Race lies at heart of melodramatic ‘Octoroon’ at Berkeley Rep

Racial perceptions lie at the heart of the Obie-winning “An Octoroon”  by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in its West Coast premiere, it’s a melodrama inspired by a 1859 play by Dion Boucicault.

The story itself is fairly simple. After the death of its owner, a Southern plantation faces foreclosure.

The owner’s virtuous nephew, George (Lance Gardner), returns from Paris to try to save it. He falls in love with the owner’s illegitimate daughter, Zoe (Sydney Morton), but he can’t marry her because she’’s one-eighth black.

The flirtatious, rich but vacuous Dora (Jennifer Regan) wants George for herself, while the villainous M’Closky (Gardner again) covets the plantation and its slaves.

The play begins with Gardner, a black man, in his underwear as he plays BJJ, the playwrigh’s initials. As he discusses the implications of race, he paints his face white, listens to an obscene rap song and dons a wig to portray George and M’Closky.

In the meantime, his white assistant (Amir Talai), paints his face black and dons a black Afro wig to portray two black characters in BJJ’s play.

Completing the racial riff is another white actor, Ray Porter, portraying a playwright who gets into a profanity-laden tiff with BJJ before painting his face red and donning Indian garb for his part in the melodrama.

Directed by Eric Ting, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, the play is well acted considering the melodramatic style. However, such touches as a shower of cotton balls that cover the stage seem unnecessary.

The most believable characters are the three slaves: Afi Bijou as Minnie, Jasmine Bracey as Dido and Afua Busia as Grace. Their conversations reveal much about their restrictions such as not being able to learn to read.

Even more telling are the three friends’ fears of being sold individually to the highest bidder because they were regarded as nothing more than property.

The production is enhanced by Arnulfo Maldonado’s sets, Montana Blanco’s costumes (Dora’s overdone dresses are a hoot), Jiyoun Chang’s lighting and Jake Rodriguez’s sound.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “An Octoroon” has its pluses, but it lags in spots and its melodramatic excesses can be tiresome.

It continues through July 23 in Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.