In ‘Appropriate,’ family tensions and something more
A loud clanging sound suddenly erupts from the other side of the rehearsal hall at the Calderwood Pavilion. Actress Melinda Lopez, playing inebriated Toni, stumbles into the middle of the room, where two young woman stare at an antique photo album with shocked yet transfixed expressions. Lopez’s Toni grabs the book from the clutches of her niece Cassidy, played by Katie Elinoff, and admonishes her to put it in her car, then confronts her brother’s fiancee, River (Ashley Risteen). “You think they’re yours to hang onto?” she barks.
The myriad questions raised by the book, filled with gruesome, racially charged images of dead African-Americans, lie at the heart of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Obie Award-winning play “Appropriate.”
SpeakEasy Stage Company is mounting the Boston premiere of the play at the Calderwood Pavilion, where it runs through Oct. 10. “Appropriate” considers the question of the country’s painful racial history in the context of a fractured family drama about siblings returning to their generations-old plantation home to sift through its ramshackle remnants. The drama, along with Jacobs-Jenkins’s provocative “An Octoroon,” a highly-stylized adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama about illicit interracial love, shared the Obie Award for Best New American play last year. (Company One Theatre will be staging “An Octoroon” in January 2016.)
The play grew out of a double-standard Jacobs-Jenkins spied in the divergent critical reception to two big, bold American family dramas that landed on Broadway within a few years of each other. While Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” received rave notices from critics and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Lydia Diamond’s 2011 Broadway debut “Stick Fly” received mixed reviews. Letts is a white Oklahoma native, while Diamond, a former Bostonian, is an African-American writer.
“I remember her work was kind of creamed by the same critics, along the lines of, ‘She’s not saying enough about race and class, and it’s really just a melodrama.’ But they were the same critics who praised ‘August: Osage County’ for the exact same qualities. You know, ‘It’s a melodrama, but it’s so fun,’” says Jacobs-Jenkins, over the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s on a break from rehearsals for an upcoming production of “Appropriate” at the Mark Taper Forum. “I was like, Why are these two different playwrights being held to what I felt were different standards? So that weird tension sparked something inside of me.”
Plays by African-American writers like “Stick Fly,” Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” or August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” Jacobs-Jenkins says, aren’t usually categorized as American family dramas; instead they’re deemed “social dramas” about race.
“For some reason, these family dramas only become plays about race when the person who’s writing about it is of color,” he says. “So I was interested in what that meant.”
Jacobs-Jenkins began mulling the idea of exploring the genre, long dominated by white male playwrights, for himself. “I also just felt like I wanted to write a play about family, because in my personal life, I’m at that age where family was suddenly becoming clear as a social stress to me,” he says.
As he began to write “Appropriate” five years ago, Jacobs-Jenkins went back and reread every iconic American family drama he could get his hands on — from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to “Death of a Salesman,” “Buried Child,” and the plays of Horton Foote.
“Looking back over these old plays, all of them are actively about race and class, but they’re never treated like that,” he says.
As he began writing, Jacobs-Jenkins cribbed, or “appropriated,” one element, plot point, or character detail that he admired from each of the plays, most of them written by white male playwrights, and then assembled them to form “Appropriate.” At first, it was a disastrous four-hour-plus hodgepodge, but as he began to sand down and shape the play, he found his footing.
“What I think is so remarkable is that he’s stolen all of these things from all these different places but made it uniquely his own,” says M. Bevin O’Gara, who’s directing the play for SpeakEasy.
The drama he crafted centers on the estranged members of the Lafayette clan who gather together at their hoarder father’s dilapidated Arkansas homestead, a former slave plantation, after his death. There’s Toni, a recent divorceé, and her troubled teenage son Rhys (Eliott Purcell); upper-middle-class New Yorker Bo (Bryan T. Donovan), his high-strung wife, Rachael (Tamara Hickey), and their two children; and black-sheep younger brother Franz, née Frank (Alex Pollock), who shows up at the house unexpectedly with his young hippie-dippy girlfriend, River, in tow.
After the photo album is unearthed, everyone is unsettled. Yet they feud over what to do with it, whether it even belonged to their father, and what secrets he may have long kept buried.
“How can they deal with not ever really knowing who their father was? How are they dealing with this book? And are they capable of discussing it? That is representative of how our country deals with race,” says O’Gara. “Is it possible to have a conversation given everyone’s emotional ties and personal ties into that conversation? Is it possible for us to deal with it and discuss it and move on? Is it best to confront these things head on or is it best to bury it?”
As an African-American playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins at first resisted the expectation that he write about race. So he instead decided to confront the notion of identity. In his incendiary play “Neighbors,” produced by Company One in 2011, a family of minstrel performers in blackface, played to the stereotypic hilt, move into a neighborhood next door to a contemporary mixed-race family. In the highly-stylized “An Octoroon,” an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama, the son of a plantation owner falls in love with a woman who is one-eighth black.
O’Gara draws a parallel between how Jacobs-Jenkins feels about being pigeonholed as a black playwright to how the characters in “Appropriate” react to being categorized. “There’s the hippie, there’s the villain, there’s the drug addict. We can all be reduced to one thing,” she says. “I think that heightens the drama for us because we have all, in our own way, felt reduced. But no one is one thing.”
Says Jacobs-Jenkins, “With ‘Appropriate,’ I really did just try to write a family drama. But at the end of the day, you know, everyone is still asking me about race. So what do you do?”
Play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara.
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company.
At Roberts Studio Theater, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 10.
Tickets: From $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com