An Octoroon creative team denounce the Irish Times Theatre Awards’ nominations

Virginia Ferri examines the question of racial prejudice surrounding nominations for the Abbey Theatre’s production of An Octoroon

Although Anthony Simpson-Pike’s production of An Octoroon was nominated for Best Production in the Irish Times Theatre Awards, a notable aspect was omitted from the other categories: credit due to the people of colour in its cast and crew. It seems ironic in a play which confronts themes of race, identity, and slavery with its purpose being to force a white audience to reflect on their own biases and prejudices that the only cast members to be nominated were the production’s two white actors for the awards of Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively.

In a statement released on February 10, members of the production’s creative team expressed their frustration with the announcement: “Although the cast […] was made up of a majority of people of colour (8/10), a decision was made to only recognise the two white actors for [individual] nominations… We believe this is unacceptable.” The statement has been reposted by various members of the production team on Instagram, as well as by other popular accounts.

The response of the wider public has been, for the most part, in agreement with the creative team over the unfairness of these nominations. This has also sparked conversation about diversity in Irish theatre and the arts in general, especially regarding the importance of representation and recognition. As An Octoroon’s writer Branden Jacob-Jenkins asked in an interview with Eliza Bent: “What is it about blackness that creates so much anxiety that you have to single it out? And why do you feel like this Starbucks employee should be black and not the lawyer? What are the assumptions going into this creative act here?” These questions are all worth asking ourselves when thinking about the creative industry and its racial biases.

An Octoroon, originally written by Jacobs-Jenkins in 2014, is a retelling of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859). Boucicault was an Irish playwright, which lends significance to the fact of its adaptation at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Boucicault’s play focused on a plantation in Louisiana called Terrebonne, focusing on the doomed love between Zoe, who is an ‘octoroon’, meaning a person of one-eighth African descent, and George, a white man. With its two alternate endings — the “tragic-ending” performed for American audiences (the mixed-race couple cannot unite due to Zoe committing suicide) and the “happy-ending” performed in England (the couple marries) — it was an important play for its time, and has subsequently created debates surrounding the meaning of these endings.

In Jacob-Jenkins’ retelling, the playwright suggests that racialized time is more complex and nuanced than Boucicault’s depiction. In order to do so, he uses Brechtian devices, breaking the fourth wall and forcing the audience to interact with time and racism in the play. The audience is not allowed to merely watch, but has to interact with it. This was the version put on in the Abbey Theatre, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, an uncomfortable yet important performance put on for a predominantly white audience. The reception of the play was outstanding; it received countless five-star reviews, with the Irish Mail on Sunday declaring it to be “funny, tragic, and a blistering critique of racial attitudes in America”. However, it is interesting to note that many of the reviews seem to only criticise the United States’ inherent racism, whilst the lack of nominations for Black actors in An Octoroon indicates that it is time for the Irish public to re-evaluate their own prejudices as well.

It is practically impossible to look at the nominations list and argue that the omission was not racially motivated, which raises questions on representation in Irish theatre.

We all know that awards are not everything one does not produce a play purely in the hope that it will win an award. However, awards are an important form of recognition, allowing the wider public to understand that plays which deal with difficult subjects and challenge audiences, like An Octoroon, are plays that can succeed in the theatre industry. When such a play does get recognised, you would hope that it is the people who are being vulnerable on stage, expressing their identity to a predominantly white audience, who are awarded for their acting. It is practically impossible to look at the nominations list and argue that the omission was not racially motivated, which raises questions about representation in Irish theatre.

As stated in the widely-circulated statement, shared by @black_andirish on Instagram: “We hope that our production will continue to provoke questions surrounding diversity, representation and inclusion in Irish theatre.” Plays like An Octoroon confront the lack of diversity in theatre, through reworking plays by white Irish writers and dealing with race and slavery, for a contemporary audience, with a cast consisting of people of colour and a Black director, making the play both special and educational. It is an accessible way for people to learn more about what it means to be Black, and especially what it means to be Black in Ireland.

It is certainly disappointing to see the lack of diversity in the Irish Times Theatre Awards list, but it has been less disheartening to see the public’s response to this. Hopefully, if people continue to fight for diversity and hold others accountable for their actions, the theatre scene in Ireland can move towards one that is more inclusive, and that will reward deserving artists who are vulnerable in their work.