On an interior wall of a weathered Arkansas antebellum plantation, hangs the portrait painting of the family patriarch, a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who has recently passed away. His family gathers to pick over his estate and come to grips with the psychological and emotional pain he has left in his wake.
|Dee Covington as Toni, Sean Scrutchins as Franz, and Erik Sandvold as Bo|
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Thus begins the latest gem from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the playwright, who won the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play, for this play, Appropriate, and for An Octoroon. His play Gloria was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2016 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. But, despite this recent success, Jacobs-Jenkins is still pigeon-holed and characterized as writing about race, a label he questions:
"I feel like Iím put in a position where I have to engage with what people bring to my work, which is an expectation for me to talk about race, because itís not normal for a black writer to be writing in the theatre," he says. "So I have to ... explain my presence, my skin colour. Those are definitely the works that people wind up responding to for whatever reason; Iíve certainly written plays that donít do that."
While some of Jacobs-Jenkinsís works do explore black identity, his award-winning play Appropriate is made up entirely of white characters. A critic in the Washington Post commented: "Jacobs-Jenkins appropriates, makes his own, a story of white America, and this presages a more hopeful time when the ethnic identity of a playwright might not prompt a mention."
Try flipping it around and analysing the whiteness of Arthur Miller, Eugene OíNeill or Tennessee Williams. Jacobs-Jenkins observes: "I think everyone is always writing about race. Race is not like a thing you opt into as a conversation." (Emphasis added)
"Itís like a matrix or a system of values that we all operate in and live inside of every day but, for some reason for artists of colour, we get labelled as writing about race when actually, if you look at every classic American play, theyíre basically all about the idea of race and relation and an evolution of culture, otherness and how we deal with it. So I donít know, itís a tricky question to ask because if youíre going to ask me, youíve got to ask everyone."
—Interview from The Guardian, Friday 3 June 2016
We agree with Jacobs-Jenkins: Every play is about race at some level, so why call it out when the playwright is African-American? As The Guardian interview notes re: Appropriate, every character is white, yet the question of racism and its perversions are unavoidable. We applaud Jacobs-Jenkins for putting #whiteprivilege front and center in this piece, and Curious Theatre for staging this. After all, as an African-American, how could Jacobs-Jenkins not focus on this?
The American colonies and the U.S.A. were built on racism—slaughtering Native Americans and African-Americans. It's embedded in the original version U.S. Constitution, which defines African-Americans as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the census and, thus, Congressional representation of the southern states, where slavery was "legal." The northern states used other "legal" means to enslave non-whites and the poor and working class, you name it: red-lining, voter suppression, gerrymandering, legal sleight-of-hand, and the usual capitalist legerdemain: interest and the "business cycle," by which collateralized assets (homes, businesses, farms, etc.), the fruits of our labor, are seized with regularity.
In the script, after the title page, before the credits for the play's various premieres, the playwright makes a special point of providing the definition of the title:
1. suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc.
||2. belonging to or peculiar to a person; proper.
3. to set apart, authorize, or legislate for some specific purpose or use.
||4. to take to or for oneself; take possession of.
||5. to take without permission or consent; seize; expropriate.
||6. to steal, especially to commit petty theft.
Appropriately, every one of these meanings comes alive in this play through the behavior of this definitively dysfunctional family. Still, before we get to the play, Jacobs-Jenkins sets up his literary reader with these quotes, which makes it clear that he is not talking only about race relations in the U.S.:
LOPAKHIN. If only my father and grandfather could rise up out of their graves, and see all thatís happened — how their little Yermolai, their abused, semi-literate Yermolai, who used to run around barefoot in winter — how that same Yermolai has bought this estate, the most beautiful spot on earth. Yes, Iíve bought the land on which my father and grandfather were slaves, where they werenít even allowed in the kitchen.
—Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
No "we" should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other peopleís pain.
—Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
Thus, Jacobs-Jenkins serves notice that slavery has been instituted on every continent of the globe by people of various colors on people of various colors.
But before he immerses us in his story, the moody darkness of his prologue envelopes us. From it arises visceral, rhythmic incantations of the 17-year cicadas, whose call reaches out and touches us, and then recedes temporarily, without ever fully withdrawing its vocal presence from the space, much like the recurring plague of racism and cruelty that curses this family, the Lafayettes, and the the people of U.S.A.
As the family gathers, the three adult children of the judge—one who lives in the South, one who lives in New York City, and one who is itinerate—reveal that, beneath their self-defined superficial differences lies a series of behaviors that stem from the shared experience of living with their morally perverted father.
Jacobs-Jenkins jumps on this in the opening scene, when the youngest sibling, Franz (Sean Scrutchins) breaks into the family's plantation home, after being incommunicado for ten years, running from his own sordid past. He is accompanied by his 23-year old fiancée, River (Rhianna DeVries), who is more than 20 years his junior. Ostensibly, they have been planning this visit ever since they heard of Frank's father's death, so that Frank could apologize to his sister, Toni (Dee Covington), and his brother Bo (Erik Sandvold), for his transgressions. Bo's wife, Rachael (Mare Trevathan), their two kids, Cassidy (Audrey Graves) and Ainsely (Harrison Lyles-Smith), and Toni's son, Rhys (Alec Sarché), add to the mayhem of dividing the estate and unearthing the disturbing past.
|(L to R) Rhianna DeVries as River|
and Dee Covington as Toni
Photo: Michael Ensminger
The powers-that-be have always used race, among other issues, to create division among the masses. It is always an effective distraction that keeps the people from focusing on "the man behind the curtain," who is pulling the levers at the top of the power pyramid. But at this time, as an emotional, psychological, and spiritual wedge is being driven particularly hard through the land, Jacobs-Jenkins chooses Toni to be the perfect decoy for his message.
In a family where denial is king, Toni proudly wears the crown, insisting on the moral steadfastness of her father, despite the growing body of evidence indicating his complicity in a variety of racially motivated crimes. Covington relishes the nastiness that pervades Toni's serpent-like strikes toward any and all who dare bring up the facts, and looms large as the principle antagonist, making her hateful points.
|Sean Scrutchins as Franz|
Photo: Michael Ensminger
While we're all feeling smug about not being like Toni, and being like Bo, who lives in New York City, is married to a Jew, and fancies himself as cosmopolitan, the cracks in Bo's fascade pull the rug out from underneath us. Sandvold is masterful at wrapping Bo's liberal illusions around himself and others, trying to keep the peace between Toni and Franz, and Toni and Rachael. When Bo finally confronts the truth, Sandvold's catharsis becomes the heart of the play.
Our sympathies go out to Franz, when we learn that, with River's help, he has apparently overcome his struggles with substance abuse and the depravities that go with it; but, as the play reaches its extended climax in Act Three, Scene One, and following, we see two conflicting revelatory actions from him: first, a realization of the source of his father's incendiary photographs, along with a flood of memories that, like Bo's catharsis, show us the truth of the matter; and, second, his pecuniary interest in such photos. Scrutchins rides Franz' emotional rollercoaster for all its worth, putting an exclamation point on the spectrum of sibling dysfunction that blossoms as the fruit of his family's poisonous tree.
Rachael, the outsider, is all that remains of levity, though she is not able to entirely escape the venom and delusions of her in-laws. Trevathan lays bare the incredulity and frustration of Rachael's position, as wife and mother, while letting herself get sucked into fray, much to her own dismay.
|(L to R) Dee Covington as Toni|
and Mare Trevathan as Rachael
Photo: Michael Ensminger
River, the other outsider, for all her support for her recovering fiancé, reveals her breaking point over an issue that strikes too close to home—a crisis of faith emphatically delivered by DeVries. Like Rachael and the children, she attempts to stand outside the familial moral miasma, to no avail. Nice work by all the young actors as well.
In case anyone has trouble identifying the large and looming elephant in the room, as noted at the top, it's called #whiteprivilege.
Curious Theatre Company's presentation of Appropriate, runs through October 14th. For tickets: https://www.curioustheatre.org.