|Tamara Hickey, Eliott Purcell, Melinda Lopez & Brian T. Donovan in "appropriate"|
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)
SpeakEasy Stage's first production of the current season, “appropriate”, by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a former anthropology major who identifies as queer (though he questions what such labels really mean) both promises and threatens to confront an audience with an abundance of questions. It's a truly oxymoronic work, a play about the South without any Southerners, written by a black playwright with an all-white ensemble and a title with two possible meanings (as well as pronunciations). For the record, those would be an adjective and/or a verb. The former would connote “suitable or fitting”; the latter, “take possession of” or “to steal”. Thus he deals with what we might deem inappropriate family dysfunctional behavior as he appropriates various elements, plot points, and character development from classic American Family Dramas (such as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “Long Day's Journey Into Night” and the like). He refers to this as a “Frankenstein” play, assembled utilizing archetypes such as the responsible sibling who stays to guard the home, the sibling who's left to pursue a new life and identity, the Prodigal Son, the Bad Seed, the interfering stranger, and the (deceased) family patriarch.
That patriarch would be Ray Lafayette, whose funeral is the occasion for a family disunited reunion. The site is a former Arkansas slave plantation owned by generations of the Lafayette family that has seen better days, where three siblings and their significant others battle over the inheritance and legacy of their father, as they discover centuries of sinful history. That family consists of three disparate and dispersed family units: there's the recently-divorced Toni (Melinda Lopez) and her troubled teen son Rhys (Eliott Purcell); transplanted New Yorker Bo (Bryan T. Donovan) and his Type A wife Rachael (Tamara Hickey), his teen daughter Cassidy (Katie Elinoff) and younger son Ainsley (Brendan O'Brien); and the black sheep younger brother Franz (Alex Pollock), AWOL for a decade or so, with his hippie girlfriend River (Ashley Risteen). As they gather to remember their ancestral common ground, it's not only the almost deafening sound of cicadas that disturbs the evening. It swifly becomes a melodrama about ownership and belonging, confronting their notion of identity as well as many other questions brought about by their uncovering of a long-kept secret and what it means.
Employing basically naturalistic dialogue in some rather surreal situations, the playwright sets out these numerous questions (without answering any of them). These include, as Director M. Bevin O'Gara notes, whether the sins of our fathers are passed down to us, how one escapes one's personal and cultural history, what makes a villain, what makes a family, what you have the right to profit from, who has the right to tell a story, and even whether ghosts or spirits exist. The playwright states that it's really not about these questions as such, but how we don't answer them. That's a whole lot of expositional ground to cover in Act One (“Book of Revelation”). The play has so much to absorb that it becomes a bit of a mess, especially when in Act Two (“Book of Genesis”) the train wreck of a family goes off the rails, making “August: Osage Country” seem like a tea party (with a nod to Fight Choreography by Angie Jepson). It's fascinating, frustrating, off-putting and absorbing, often all at the same time. One thing it most definitely never becomes is boring. It's basically indescribable, and theatergoers are unlikely to be lukewarm about it. One either accepts the wacky goings-on and goes along for the rather bizarre ride, or doesn't; Jacobs-Jenkins is consistent in the dichotomy department. As for this critic, you are strongly urged to see this controversial crazy quilt of a play.
In this production, O'Gara superbly helms a terrific cast, especially Lopez, whose character is the most developed of all, Pollock's mesmerizing rant of an “eleven o'clock number”, and the crucial gothic trick-or-treating apparition of young O'Brien. The technical elements are wonderful, from the Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco (“early eclectic” and awe-inspiring, right down to the exposed and rotting lathes), to the (dare one say appropriate?) Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the eerily effective Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao, and the spookily concocted Sound Design by Arshan Gailus. One would also be remiss if not acknowledging the usually unsung hero, Props Supervisor Misaki Nishimiya (with enough props to furnish several seasons of shows) and the expert Dialect Coaching by the multi-talented Amelia Broome (also represented currently in Lyric Stage's “My Fair Lady”).
At one point near the end of the play, as the family considers its deceased patriarch's legacy, one member states that “hurt is for the living”. Another describes the family as “a handful of stories to explain how trapped you feel”, and cheated. However you react to such views, you are certain to be talking about this work long after the last verbal and/or physical blow lands. Despite his intention to write this as a family drama, Jacobs-Jenkins laments that, since he is black, he still gets asked about race in this work. So it's fittingly sardonic that this production ends with the use of the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Disney's film “Song of the South” (long ago banished to the Disney basement due to its naïve, politically incorrect, patronizing depiction of African Americans such as Uncle Remus, who sings the song). As the lyric goes, “It's the truth, it's actual, ev'rything is satisfactch'll”. “Doo-Dah” indeed. Given the myriad of props strewn everywhere, do take care on the way out not to trip over the irony.