The setting of “Appropriate,” a decrepit old Arkansas plantation house, is a mess of hoarded boxes, dingy wallpaper, and upholstered Empire chairs splitting at their seams.
It’s to this oppressive hold of the past, with its slave graveyard out back and its deep closets within, that the members of a white family return after the death of their father.
But these surviving generations will find a lot more to unpack here than knick-knacks in “Appropriate,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s unsettling dark-comedic drama. Christopher Price directs a taut, seething production for Mad Horse, staged at SPACE Gallery in Portland.
On the eve of the plantation’s estate sale, siblings Franz (Brent Askari), Toni (Christine Louise Marshall), and Bo (Burke Brimmer) and their families arrive with a range of agendas, secrets, needs, and scores to settle.
Franz, long estranged, scrambles in through the window in the dead of night with his much younger, New Age-y girlfriend, River (Marie Stewart Harmon). Toni, the unhappy oldest and closest to their father, resents the absence of Franz and the check-writing obliviousness of Bo, who lives in New York with his wife Rachael (Janice Gardner) and kids. Despite the ostensible family ties, nobody really wants to be here.
And then they find an album of horrific photos – of lynchings – among the dead man’s effects. As the cicadas pulse and the house swelters in the heat (striking sound design by Nick Schroeder and music by Nat Baldwin, and Price’s set design of stuff and squalor makes the skin itch), they must reckon with the photos, their family history, and what to do with the inheritance – tangible and intangible – that haunts them.
The static between the characters is visceral and exhausting as they battle over the photos, the house, and the family narrative itself. Marshall’s shrill, defensive Toni snipes with the viciousness of the mortally wounded, while Askari, as the bumbling fuck-up baby of the family, nearly keens for the same indulgence and acceptance from his siblings that he gets from River.
Brimmer’s pragmatic Bo has a distracted, unconscious paternalism, while in Gardner’s hands, Rachael’s hyper-vigilance for her children’s well-being veers into self-righteousness. And as River, the outsider watching everyone, Harmon has a mellifluous, searching naivete, her eyes widening in astonishment, disbelief, and disgust as she takes everything in.
Meanwhile, the kids – snippy, irreverent Cassidy (Maiya Koloski) and zoned-out, disaffected Rhys (Luis Del Valle III) – seem at once aware of and chillingly unfazed by the evil that’s been discovered.
Many of these characters are hard to like. Yet the writing also shows how their cruelties and blindness are inextricable from their vulnerabilities, pain, and love. And Mad Horse’s cast conveys their glints of affection and introspection in ways that make them harder to dismiss as complete monsters, even as their reactions to the photos repel us – as they deny, deflect, rationalize, and even try using them for profit or emotional currency.
Jacobs-Jenkins, a widely lauded young black playwright, has crafted a provocative, harrowing, and deftly allusive play. Please don’t go there, you think at some of the characters, as with a horror film, and then Jacobs-Jenkins has them go there. For all their relatable hurt and need, many of them become ugly grotesques of themselves.
In their dysfunction, Jacobs-Jenkins takes on the classic genre of the dark family drama, à la O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” or Shepard’s “Buried Child,” and also seems to riff on the Southern Gothic, with its grotesques and rotten South, as well as its older precursor the Gothic, with its crumbling haunted mansions and ghosts. The result is a script that’s layered and formidably knowing, and it’s one that doesn’t blink.
Pointedly, no helper-savior black character enters “Appropriate” at the 11th hour to take on the burdens of education and redemption that this infected family so badly needs. Also notable is that this play about the heritage of white racism calls for an entirely white cast – a meta-theatrical act, perhaps, of putting the onus on white people to do some of our own work. The program notes report, indeed, that Price and the cast sought education from books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” the podcast “Seeing White,” and a racial equity consultant. (It’d be valuable to hear how they applied what they learned; a post-show community talk-back is planned for Sunday, Feb. 23.)
I write about this show as a white person, with my own privilege and my own uncertainty about how to reckon with it, and what stays with me most from this play, aside from its deeply uncomfortable horrors, is how lucidly it articulates some high-stakes and very difficult questions: To what extent do we inherit bigotry, and how should we reckon with it? What can we forgive, and for how much can we ask forgiveness? What do we do with the love we hold for a family member (or, perhaps, a nation) in whom we find horrific flaws? What should we do ultimately with the evidence – tangible and not – of hatred and violence?
Jacobs-Jenkins’s perspective on this family’s intricately internalized damage brings to mind James Baldwin’s clarion thinking about race in America: “You cannot lynch me and keep me in the ghetto,” he said, addressing white America, “without becoming something monstrous yourselves.”
And what is the legacy of that monster, over time? Baldwin also said, “If I am not a (n-word) here, and you invented him – you, the American people, invented him – then you’ve got to figure out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
In the house of Mad Horse’s scathing “Appropriate” – as everywhere, perhaps – that question involves looking not just at the past and its most explicit horrors, but at ourselves, at our own upbringings and blind spots, and at what we have inherited, whether we know it yet or not.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
‘Black Kid Joy’ in Cape Elizabeth
For a counterpoint to “Appropriate,” theater-goers might check out the empowering musical comedy “Black Kid Joy,” which is coming to Cape Elizabeth High School.
Written by Philadelphia theater artist John Graves III, “Black Kid Joy” celebrates the mental journey of a young black boy from tragedy, through a new historical understanding, to a sense of positive self-worth and identity within the African-American community.
For the last weekend of Black History Month, Joshua Hughes Productions – founded by Philadelphia artist and performer John Hughes, who moved to Portland in 2010 and saw the need for more black theater here – brings “Black Kid Joy” back to Portland after a one-weekend run last summer on the main stage of Portland Stage.
The 40-actor, multi-age production will have four shows in Cape Elizabeth, from Feb. 27-March 1. For details and tickets: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4509344.
— Megan Grumbling