Why do we go to the theatre?
As a student heaping on loans to study an art and way of storytelling started back with the Greeks, this is a questions that rings in my debt-addled brain on the daily. Why do human beings with perfectly good netflix accounts spend money, to go outside, to go sit inside a dark house watching people pretend to be someones and somethings else on stage?
And there’s a variety of answers. The first, the easiest: to be entertained. To submerge yourself into blind enjoyment of some tap-dancing, jazz-handing singing happy fools and forget about your 9-5 grind. Another – to be cultured. To have some classy high-thinking references to the work of Chekhov and Shakespeare in your back pocket. Others (perhaps the dedicated theatre-nerds such as myself) would say that it is to connect with real human beings in a real space. To sit in the dark next to heavily breathing strangers all witnessing the same event – one that will be unique, that will never be quite the same. To suspend your disbelief and live in a world of imagination fueled by words, not informed by CGI.
To go to the theatre to see An Octoroon, though – this, perhaps, becomes for something else entirely. As Ben Brantley put it after seeing its incarnation at Soho Rep, “It’s only a play, isn’t it? Except one of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s points is that nothing that deals with race in this racially conflicted country can ever be reduced to an easy showbiz formula, whether satirical or uplifting.” And that is just the sort of experience and challenge this almost three-hour coup-de-force presents its audiences.
At its heart, this is a play about a play, that plays with race in such an outrageous (re: necessary) way that we are laughing until we realize what we are laughing about and then we are silent. It’s comedic that one of the most accessible ways we can broach the topic of race in this country is through comedy. Stand up comedians are able to do it, and here the ground-breaking Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does it. Laughter from mirth and laughter from nervousness, uncomfortableness, self-consciousness, doubt. “Doubt is, after all, the method of the whole play, which repeatedly pulls the rug out from under itself, tempting you with enjoyment and then calling you to account for having enjoyed.”, wrote Jesse Green in a Vulture review of the Theatre for a New Audience production.
There is no doubt as to how well Jacob-Jenkins understands the nature of theatre, and of theatre-goers – and as to how well he understands how to twist these natures into something else entirely – “From the get-go, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins is cannily exploiting the assumption of false identity that is the starting point for theater, to make us question who is who or who is what”, said an NYT review.
So why are audiences choosing to go to this theatre? Our co-production with Company One has been selling out at the speed of light (Seriously. Buy those tickets ASAP.) to patrons of the arts and patrons of life brave enough to face America’s complex relationship with race, and the still-echoing calls of slavery in our country. There is a serious, bubbling excitement over a reviewing and revisiting of a melodrama written over 150 years ago – an excitement from the community that makes me proud to be a Bostonian, and proud to share a home with groups like Company One and ArtsEmerson who grasp at these plays the same way so many of us grasp at understanding ourselves in context with a world and history bigger and realer than we can ever imagine.
If you were to ask every member of an audience why they go to the theatre, you will get a huge variety of answers. Entertainment, escapism, understanding, community, communion, and more – to breathe, even. A Timeout review pondered, “There’s something about the audience’s sudden intakes of breath that makes the project feel super oxygenating—despite moments of palpable fear and disquiet, we leave feeling somehow healthier, as though the theater has given us a violent shake and a pep talk”.
I know that I’m going because it is a rare opportunity to be so directly engaged with a topic – no, not even a topic, it is something far bigger than that – to be so directly engaged with the bold, complex, and sometimes frankly uncomfortable depictions of the plantation foundations of our country in a room outside the safety of our own little communities. We are the stories we tell ourselves, and by coming to An Octoroon, well, I hope to engage with and even come into conflict with what I tell myself about who I am and who my country is, in a theater full of strangers all tackling this same challenge. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. It’s everything I can wish for from this thing called theatre.
So. Why are you, my friend, going to An Octoroon?
Why do we go to the theatre?