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In ‘An Octoroon,’ everything old is made new again

Breon Arzell plays three roles in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play "An Octoroon," a Definition Theatre Company production. | Joe Mazza

When it comes to hip updates of classics, contemporary playwrights and filmmakers have generally turned to the comedies of Moliere or the novels of Jane Austen. In “An Octoroon,” now receiving a sharply acted production by the Definition Theatre Company (founded by graduates of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and now a resident company at Victory Gardens Theater), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has opted for a far less obvious choice.

And it turns out to be ideal for his sharply satirical and, at the same time, deadly serious commentary on slavery, racial stereotypes and the state of theater, past and present.

When: Through Aug. 20
Where: Definition Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $15-$40
Info: www.victorygardens.org
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Jacobs-Jenkins has set his sights on “The Octoroon,” a pre-Civil War era melodrama by Dion Boucicault, an Irish-American writer and actor relatively unknown today but whose play, which opened in 1859 at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, was a huge hit and is said to have engendered seven road companies.

What he has devised is something of a whip-smart play-within-a-play in which Br’er Rabbit, that fabled trickster character in the American folktales of Uncle Remus, serves as stage manager and master of ceremonies. (He is captured in perfectly droll style here by Tyrone Phillips, complete with pink rabbit-ear cap.)

As Br’er Rabbit signals the dimming of the house lights, the stage lights come up on BJJ (Breon Arzell, outstanding in a role that requires two additional and very tricky portrayals). This alter ego of the author (“Hi, everyone,” says BJJ, “I’m a black playwright”) re-enacts his sessions with his white, female, very Noo Yawk therapist who challenges him to work out his problems, and deconstruct the race issue in America, by adapting Boucicault’s play.

And with that he sits at his mirror and begins to apply whiteface, assuming the character of George Peyton, the relatively benevolent young man who has just returned from France to learn that Terrebonne (“Good Earth”), the plantation he has inherited, is in precarious financial straits. George also learns that the villainous M’Closky (Arzell, again in whiteface), a former overseer of the plantation, plans to take control of the estate and sell the slaves.

Tiffany Oglesby (from far left), Sydney Charles, Maya Prentiss, Kelson McAuliffe and Chris Sheard in the Definition Theatre Company production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon.” | Joe Mazza

Romance complicates matters as Dora Sunnyside (Carley Cornelius, playing a classic white stereotype of a wealthy but clueless heiress), sets her sights on George. But he falls in love with the beautiful, if mournful, Zoe (played with elegance and a quiet gravitas by Ariel Richardson) who, unbeknownst to him, is an octoroon (one-eighth black, the daughter of his uncle through one of his slaves). M’Closky, too, has his sights on her and knows her parentage. And as things develop, George will have to choose between saving the estate by marrying Dora or sacrificing all for his love of Zoe.

All the familiar racial tropes are turned on their heads in various ways, with the two “house slaves” — Minnie, the troublemaker (Sydney Charles), and the more cautious Dido (Maya Prentiss) — engaging in some hilarious riffing in contemporary “best female friends” style, while dissing the very pregnant Grace (Tiffany Oglesby), and ogling Ratts (Kelson McAuliffe), a handsome sea captain. (“You Don’t Own Me,” the classic Lesley Gore song, is the brilliant background we hear at certain moments, and applause for whoever had that idea.)

A crucial subplot unfolds involving a young slave boy (played by Danielle Davis) and his pal, an Indian (Christopher Sheard in “redface”), with a lynching and a slave auction also part of this play whose plot is as twisted as the institution of slavery itself.

Expertly directed by Chuck Smith (finessing yet another stylistic twist on the heels of such recent successes as “Objects in the Mirror” and “King Liz”), “An Octoroon” would be stronger with some second-act trims.

And I should confess that while I was no fan of Jacobs-Jenkins’ previous plays (“Gloria,” “Neighbors” and “Appropriate”), he has struck gold with this one. As it turns out, his therapist was right.

Ariel Richardson plays Zoe and Breon Arzell plays George in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon.” | Joe Mazza