by Lynn on October 6, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Playing until Oct. 26, 2023.

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Directed by Ted Dykstra

Co-det designers, Steve Lucas and Rebecca Morris

Lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Deanna H. Choi and Michael Wanless

Costumes by Des’ree Gray

Cast: Alison Beckwith

Raquel Duffy

Ruari Hamman

Amy Lee

Hannah Levinson

Gray Powell

Andy Trithardt

Mackenzie Wojcik

Woow! Talk about turning the word “appropriate” on its ear. A stellar cast plays a dysfunctional, morally bankrupt family that has many secrets they are desperate to keep.  

The Story. Siblings Toni Lafayette, Bo Lafayette and Frank Lafayette and their families, have gathered at their late father’s home/plantation in Arkansas, to sell it. Frank is the outcast of the family having been away for 10 years for various reasons, a charge of pedophilia being one. He has arrived with his girlfriend River who is acting as his support group in dealing with his siblings. He wants his fair share of the sale. Toni is there with her son, Rhys, because she was their father’s care giver of sorts and is busy clearing stuff away for the sale. Bo is there with his wife and two children. He wants the sale to go smoothly. He’s been paying the bills for his father’s care and the house bills.

And then they find the photo album with hideous photos in it of dead Black people. We can use our imaginations because there are enough suggestions of what the horrified people are looking at, at first, and then they become fascinated. Did the album belong to the father? Was the father a racist? What to do with the photos? They don’t know, at first. But change their mind when they realize there is value in such photos.

The Production and comment. A curtain is drawn across the stage. The audience is tested at the get-go by both the playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and director Ted Dykstra. The audience sits in the dark ready for the play to begin. And sits. And sits. Gradually a strange sound is heard. It’s the sound of crickets and cicadas. It gets louder and more complex with other sounds blending in until the sound is very loud. All the while the audience sits in the dark. The lights very slowly come up on a shabby room in what is a rundown house. The walls are stained and some of the plaster is gone in some places. The furniture is shabby. Kudos to Steve Lucas and Rebecca Morris, co-set designers, for their creation of the family home.

When the siblings’ mother died, their father lived in the house. He planned to turn it into a bed and breakfast establishment but he spent so much time hoarding stuff that never happened. Now that the father has died, they have to clean up the house and get it ready for an auction/estate sale. The siblings and their children gather. Frank (Andy Trithardt) is the son who has not seen his family for 10 years because of various issues/jail etc. He has arrived with his girlfriend River (Alison Beckwith).

The battle lines are soon drawn with Toni (Raquel Duffy) wrangling with her brother Bo (Gray Powell) about who was more selfless with their father. She was there taking care of him to the detriment of her marriage and other family situations that have left her bitter.  As Toni, Raquel Duffy is fearless in hurling the vitriol. Her anger that she illuminates is eye-popping. There is not a shred of sentiment in Raquel Duffy’s performance of Toni. It’s ferocious. Toni’s son Rhys ( Mackenzie Wojcik) is sullen and distant. That also adds to Toni’s bitterness.

Her brother Bo gets his dibs in by calmly saying that he paid all the bills and plans to arrange the details of the sale of the house. He knows information he does not tell her and she gets even by planning her own revenge. Gray Powell plays Bo as a man who solves problems, knows how to get things done but is obviously burdened with things going on in his life. Gray Powell plays Bo with a barely controlled effort to keep things together. He is there with his wife Rachael (Amy Lee), a whiny, insecure woman who spends her time screaming at her children, Ainsley aged eight (Ruary Hamman) who is uncontrollable and Cassie (Hannah Levinson) aged 13, who never met an awkward moment she doesn’t record on her cell phone to put on Facebook without a thought of its appropriateness. At 13 Cassie says she’s ‘almost an adult.’ Yes, almost an adult without a clue about responsibility, conscience, and consequences because her parents never taught her.  

The mystery is why is Frank there? How did he find out about the sale? Frank has obviously gone through some serious stuff and initially we learn he’s there to apologize. He haltingly reads his prepared speech to his family. I assume he is going through the program at Alcoholics Anonymous, in which he has to tell the truth to the people he hurt—hence the speech. As Frank Andy Trithardt is ingratiating, almost fragile.

Frank’s girlfriend River, played with calm confidence by Alison Beckwith, is there as his support. She quietly mouths the speech Frank is reading making me think that River is also Frank’s AA sponsor.

We learn that Frank received money and support from his father, unbeknownst to the siblings. More wrangling. More animosity that is slowly building. While we are told that the father was educated at Harvard, was a supreme court judge and was hugely respected, he also might have been a racist. A photo album is discovered on a shelf out in the open. The family is shocked at the photos of dead Black people. We can use our imaginations to discover what they are from the description. But while they are considered hideous at first, the family can’t stop looking at them. It’s assumed that the album is their father’s. Bo reasons it could be anybody’s and deflects any blame from his father.  And because they all seem morally bankrupt, they don’t know what to do with the album, until they realize they can make money from its sale.

More damning artifacts of racism are discovered. More excuses. A confederate flag appears leaning against a wall after there has been a major tidy of the house.

Ted Dykstra has directed Appropriate with great care and attention to detail. He is not afraid to test the endurance of the audience—the first several moments in the dark listening to a building sound scape. Dykstra establishes the relationships in a steady, relentless build.

Appropriate is another play in the oeuvre of playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins that continues to establish him as a gifted, creative playwright. He says in a segment of the programme that his plays: An Octoroon, Neighbors and Appropriate—“are about rejecting narratives that claim to be ‘about race,’ or ‘Blackness.’ They’re more about revealing and testing the values of the people who show up to watch.” Hmm. But that’s always the case for the audience. They take from every play they see, how it applies to them and there is certainly a lot to chew on with Appropriate.

In the director’s note Associate Director, Matthew D. Brown notes that Branden Jacob-Jenkins was also interested in the double meaning of the word appropriate (when considering it can be pronounced differently): ap_pro_priate/appropri_ate. People wonder which is correct for the play. Matthew D. Brown then goes on to say he thinks both.

He talks about the family trying to stay together in the face of racism. How they want to heal and belong. Can they forgive someone who has done a hideous thing? Do they feel responsible for the many dead Black people buried on the property. How can they reconcile the pain they have caused.

We also read in essays in the programme about how various peoples have ‘appropriated’ the stories of others. Recently we have been told that if one has not experienced something, like being a minority, or gay, or another gender, then one can’t write about it. It’s ‘appropriating’ their story. I think Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins puts that nonsense to rest quite nicely. If one is talented, creative and has something to say, they can write about anything, as has been proven in 4000 years of theatre and its stories, Appropriate being one of them.

Not to put too fine of a point to it, Mr. Jacob-Jenkins is a playwright who is Black. He is writing about a white family from his own point of view. Every single one of them, including the children, are hideous people and morally bankrupt, except for River who is the unwitting witness to it. Can we say they are the way they are because their father was a racist? One of the prickly points of the play easily answered.

There is one delicious moment of moral responsibility at the end (is this a spoiler alert?). The house is cleared out. A Black man (Matthew G. Brown) knocks at the door and no one answers. A few moments later he appears from the basement with a clipboard—is he an inspector taking note because he’ will buy the house? He sees the confederate flag. He sneers and makes the sound of ‘kissing his teeth’ indicating his disgust. At last, a true expression of contempt for something that is racist.

Terrific, challenging play, given a gripping production.    

The Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Playing until Oct. 26, 2023.

Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes (2 intermissions).

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