
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 1 (Fall 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

A hush falls over the previously raucous crowd as the image projected across the wall of Theatre for a New Audience and onto the bodies of the actors on stage suddenly becomes clear. The famous photograph of the August 7, 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, fills the space. Shipp and Smith hang from a tree in the background, while in the foreground a huge crowd of white spectators smile, point at the bodies, and make eye contact with the photographer. As the audience watches in mute horror, the projection is manipulated so that Smith and Shipp’s bodies appear to sway in the trees, bringing immediacy to a decades-old event.

It is within and against this backdrop that BJJ, Playwright, and Assistant, the three most versatile characters in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (2014), attempt to stage a lynch trial on the docks of a Louisiana town for Wahnotee, a Native American accused of murdering a black child. The photograph of this particularly brutal twentieth-century lynching deepens the action on stage, occurring in the 1850s of the original play. These innovations force the audience to become complicit in the trial and its bloody aftermath and simultaneously bring the audience as close to a sensation of death as possible without burning the theatre down around them.[1]  This eye-catching and difficult scene, which I call reconstruction, is a key part of Jacobs-Jenkins’ compilation of theatrical techniques. Collectively, these techniques teach Jacobs-Jenkins’s twenty-first-century audience to respond both on a theatrical and a racial level in order to work in a manner they would not have been able to otherwise. Jacobs-Jenkins manipulates melodramatic structures— such as the sensation scene, tableau, and what in this article I term melodrama’s gaze—that play upon and reimagine  the history of melodrama in the United States. These changes not only alter the way slavery’s violence is portrayed on stage but make melodrama comprehensible to a twenty-first-century audience unused to the genre’s demands.

These reconstructions allow Jacobs-Jenkins to transform Dion Boucicault’s wildly influential melodrama The Octoroon into his own version, An Octoroon.  The two plays follow essentially the same plot, but Jacobs-Jenkins makes crucial changes to the universe of The Octoroon, particularly to the characters. Jacobs-Jenkins removes many of the white characters, notably the majority of Boucicault’s plantation owners, while consolidating those he keeps. George Peyton, the new owner of Terrebonne (the plantation on which both plays take place), is merged with Salem Scudder, the well-meaning but destructive Northern overseer of Boucicault’s original, who feels particularly protective of Zoe, the eponymous octoroon.[2] George inherits Scudder’s interest in technology, particularly photography, maintaining an important plot point and gateway to the sensation scene.[3] Cuts such as these are logical, as the removed figures emphasize previously established power structures. However, these changes then create a lack of economic diversity, as the white characters who remain all belong to the upper echelons of slave-owning society. That separation makes even starker the divisions between the enslaved and laboring African-American characters and the white leisure class. Further, the elimination of characters like Scudder, Judge Caillou, and Jules Thibodeaux narrows the universe of the melodrama. Rather than showing “life in Louisiana,” which is Boucicault’s subtitle, with Terrebonne as one of a network of plantations, Jacobs-Jenkins’ edits make the plantation a world unto itself. As we shall explore at greater length below, Jacobs-Jenkins also makes significant changes to the ending of The Octoroon. Thus, with changes to character, plot, and form, Jacobs-Jenkins walks a fine line in An Octoroon between rewriting a singular play and reconstructing an entire genre.

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