‘Appropriate’ review: all in the family

University of Portland production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins drama shows love and racism through the generations

by MARIA CHOBAN & BRETT CAMPBELL

Appropriate racism: “I was like, ‘How invisible can I make it?’” – Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Exasperated, Rachel grabs a huge orange photo album, hands it to her young hyperactive son, pushes him to the couch telling him to shut up or else. The huge 2’X2′ orange photo album contains photos of broken necked victims of lynchings. Which Rachel quickly discovers by glancing down at her suddenly quiet kid.

This is not the spoiler.

Two teens descend from upstairs with mason jars of souvenirs: body parts from the lynched victims. All this in an Arkansas plantation house where three siblings and their families combust, cleaning up the estate.

Nor is this the spoiler.

The five-year-old breaks up a full family brawl— by appearing in Klan-wear. The teenage girl tenderly shares her pilfered lynching pics with the cousin she’s crushing on.

Unbelievably, not even all these incidents are the spoiler. The audience is laughing as the horror ratchets. Racism — the gift that keeps on giving. One of us is stifling the guilt and inAppropriateness of our guffaws as Candide meets Whack-A-Mole.

University of Portland staged Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate (2013) October 4 – 8. Enroute to her MFA, director Jessica Wallenfels led her college-student actors through a madcap dark comedy. With wild cartoon exaggerations and furious forward motion, Wallenfels and BJJ gave us a great ride, right up to near the end where the oldest sibling, Toni, suddenly switches gears and delivers an unconvincing paean to her dear, departed daddy.

University of Portland’s ‘Appropriate’ L-R Joe Flory, Kaylie Haas, Sammie VanNorstrand, Pat Johnson, Brandon Chadney, Patrick Holland, Emma Pace, Rebby Foster. Photo: Gary Norman.

Two ArtsWatch writers both enjoyed the show, but for slightly different reasons.

MC: I walked out of the show happily flummoxed, processing the difference between Appropriate (2013) and An Octoroon (2010). This production was wicked fast. BJJ writes furiously and Wallenfels directed her cast to accelerate into and on top of each other.

In contrast, Octoroon’s tedious script (written when BJJ was 26) and Artists Repertory Theatre’s production put me to sleep. This was not due to BJJ’s writing, as “BJJ’s” “therapist” noted on ArtsWatch, but because BJJ relied on copy / pasting too much of a 150-year-old melodrama — The Octoroon (1859) — written by a second rate playwright, Dion Boucicault.

Nevertheless, I loved BJJ’s ability to draw emotion with his own minimal unsentimental lines, particularly in the opening monologue. In fact, it was BJJ’s writing that pushed me to take a chance on a student production to check out how he has evolved as a playwright. Over three years from 2010’s Octoroon (which he wrote when he was 26) to Appropriate (2013), BJJ matured lifetimes.

While this production of Appropriate faltered for me at the end, Octoroon failed right after its brilliant opening monologue — which, for me, Artists Rep botched in its production. In An Octoroon, BJJ defaulted to modernism: The device, the frame became the Gothic architectural centerpiece. In Appropriate, he wrote a wicked, enthralling, funny-as-hell plot and characters and wove not one but two huge themes that continually pummel us. Racism and Love inflict horror and, if done right, weeping.

BC: I was skeptical. I wasn’t as impressed by Octoroon’s opening monologue, although I was willing to accept your argument that the way it was staged spoiled it, since you’d read the script and I hadn’t. I agreed that the rest of it seemed gimmicky, and wasn’t sure what so many critics I respect, like Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones, not to mention the people who dole out those prized ‘genius’ grants, saw in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. (He was one of 23 recipients of the 2016 MacArthur fellowship.)

I sure wasn’t expecting Appropriate, which seemed at first to be a standard Chekhov/Tennessee Williams family drama, and then brilliantly used that frame to engage us in a deeper, darker story that’s even more relevant now with the resurgence of white supremacist ideology than it probably seemed four long years ago.

The only parts of Octoroon that worked for you were the monologue and the character who was pregnant — the only real human emotions portrayed. But they didn’t add up to much there. In Appropriate, Jacobs-Jenkins got both the big picture of racism told through the emotionally focused lens of family, and so we feel the power of racism much more viscerally because these are real people we can imagine doing this, not the caricatured stereotypes he’s spoofing in Octoroon.

MC: The spoiler is that Appropriate is about Love. Three siblings, Toni (the oldest female), Bo (the middle success story male), and Frank (the youngest addict 12-stepper), gather at their family plantation in Arkansas to tie up the estate. Who loved or endured daddy best (a Harvard law student) unfolds. Love unfolds. Bo found his wife, Rachel. Frank found River.

Kaylie Haas and Pat Johnson in ‘Appropriate.’ Photo: Gary Norman.

And Toni? She’s stuck in time. Stuck to daddy. Stuck to an immature love where she remains three years old, daddy’s girl, unable to negotiate the modulation from love for father to love for husband (who divorces her).

The script escalates Toni’s frustration and reaction toward everyone who has found Love. Toward those who found that Love is not perfect, clean, ensconcing. Love is shrill (Rachel), strewn with seemingly insurmountable obstacles (Frank). But in the end, Love accepts you, holds you, partners you. And until Toni leaves behind the fairy-tale of daddy’s early love, she’ll carry expectations of princess-love into all her relationships and censor daddy’s dark soul.

TONI:    

“[T]here’s no one alive who’s held me. Isn’t that sad? There’s no one left in this family — in this whole wide world — who could have told me about the whole me — the me before I became . . . this. Daddy was the last. And, think whatever you want about him now, but Daddy held me. He knew me — maybe more than I’ll ever know me — and nothing anyone can say is ever going to make that love less real. All this life you live — what’s it for if no one’s there to tell you about it? To hold onto it and then give it back to you? To remind you of the things you forgot or never knew you even knew?”

That’s why for me, it’s about Love. Or rather, holding onto dead love, lost love, mythologized love. So mythologized that Toni erases major character flaws in her father: Klan affiliations, souvenirs of lynchings, anti-Semitism. Her monologue concludes: “So if anyone asks, I’m gong to tell them I had two brothers, who lived me and who took care of me and who were there for me when I needed them. And I just hope never find ourselves wondering where a certain memory or feeling is coming from, because now we’ll just have to make something up.”

What UP’s production didn’t fully capture was Toni’s escalating frustration leading to her wrenching lines (above). Instead, this production focused on Racism. It stopped short of the racism embedded in a primary caregiver, daddy, on whom you rely for mirroring, for survival, for Love. The Love that you never actually got because your primary caregiver was so fucked up and full of hate, but you imagine you got it. The fucked up love you turn around and clamp on your son so that when “Jew Bitch” comes out of his teenaged mouth you’re stunned, having just stood up to defend daddy against Rachel’s accusation that he called her “Bo’s Jew Wife.”  Racism — the gift that keeps on giving, down through the generations….

TONI:

“Oh! So am I now the anti-Semite? And what’s the word for her? What was that “Bo and his Jew wife” moment? Our father didn’t even sound like that! He was probably calling her your “new wife” for all we know — She is so sensitive!”

Brandon Chadney, Emma Pace, Sammie Van Norstrand and Joe Flory in University of Portland’s ‘Appropriate.’ Photo: Gary Norman.

BC: For me, that was the most chilling (and, weirdly, sometimes bleakly funny) part of Appropriate — how racism is perpetuated through emotional artifacts handed down through the generations. Here they’re physically represented by these increasingly disturbing actual objects. The vector for the virus is otherwise admirable traits like loyalty, fealty to family, love.

A mark of a great story is how it can reach different people in different ways. I thought it was a powerfully tragic love story, with a lot to say about greed and more. But for someone from the South like me, born not too far from where the story is set, its insight into racism really hit home. Appropriate dramatizes how such a place with such warm, loving people — at least, if you’re on the right team — can also harbor so many generations of racism and hatred. See this play and maybe understand why young people are turning up at white-power rallies like Charlottesville, and why those intimidating statues of Confederate “heroes” — erected to show post-Reconstruction blacks that the new boss was the same as the old boss — still stand in public places.

And as someone who bristles when friends here try to tar the whole region with stereotypes, I appreciated the way BJJ showed how different views could uncomfortably coexist within the same family, even within the same character. Appropriate captures the complexities and contradictions of real people.

I also appreciated the way he used (very black) humor to keep the story from getting heavy and tedious, and that also felt more real to my experience of the region. And UP’s production was one of the best I’ve ever seen on a college stage.

MC: While the college production used college age students in a play whose lead characters range in ages from late 30’s to early 50’s, the only unconvincing moment occurred in Toni’s stilted declaration of love. It required the young actress to believably present a side of her middle-aged character that she never hinted at during the rest of the play. To capture Toni’s growing frustration, to make me cry instead of cringe at Toni’s climactic declaration would probably take an actor in her late 40’s or early 50’s, as BJJ suggests. I’d love to see Appropriate professionally staged here in Portland.

But despite the clumsy declaration of Toni’s love for her father and a snoozy second act, I loved UP’s production. Megan Macker’s spare but captivating set design of a dead hoarder’s decaying home evoked the decrepitude of a dilapidating has-been, like a seedy hotel that was once upon a time swanky and important. A shout out to AngelMarie Summers whose costume, hair and makeup design spanned the frumpiness of Toni and her oversized untucked shirts — adding to her beaten-by-life slump, to the hysterical midriff and teenage get-up of Cassidy.

As she did in The Snowstorm a couple years back, Wallenfels choreographed her actors with purpose and forward motion. A lot of thought and creative surprise went into how actors moved across the stage or engaged acrobatically with the sofa (as did love-struck Cassidy showing off for her cousin). Wallenfels directed her young actors to go way over the top, caricaturing the stereotypes they played. Particularly effective were Toni (Emma Pace), the cynical porcupine-quill-jettisoning martyr; River (Rebby Foster), the new-age Portland hipster; Cassidy (Sammie Van Norstrand), the ADHD hormone driven teenager.

The time-lapse degenerating set at the end is visual poetry — as fun to read in BJJ’s stage directions as it was to see executed by the artistic team and production crew. Time passes, things fall apart. Only the racism remains intact.

The long stage direction at the end, reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill, needs to be read out loud, and wasn’t. Otherwise the audience never hears it. I wept at the poetry and I’m not a crier. I won’t spoil that one.

Brandon Chadney and Rebby Foster in ‘Appropriate.’ Photo: Gary Norman.

BC: I take your point that that last monologue fell a little flat, plus the second act momentum flagged, and in the third act, characters including Toni sometimes go to unexpected extremes that are difficult for any actor, much less college students, to capture without seeming like they’re portraying different people. But I agree that any theater fan would appreciate the excellent work these students and their director turned in here.

And I agree that Appropriate feels like a more mature creation than Octoroon. Both involve racism, but for me, Appropriate works much better because it approaches the issue from the inside, in a family drama’s intergenerational dynamics, rather than from an emotional distance, standing above a 150 year old play and satirizing it. That crackling first act briskly gives us character and ideas through compelling action, not lectures.

So to me, he’s maturing as playwright by learning how to bring the emotional, not just intellectual, power of drama to the big issue of racism. Which mean having the courage to face those emotions from the inside rather than just spoofing from the outside.

MC: I totally agree with you that BJJ is now trusting himself to plumb emotions rather than fiddle with frames and other intellectual devices. But in Appropriate I think he’s traveling through Race toward Love. I think it’s a false, maybe even a white liberal guilt construct, to say that Appropriate is about racism. It uses egregious acts of racism in alarmingly entertaining ways, but by the end of the script, I’m weeping because unlike Bo or Frank, Toni can neither Love or be Loved. And that’s why I think BJJ has matured lifetimes. He’s using what he knows, racism, to construct a powerful, sad story about love, even as we laugh our asses off inappropriately.

BC: I don’t think it’s “about” only either racism or (the dark side of) love. Those are essential themes, sure, but a great story is always about more than just one thing. I think his genius here is showing, in such a subtle way, how those perennials are poisonously intertwined. They’re almost genetically transmitted traits, maybe even diseases. We wind up learning a lot about the persistent power of both.

The cool thing from an audience point of view is that you can be totally sucked in by the emotionally real family drama, while the Big Social Issue lurks in the background, briefly popping up to remind you that’s always there, waiting to infect the next generation. For me, it was a much more effective way of showing racism’s power than An Octoroon’s more detached, obvious approach, and a heartbreaking story about love’s potential for both good and evil.

BJJ may be a Chekov for 21st century America. I’m so glad you saw his potential even in the flawed Octoroon, and I’m with you: let’s see more of his work on Oregon stages.

Appropriate & Other Plays by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is available for pre-order. This collection includes three plays: Neighbors (2010), An Octoroon (2010) and Appropriate (2013).

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