As the curtain rises on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” a rattling chorus of 13-year cicadas fills the Pamela Brown Auditorium. Far from a gentle nocturne, the sound swells with the pregnant heat of a southern summer night, conjuring images of rattling bones. Low lights reveal a man and a younger woman slipping through an open window into the living room of a plantation house that had, to be kind, seen better days. It’s the perfect introduction to Jacobs-Jenkins’ story of the Lafayette family, who have descended upon their late father’s crumbling country house in order to settle his estate and their own long-carried burdens.
Directed by eight-time Jefferson Award-winner Gary Griffin, “Appropriate” runs through April 7 in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The play has already been picked up by Washington, D.C.’s excellent Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for next season, and the Sundance Institute theater program, where Jacobs-Jenkins developed “Appropriate,” recently awarded him the inaugural Tennessee Williams Award for the development of new work, indications that suggest the play will enjoy a long production life after the festival ends.
[Note: This review contains spoilers for a major plot point that happens early in the play. It would be difficult to discuss the play’s purpose without it.]
Franz (Reese Madigan)—really, his name is Frank—is the prodigal son breaking into his father’s house through the window, his much-younger girlfriend Trisha (Natalie Kuhn) in tow. They’re surprised by Franz’s nephew Rhys (David Rosenblatt), asleep on the couch, and the commotion brings eldest sister Toni (Jordan Baker) downstairs, ready for battle. Immediately, the accusations fly—is there any more charged situation than a dead parent and years of stored-up sibling acrimony?
Dad’s house isn’t what Trisha pictured (“More ‘Gone With the Wind,’ less ‘Hoarders,’” she had imagined.), but Toni’s trying to sort it all out for a tag sale and the real estate auction the next day. When their successful brother Bo (Larry Bull) and his incredulous wife Rachel (Amy Lynn Stewart) arrive the next day with their kids, little Ainsley (Gabe Weible, of “A Christmas Story” and “A Christmas Carol” local fame) and 13-year-old Cassidy (Lilli Stein), the bickering reaches a fever pitch even before they make a horrifying discovery. Among dad’s possessions is a photo album full of photographs of lynched African Americans. Toni’s in denial — it couldn’t have been his — while Rachel feels vindicated. As a Jew, she’d been on the receiving end of his bigotry. Bo and Frank don’t know what to think or feel. The teenagers are fascinated, because they’re finally learning some of the family secrets, and this family has plenty of events they prefer not to disclose.
But a sequestered weekend in the family estate is time for long-buried resentments and anger to come to a head, and disclose and deal (or at least blame and rebuff) they will. Griffin keeps the dueling threads of family secrets and resentments straight, but just barely—Jacobs-Jenkins has loaded this family down with so much baggage in such a tight frame that some of it, like Rhys’ trouble at school, gets a little lost in the shuffle.
Compared to his play “Neighbors,” which opened in New York’s Public Theatre in 2010, in which black actors performed in blackface and skewered other tropes of minstrelsy, “Appropriate” is almost delicate in its treatment of race—the audience never sees the photographs, and a box of human trophies (“This looks like an ear.”) is dismissed casually in one brief scene and not mentioned again (though the audience, for sure, keeps going back to that box). By the third discovery, they’re all so unraveled it barely registers on the family, but suffice to say it’s a visual that is highly effective in both the metaphorical and literal sense.
Bo says, “What does it matter who lost what? It’s gone. Let it go.”
“You can’t blame people for how they were raised,” says Rachel.
The acting in this production is top-notch, with Baker alone earning every inch of her standing ovation as the broken-down Toni, whose martyr complex is fed by the role she’s taken in the family and her own narcissism—likely, too, a legacy of their father. In Baker’s hands, Toni walks that tough line between utterly terrible and weirdly sympathetic. Her counterbalances are sweet, self-actualized Trisha and determined Rachel, and both Kuhn and Stewart hold their respective ground against her formidable presence with aplomb. Stein captures the gawky vulnerability of adolescent Cassidy with heartbreaking precision. Madigan’s Frank/Franz proves to be the emotional center of the play—bewildered, grasping for redemption, completely convinced it might be out of his reach forever, and Bull’s unraveling at the end is particularly moving.
On one hand, “Appropriate” is an indictment of the so-called post-racial America, in which the violence perpetrated on generations of black Americans is supposed to be forgiven wholesale without further investigation or interrogation because it happened in the past (and contemporary racial violence is … something else?). On the other hand, it’s a routine dysfunctional family drama in which the long-festering conflicts between three adult siblings come to a head as they attempt to settle their father’s — and their own — affairs. This duality creates a comfort zone for audience members who are then periodically shocked out of their complacency — we know these people, we know this genre — by the reemergence of the album, which none of them can seem to get rid of. At the heart of both zones Jacobs-Jenkins works in is the question of whether change is truly possible. Is Frank, with his criminal past, still the same man he was before, even if he says he has changed? Is America? What responsibility did Toni and Bo have to protect Frank and their own families? Is forgiveness possible, or is forgetting the best we can muster?
The Pamela Brown Humana design team (Antje Ellermann on sets, Matt Frey on lights, Bray Poor on sound) do a masterful job of transforming the space into a realistically shabby, once-grand home, but it’s in the denouement, in which we flash into the future, that they really shine, showing the fate of the Lafayette house, its legacy, we can hope, crumbling into oblivion.