A Familiar Face in An Octoroon
Posted on February 15, 2019
By Meredith Deeley, Curator of Education for The Wren's Nest
On January 24th, Melissa Swindell (the Executive Director of The Wren’s Nest) and I (the Curator of Education for The Wren’s Nest) were invited to attend a preview performance of the Actor’s Express’ production of An Octoroon. Neither of us were entirely sure what to expect of this modern-day adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama. However, we discovered that the play actually starts with a very familiar character. Entering the stage by dancing to a hip hop song and strutting with a familiar mix of humor and a touch of cockiness - not to mention ears and tail - was none other than Br’er Rabbit.
You may be wondering: Who is Br’er Rabbit? And why is so familiar to us at The Wren’s Nest?
Well, The Wren’s Nest is the historic home of Joel Chandler Harris, a 19th-century journalist for the Atlanta Constitution who is most famous for his books of folklore and fiction, including Uncle Remus His Songs and His Sayings. These books were based on the stories Harris heard from the enslaved people he spent time with when he was a child working on a plantation in Georgia. In most of Harris’s 35 books, the frame narrative features an enslaved man named Uncle Remus telling a young white boy folktales about a trickster named (you guessed it!) Br’er Rabbit.
A trickster is a character who often uses wit and intelligence rather than brute force or strength to triumph over rivals. The smaller, weaker Br’er Rabbit is no different and often escapes the bigger and stronger animals, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Wolf, through cunning and trickery. The trickster archetype is common in mythology and folklore across cultures, including Coyote in Native American folklore, Anansi the spider in West African folklore, and Loki in Norse mythology (yes, the same Loki featured in Marvel’s Avengers series).
Harris is often mistakenly credited with creating the Br’er Rabbit stories, but in reality, he merely chronicled them. Most of the stories originate from a merger of African and Native American folklore and were an important part of African American culture during the Antebellum era - the era in which An Octoroon takes place. The stories appealed to enslaved people as Br’er Rabbit, the character with less power, often overcame those with more power. Br’er Rabbit’s tales survived in the African American communities for generations as oral stories. Harris was the first to write the stories down, preserving them in written form, but the stories are also still told in the oral tradition today.
So what is this tricky fella doing hopping around this melodrama? There is no Br’er Rabbit in Dion Boucicault’s original 1859 version of the play (The Octoroon). Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins added the character to his adaptation and even portrayed Br’er Rabbit himself in the original production. The racial complications of Br’er Rabbit’s character actually make him a perfect addition to this meta-theatrical play. An Octoroon challenges the idea of defining people in “black” and “white” terms and Jacobs-Jenkins said he wanted to portray a character that “embodies two conflicting traditions.” Therefore, the Br’er Rabbit character in An Octoroon is all about duality. He is both inside the play and outside of it at the same time. He acts as an audience member - even literally sitting in the audience at one point - and then becomes a completely different character in the play, but without changing his costume in any way. Like a trickster, he is mischievous and playful, highlighting the absurdity of the play, but is seemingly also more aware of the big picture than anyone else, reminding the audience that the roots of the play are more serious.
An Octoroon uses the somewhat ridiculous 19th-century melodrama to encourage the audience to confront the controversial questions and tensions around the issue of race still at play today.
The performance intentionally makes you uncomfortable, while simultaneously laughing… and then looking to the people next to you to make sure it’s “okay” to laugh. The Br’er Rabbit character adds another layer of complexity to a play that already had Swindell and me buzzing with conversation and questions. An Octoroon filled our heads so that we were laughing, cringing, nervous, and inspired all at once.
You can find out more about Br’er Rabbit and Joel Chandler Harris by visiting The Wren’s Nest at 1050 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd, Atlanta, GA 30310. Be sure to come for our live storyteller performances at 1 PM on Saturdays! Or you can visit us at www.wrensnest.org. An Octoroon will continue performances at the Actor’s Express theatre at the King Plow Arts Center until February 24.