The posters for Appropriate, a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that opened Sunday night at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, proclaim it is about uncovering “a haunted past and historical sin.” While the play certainly does focus heavily on the impact of past events, at its core it is about a family who is struggling to escape their history before it defines their future.
The title intentionally has two pronunciations and meanings, one more literal than the other. The play certainly has no shortage of inappropriate behavior from its extremely dysfunctional cast of characters, but on a more literal note it is about three adult siblings who come together in the wake of their father’s death and must literally “appropriate” their family home and everything in it. Appropriate, which had its world premiere in 2013, is set in a largely abandoned Arkansas plantation. Despite the racially charged setting and its implications, the entire cast is white (although writer Jacobs-Jenkins is African American), and none of the characters are originally from the south.
Directed by Eric Ting, the story is told over a period of two days as the family prepares their late father’s home for an estate sale. Emotions are high—the three siblings have not all been in the same room in over a decade, their family tree has no shortage of secrets, lies, and traumas, and the implications of their father’s death bring out the worst in them. To make matters worse, midway through act one they find a startling, disturbing antique in the house that makes them question if they actually knew their father at all.
The cast of 8 consists of, as one character astutely points out in act three, a bunch of “misfit disaster people.” Toni (Melora Hardin of The Office and Transparent) is the eldest Lafayette sibling who is attempting to recover from her life recently imploding by taking control of dealing with the estate, although not in a manner anyone else agrees with. She has a troubled teenage son, Rhys (will Tranfo) who was responsible for said implosion. The middle sibling is Bo (David Bishins), who does the best job of pretending his life is together. He is accompanied by his opinionated, Type A wife, Rachel (Missy Yager) and their children, teenage Cassidy (Grace Kaufman) and young Ainsley (Alexander James Rodriguez on opening night). Finally, there’s Frank (Robert Beitzel), the youngest sibling and black sheep of the family, and his new fiance, artsy, part-time vegan chef River (Zarah Mahler). All of the characters were impressively well-drawn, and the cast did a phenomenal job at keeping up the dramatic, darkly funny tension over the lengthy three acts, which managed not to drag aside from a couple of eleventh hour monologues that overstayed their welcome.
The subject matter of Appropriate is, unfortunately, rather appropriate for the current political and racial climate in the United States. The characters approach the many pieces of evidence pointing to their deceased father’s racism with discomfort and an eagerness to sweep it all under the rug. Even when it is directly affecting their lives, they go out of their way to avoid dealing with it. The Lafayette family are experts when it comes to revisionist history—whether it’s regarding their father’s character or specific, tragic events in their shared past, no one seems to remember things quite the same way. They remember events and people the way they want to, the way that is easiest for them. As is commented on towards the end of the play, every character would likely have a very different recollection of the weekend depicted if asked about it later.
This play works well because while the specific situations may be extreme, the familial themes are relatable. I did find the ending ventured a bit too eagerly into heavy-handed symbolism, but this was never the kind of story that would be wrapped up in a neat little bow. It is not by any means a comfortable theater experience—in addition to racism, the play deals with religion and religious slurs, mentions of pedophilia, and vague references to mental illness that I frankly wished were explored more deeply. There were definitely moments that could have easily been played for pure shock value, but they were woven well enough into the characters and situation that they felt organic rather than controversial for the sake of being controversial.
Ultimately, the play seems to take the stance that people don’t change—even after nearly three hours of arguing, the Lafayettes mostly show little to no growth as people. Although I felt time could have been redistributed a bit to elaborate on some storylines and linger less on others, Appropriate is a provocative, well-written, timely piece that raises some interesting questions.
Appropriate runs through November 1st. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.