BBC Radio 3, 5 May 2013
First performed in 1859, The Octoroon is the kind of melodrama, full
of good and evil characters, interspersed with music and encouraging audience participation, that died out of fashion with
the onset of so-called 'realistic' drama at the end of the nineteenth century.
Set on a Louisiana plantation, it focuses on
the love between George Peyton (Trevor White) and beautiful Zoe (Amaka Okafor), an Octoroon with one-eighth Negro blood.
According to the laws of that time, miscegenation was forbidden, so the lovers are technically committing a crime. Matters
are complicated by the fact that Zoe is also loved by the unsuccessful overseer Salem Scudder (Toby Jones) and the unscrupulous
Jacob M'Closky (Steven Hartley), while George himself is being pursued by Dora Sunnyside (Claire Lams), the daughter of a
rich plantation owner. Boucicault also works into this complicated plot a battle between a Cherokee Indian and
one of the protagonists, and a fire aboard ship.
With so much going on, it was hardly surprising that Sasha Yevtushenko's production rattled
along at a brisk pace, allowing listeners little time to reflect on the story's manifest implausibilities.
On the other hand, we were made well aware of the restrictive laws of that time, promoting the kind of casual racism that should
have died out by now. The only problem is that it hasn't: several stories have recently appeared in the British
press about local councillors and other officials expressing racist views in public. The Octoroon shows
what happens if such attitudes are allowed to flourish: no two races can ever hope to live together in harmony.
In many ways this production reminded
me of Show Boat, written some seventy years later, in its portrayal of a world where human beings are reduced
to commodities, and where African-Americans are automatically viewed as second-class citizens. While there were some
fun moments - which certainly appealed to the live audience (Yevtushenko's production was recorded live at the Theatre Royal,
Stratford East) - I was left with a feeling of uneasiness. Perhaps interracial attitudes have not changed as much as
we would like to believe.