The curtain call for "An Octoroon" is as striking as the play itself. The actors take their bows in character, posing in a gallery of pre-Civil War Southern archetypes who warily eye the audience.
This tableau appears to be a statement by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and director Nataki Garrett — these characters may be a product of the mid-1800s, but they remain with us in the age of social media.
"Octoroon," which on Friday inaugurated a renovated Mixed Blood Theatre, is an assaultive, difficult work. Garrett's production sends up stereotypes — and the theatrical melodramas that helped promulgate them — with gusto. Messy, clever and sometimes gut-bustingly funny, this play within a play springs from a popular 19th-century work whose title evokes the slavery-era racial stratification of African-Americans (an "octoroon" was defined as one-eighth black).
Jacobs-Jenkins dealt with similarly racially charged themes in his earlier play "Neighbors," which Garrett directed at Mixed Blood in 2011. An acidic satire, "Neighbors" skewered images such as watermelons and oversized genitalia that psychologically damage a black father who tries to distance himself from those who are like him.
In "Octoroon," a contemporary black playwright named BJJ (William Hodgson) wants to stage Dion Boucicault's 19th-century play about a fair-skinned woman who lives as white until she discovers the truth about her background. BJJ's white actors quit on him because they don't want to play offensive characters, but he forges ahead. After drinking a bottle of alcohol and applying white makeup, he morphs into a character called the Playwright (Jon Andrew Hegge).
What follows is a meta-play, complete with figures such as the tragic mulatto Zoe (a quietly combusting Megan Burns), who wants to die after her heritage is revealed; a lazy layabout field slave, Minnie (Jasmine Hughes); house slave Dido (Jamila Anderson); pregnant slave hussy Grace (Chaz Hodges), and a comically hysterical Southern belle, Dora (Jane Froiland). The show has characters in redface, blackface and whiteface. Some speak in contemporary language.
This is not a work for a lovely outing with grandmother. Its style and content are bracing. Its strength lies in its provocation. Dora, for example, hams it up like an exaggerated Scarlett O'Hara, even as black bodies are abused around her and families are broken up by slavery.
Garrett gets strong turns from her large cast, who attack their difficult roles with clear commitment. Hodgson gives a cracked edge to BJJ, showing us a contemporary playwright trying to avoid the tracks — and traps — laid down by the likes of Boucicault. Hegge, too, has a manic edge as the Playwright, a figure oblivious to the mayhem he's causing. And Ricardo Vazquez, a Latino actor, lets us see that he's playing a role, of a white Assistant in blackface who has stooped to play a galling caricature.
The female parts are delivered in stylized fashion. Hughes is understated as Minnie, imbuing her with the contemporary air of someone hanging out on a stoop. Hodges treats Grace's pregnant belly as a humorous character of its own, while Froiland gives us a fluttery, buttery Dora.
In his query of the past, playwright Jacobs-Jenkins seems to locate some of the roots of our present distemper. His "Octoroon" is clever and messy but important work.