REVIEW: "APPROPRIATE" — by BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS @ South Coast Repertory
Updated: Feb 25
A play that pushes you to the limit, and shocks you to the core — full of broken-family tropes, from pedophilia, to anti-semitism, to dark family secrets. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins zeros in on the Lafayette family, who has gathered to auction off the family home — a creaking Arkansas plantation house, that comes complete with an onsite cemetery where slaves were buried.
FEBRUARY 23, 2023 — TWO PLAYS: “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman and “Appropriate” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins are currently alternating performances on the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory.
Both are explosive and deeply intimate portraits of America penned by two incredibly important American writers. One is deceased, one is very much alive, and both have something to say about who we are. An interesting thing about this rotating repertory experiment is they both use the same set of actors.
In a very crowded scene this past Wednesday night of our “Theatrical Event of the Season,” it was “Appropriate,” directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, offering us an incisive look at how a problem like racism, when rationalized or denied, can return to haunt us generation after generation. The play will be concluding this Sunday, February 26th.
Controversial subjects has been a component of the work of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins from the time he started writing right up to his breakout year in 2014. That was when he was recognized with an Obie Award for two works — “An Octoroon,” a modern adaptation of a 19th century play by Dion Boucicault, and this one, “Appropriate,” a play about race paradoxically performed by an all-white cast. In it, the Lafayettes returns to their recently deceased father’s estate to prepare for its liquidation only to discover a relic that tells them more about the old man than they care to know.
Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s story of one unhappy clan’s reunion in the shadow of death suggests a century-spanning anthology of similarly themed classics. Once again, we are faced with a flock of dissatisfied relatives, flown back to the old homestead for one last angry feast of guilt and recrimination.
Horton Foote, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill all spring to mind. So does Tracy Letts, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” itself reads like a compendium of every American family-fight-fest drama that has come before it.
Yet what a difference a chef makes. Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins honors the time-tested recipes of those who have gone before him, combining them into a crafty narrative guaranteed to hook amenable theatergoers. But he also brings a culinary self-consciousness to the mix that makes you savor the ingredients anew, while pondering why they have dominated American theater for so long
The death of the paterfamilias (that hoariest of family drama devices) draws loved ones from points distant to the Lafayette plantation in Arkansas. Serenaded by sound designer Melanie Chen Cole’s eerie effects, Frank (Lea Coco) and his fiancee, River (Jess Andrews), arrive in the dead of night, climbing through a window into a spooky deserted living room with random items, furniture and mementos in messy piles.
The first scene, played by candlelight, seems to establish “Appropriate” as a ghost story. A ghost even appears to rise up off the sofa until we realize it’s Frank’s nephew Rhys (Hunter Spangler), awakened by the intruders’ noise. Moments later, his mother, Toni (Shannon Cochran with one of the juiciest roles in the play), unable to sleep, prepares for the arrival of their brother Bo (Jamison Jones), his wife, Rachel (Tessa Auberjonois), and their kids Cassie (Natalie Bright) and Ainsley (Isaac Person).
“Appropriate” is a smoothly acted, naturalistic work whose inhabitants never step outside the action to comment upon it or themselves. But Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, an attentive student of theater history, knows that in plays, a carefully chosen catalyst can make people reveal themselves with exaggerated clarity, so that characters become their own caricatures.
That catalyst, in this case, is a doozy. It’s a book of old photographs, found in a hoarder’s paradise of an Arkansas mansion after its owner dies. So what? Family albums often surface at such moments. This one, though, is filled with pictures of dead black people, with broken necks. It would appear that they had all been lynched.
Neurotic divorcee single mom that she is, Toni took care of their father in his waning days. Her toxically dispensed resentment is part of the play’s central conflict. And that’s all enhanced by the newly discovered family album full of lurid photos. How each one copes with the revelation about their father is the provocative thesis of “Appropriate.” As the evidence surfaces, it becomes absurd to deny it any longer — their father, a legal scholar who was eyeing the Supreme Court, was a thoroughgoing racist.
Toni’s way of dealing with the book is to deny it exists. Bo attempts to excuse his father as a good man from a different time. Having lived with this father, Frank concludes the old man was bipolar, but then again Frank has a few demons of his own to sort out.
Speaking of which, Mr. Coco’s Frank, who these days goes by Franz, the youngest of the three Lafayettes, has always been the obligatory black sheep. No one had heard from him in years, and now here he is, with a young fiancée full of mystical mumbo jumbo who calls herself River (Ms. Andrews), and a written apology to be read to the kinfolk he has wronged.
Two acts later, the Lafayettes are pretty much where we met them, which is perfectly appropriate. Mr. Spangler’s Rhys uses a racial epithet to describe his Jewish Aunt Rachel, and we know that the ugly family tradition has been safely handed down to the next generation. Without forcing us, this remarkable and devious play allows us to draw our own parallels with the human sound and fury that fills most of the evening.
SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, CELEBRATING THEIR 59TH SEASON AND 543RD PRODUCTION, PRESENTS ON THE SEGERSTROM STAGE — APPROPRIATE; By BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS; Directed by DELICIA TURNER SONNENBERG; Scenic Design by LAWRENCE E. MOTEN III; Costume Design by DOMINIQUE FAWN HILL; Lighting Design by TOM ONTIVEROS; Sound Design & Original Music by MELANIE CHEN COLE; Dialect Coach NATHAN CROCKER; Dramaturg MARIA PATRICE AMON; Casting JOANNE DENAUT, CSA; Production Stage Manager SARAH GOSHMAN; Artistic Director DAVID IVERS; Managing Director PAULA TOMEI; Founding Artistic Directors DAVID EMMES & MARTIN BENSON; Voices of America Lead Honorary Producers RICHARD & LISA DE LORIMIER.
WITH: LEA COCO • JESS ANDREWS • HUNTER SPANGLER • SHANNON COCHRAN • TESSA AUBERJONOIS • JAMISON JONES • ISAAC PERSON • NATALIE BRIGHT •
SOUTH COAST REPERTORY’S “APPROPRIATE” with only three more performances will run Friday, February 24th at 8PM, Saturday, February 25th at 2:30PM and Sunday, February 26th at 2PM at the Emmes/Benson Theatre Center, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Running Time with intermission approximately 2 ½ Hours. Tickets may be purchased online at www.scr.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jenny Graham/SCR