Definition Theatre Company Presents AN OCTOROON – Subversive Deconstruction of Race in America

Definition Theatre Goes To Racism's Fast Beating Heart

With subliminal strains of Leslie Gore crooning “You Don’t Own Me” in your mind’s ear, 21st Century psychobabble collides with layer upon layer of America’s race realities, then and now. Two house slaves (Sydney Charles and Maya Prentiss) – whose comic antics have been regaling us for nearly two hours every time they get a scene – are having yet another anachronistic chat where one comments to the other “…you are not your job. Just because you are a slave it doesn’t mean…”

Doesn’t mean what? playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins seems to shout with every line in his hoping-to-push everybody’s button script.

Sensibilities of Pre-Civil War Melodrama as Launch Point

Taking as his launch point an 1859 melodrama of same name, playwright Jacobs-Jenkins lays bare and explodes the obvious premise of that earlier play. He seems to ask-- Does the melodrama’s leading lady need to be an octoroon to win the hearts and minds of the white audience?

 Backtracking, if a modern playwright wanted to find a single word that conveys the pus and putrescence of racism, isn’t “octoroon” seemingly made-to-order?

This writer advises you to dwell on that word “octoroon” long before you get to the theater, because this script’s filet of race comes at you so fast, furious and funny that real-time processing is challenged. It’s not unlike a stand-out standup comedy routine by Dave Chapelle or Chris Rock that has you laughing so hard, you then look back and wonder if it was within the confines of appropriate.

Masterful Acting

Without doubt this play would go nowhere quickly if it weren’t for the talents of Breon Arzell, whose inner metronome enables him to seamlessly change tempo and persona several times a sentence.

Definition Theatre AN OCTOROON
Breon Arzell readying to perform in the script by The Playright, (right) Christopher Sheard Photo: Joe Mazza
Definition Theatre AN OCTOROON
Ariel Richardson in the title role and Breon Azell, her would-be suitor Photo: Joe Mazza
Definition Theatre AN OCTOROON
(left to right) Ariel Richardson, Maya Prentiss and Carly Cornelius Photo: Joe Mazza

We meet him putting on white face as he complains that you just can’t get good help these days from white people who won’t take on the role of an unapologetic racist. In his opener he flits in lightening speed between the persona of his white therapist probing his inner racist rage and his observer self and then back again, confessing he has no therapist really, and then continuing to convey what she has said.

Enter Danielle Davis, first as Arzell’s long suffering and glowering intern, who then dons Minstrel black face that she wears for her parts in the play within the play of a stereotyped old slave – actually 43 years old—and young boy who gets murdered by the evil villain. As the story unfolds Arzell becomes that villain and also the would-be savior of the slaves, or maybe just his octoroon love interest, in a fast-paced back and forth that will leave you dizzy and giddy—trying to keep pace.

These are masterful performers and great direction by Chuck Smith– and reason enough to make this production recommended.   The entire cast is quite good, actually, keeping the pace and with just right shtick that lets you stay surface or dive deep into the script’s deconstruction of race relations in America – then, now and every day in between.


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.


Thru August 20

Thursdays and Fridays 8 PM
Saturdays 2:30 PM and 8:00 PM
Sunday 2:30 PM


Victory Gardens Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Avenue




For tickets call the box office at 773 871 3000 or visit the Victory Gardens website.

Photos: Joe Mazza

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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