THE TITLE OF A PLAY is, in most cases, its calling card, the expressive face it shows the world as an introduction. An air of intrigue can be effective, but clarity and simplicity work best. It probably shouldn’t require definitions.
But with his play Appropriate – set to open Saturday at Imago in a Profile Theatre production – Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is playing a different game.
Though it’s not part of the dialogue, Jacobs-Jenkins script is prefaced with a list of the varied definitions of “appropriate” as both adjective and verb: “suitable or fitting,” “proper,” “to take to or for oneself,” “to take without permission or consent,” etc.
Several of the varied and layered meanings of the word are at work in the play itself, or, rather, in how we might think about its varied and layered stylistic devices and thematic concerns. I suspect that the first senses of the word that come to mind for most folks are those related to what behavior fits a particular person or purpose, and such things surely are at issue in Jacobs-Jenkins’ story of a family gathering in which all the characters have their own problems, tendencies and agendas. But it’s more useful to hear the title with a long vowel in that last syllable, as a verb. On one level, that suggests the taking for oneself – of familiar elements from famous family-drama antecedents – that Jacobs-Jenkins unabashedly has done here. (A New York Times review of a production at the Signature Center quotes the playwright from a playbill interview: “I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked,” he says, “and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens.”) Beyond that, it alludes to the story’s quietly haunting historical backdrop, the great taking – in freedom, dignity, labor and life – of slavery in the antebellum South.
Jacobs -Jenkins is one of the bright young stars of American playwriting, and his work has supplied some of the Portland theater scenes high points in recent years. Examinations of race have been a key feature of several of his plays. Much theater these days is anxious to confront racial issues and express Black perspectives; I’d say that An Octoroon, his audacious adaptation/critique of an antebellum melodrama, which Artists Rep staged in 2017, is the most successful of any such show I’ve seen.
An Octoroon and Appropriate together were awarded the Obie for best new American play in 2014, but whereas An Octoroon is playfully postmodern in its form, Appropriate is scrupulously conventional, all the better to mask its sly probing into the psyche of its characters and, moreso, the society they represent.
The story is set in an aging, cluttered house in Arkansas, once the center of a plantation, where members of the Lafayette family have gathered to get rid of the recently deceased patriarch’s accumulated junk and to auction off the property. Naturally, the siblings’ rivalries and resentments and their increasingly distant and fractured lives provide the expected friction and fireworks, but their task is hampered by yet older legacies. The presence of graveyards – both the family plot and another site where slaves once were buried – is suppressing the property’s resale value. Then, when they come across disturbing artifacts such as a book of old photographs of lynching victims, the fault line breaks open right through their images of dear old dad and of themselves.
The Hollywood Reporter called it “a play about race paradoxically performed by an all-white cast.” But since we’re parsing individual words, I’ll object here to “paradoxically.” As though it’s anomalous for race to play a part in white people’s lives? As though prevailing racial concepts aren’t a construct of white Western society to begin with??
In the way it serves up scorched-earth humor across both the fraught-family drama and the revisionist social-issue play, you might think of it as August: Osage County meets Clybourne Park. Or, it could’ve been called (to borrow an old song title from the Smiths) Barbarism Begins at Home.
But, considering how many thorny and pertinent questions Jacobs-Jenkins manages to suggest here, and how he goes about doing so, Appropriate, well, just fits.
The best line(s) I read this week
“What is at issue is not the fact of ‘borrowing’ or’ imitating,’ or being ‘derivative,’ being ‘influenced,’ but what one does with what is borrowed or invented or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.”
— from an essay, “The Creative Self,” by the neurologist Oliver Sacks.
AS ABE LAUFE’S BOOK Broadway’s Greatest Musicals recounts, when Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot opened on December 6, 1960 … “the critics and the public both found it a decided let-down from their triumphant My Fair Lady, which was still drawing capacity houses and moving ever closer to establishing a longevity record for musical comedies.”
But it’s like that sometimes. There’s no shame in following – or even in, y’know, not quite following – one of the greatest musicals of all time. Besides, the decades have offered enough perspective for Camelot to be seen in its own right. And now, with a book retooled by David Lee for a smaller cast and a streamlined narrative, director Dennis Corwin and Lakewood Center for the Arts gives us a fresher look.
In 2016, Corrib staged a modest, charming tale of November romance that was wonderfully affecting, partly for playwright Christian O’Reilly’s subtle touch with the heartstrings but just as much for exquisitely calibrated performances by two of Portland’s finest stage veterans, Allen Nause and Jacklyn Maddux. What could match that?
Well, perhaps a production of that play, Chapatti, by Ashland’s Rogue Theater Company, featuring the longtime Oregon Shakespeare Festival favorites Robin Goodrin Nordli and Michael Elich, directed by Robynn Rodriguez.
When the small Portland company Clever Enough staged Hamlet at Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre in 2019, Bennett Campbell Ferguson in Willamette Week wrote that “(b)y excavating new layers of wit and feeling from the souls of familiar characters, the production transcends some static moments and emerges as a worthy adaptation of one of the Bard’s most seductively ambiguous plays.” Director Valerie Asbell brings the show back, this time at Northeast Portland’s Headwaters Theatre.
One night only
LAST WE CHECKED IN with the progress of Vortex 1, a musical in development by the playwright Sue Mach and musician Bill Wadhams, its first full draft had just been presented in a staged reading during the 2020 Fertile Ground Festival. As I wrote then:
“The show’s title and its subject come from a rock festival staged outside Portland in 1970 as a diversionary tactic to keep anti-Vietnam War protesters from clashing with visitors to an American Legion convention with Richard Nixon as keynote speaker. That’s a fascinating story of culture and politics, but what makes this piece so engaging is the way Mach’s book and lyrics illuminate the character of the central figure, Oregon Governor Tom McCall. Not yet the revered figure of civic myth, this McCall is a gin-swilling former newspaperman muddling through his first term and doubting his political future. Through private ruminations, debates with his aids and adversaries, and tussles with his sweetly overbearing mother, we see a political and personal transformation take place in response to a potential crisis.
“Leif Norby’s performance as McCall is close enough for rock’n’roll, which — because this is essentially a rock musical — is damn-near perfect. It isn’t only McCall’s story, though, and a character Mach invented, a young anti-war activist named Sally, balances things out as an embodiment of flower-power idealism and the good-natured promise of youth. It’s a cliche to say that a performer ‘shines’ in a role, but what other word would be right for Malia Tippets, whose easygoing, open affect and astonishingly clear singing lift the show to another level.
“For a show that hasn’t been workshopped extensively yet — something every musical needs — Vortex 1 appears ready to get up on its feet and start moving toward production.”
Now at last the development takes its next public step, with another staged reading, this time in a recital hall at Portland State University.
PETE’s ICP – uh, in case you’re not hip to the shorthand lingo, that means the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s Institute for Contemporary Performance – lets loose with several examples of its forward-thinking hybrid presentations in the Fleshed Out Festival. Seven new works draw on butoh dance, processions, lectures, household objects as musical instruments, rituals, installations of analog technology, and – oh, who knows what these shows are really like; subverting expectations, and defying description, is part of the point.
IN WHAT OPERATES AS a sort of two-track coming-of-age story, Charlayne Woodard’s Neat tracks the intertwined lives of two relatives, the show’s solo narrator and her aunt Beneatha, called Neat for short, a sweet-natured woman intellectually disabled by a mix-up involving childhood medications. What Woodard’s writing lacks in both structural acumen and poetic insight it largely makes up for with straightforward emotional effect. And Taylore Mahogany Scott’s adroitness with multiple characters and her clear, warm singing voice make this PassinArt production well worth an evening.
The flattened stage
When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.