What is An Octoroon?

Posted on January 08, 2019

What is an octoroon?



noun Older Use: Offensive.

a person having one-eighth black ancestry, with one black great-

grandparent; the offspring of a quadroon and a white person.


The following photographs were taken in New Orleans in the 1860’s for the purpose of raising funds for an organization that intended to educate emancipated slaves. The slave children with light complexions are octoroons, quadroons, one-sixteenth black or possibly less. 

Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence, age 5, emancipated slave.


An Octoroon is based on the play The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault which

made its debut in America in 1859. The play was an adaptation of a

novel entitled The Quadroon, which told the story of a slave that was

1/4 th black, raised as a white child on a plantation, and in love with the

white plantation owner. In The Octoroon, Boucicault changed the slave

character’s racial background to 1/8th black. Some feel he made the

change to play up the tragedy of the story about the slave character’s

unfeasible love for the white plantation owner.

Boucicault’s play was met with much acclaim in America and ignited

discussions about the abolition of slavery. Although actors in the

production performed in blackface, the practice of darkening an actor’s

skin to portray roles of non-white characters was an acceptable practice

in theatre during the time period.

In his studies of the theatre, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took great interest

in Dion Boucicault as a playwright, especially the play The Octoroon. In

an interview with American Theatre, Jacobs-Jenkins expounded on

Boucicault’s influence on An Octoroon and his perspective as a


“I became really obsessed with Boucicault. He’s actually like our
first American dramatist, because he’s this Anglo-Irish guy that
came over here and wrote one of the first, most important plays
about American life. It was this huge sensation and a direct
response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is this hugely important flag
in the history of American theatre. I was interested in how
Boucicault would rewrite his plays depending on his
audiences—like for The Octoroon, he had two different endings:
one in which the heroine died (for American audiences) and
another where she didn’t (for the British audiences). To me, that
did not square up against the idea of an “responsible artist.” An
artist had to make an artistic choice and stand by it. The idea that
he would be commercially reworking his work just to make
money was just… I don’t know.
But as I dug deeper, I realized that’s not actually how it shook
down. He tried his original ending in London and the audiences
wouldn’t deal with it. He wrote like all these pamphlets and
editorials defending his ending as “truthful” but in the end,
perhaps a little out of spite, he rewrote the ending. I think a lot of
people see this as some sort of… weakness on his part, but I think
it’s telling that he burned that draft—that it’s not even in the
public domain anymore. Then he made a cut version for the
printing, which was never actually produced and I thought, “This
is so amazing.”
I did all this crazy archival research at the New York Public
Library and I found this insane unfinished essay he wrote on the
art of dramatic writing. One thing I’ve always lamented is that
playwrights never really write down what they think in a real
way. I love Arthur Miller’s theatre essays—this is me being
academic and ridiculous. So I find this Boucicault essay and it says
how the whole enterprise for us is creating the dramatic illusion.
We’re just trying to create the most perfect illusion, because that
is where catharsis begins with audiences. And the way we get that
illusion is that we create the most believable illusion of someone
suffering. And I was, like, obsessed with this essay and that kind of
became the guide for Octoroon. I wanted to talk about the illusion
of suffering versus actual suffering and ask, “Is there a
relationship between the two?”
Isaac White, Mary Johnson and Augusta Broujey shortly after emancipation Augusta was a slave in her uncle’s house.

Read his full interview here.

Blog content provided by Adah Pittman-DeLancey.

Images provided by SohoRep:  http://sohorep.org/glossary-oc...