|Program cover for Sydney Theatre Company's|
Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Photo: Prudence Upton
LtoR: Mandy McElhinney, Johhny Carr, Sam Worthington, Lucy Bell, Brenna Harding
Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 15 – April 10, 2021.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director – Wesley Enoch
Designer – Elizabeth Gadsby; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis; Assistant Director – Shari Sebbens; Fight & Movement Director – Nigel Poulton; Voice & Text Coach – Danielle Roffe
Cast: (as described by the author)
Mandy McElhinney – Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette: the eldest sibling, white, late 40s/early 50s
James Fraser – Rhys Thurston: her son, white, late teens
Sam Worthington – Beauregarde “Bo” Lafayette: the middle sibling, white, late 40s/early 50s
Lucy Bell – Rachael Kramer-Lafayette: his wife, white, late 40s
Ella Jacob – Cassidy “Cassie” Kramer-Lafayette: their older child, white, early teens
Robbi Morgan (alt Joel Bishop) – Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette: their younger child, white, a child
Johnny Carr – François “Franz/Frank” Lafayette: the younger sibling, white, late 30s/early 40s
Brenna Harding – River Rayner: his fiancée, white, early 20s but looks younger
Unacknowledged – Indigenous Australian young woman (final scene)
For me to “critique” this play and this production, as a white man brought by his parents to Australia under the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ immigration scheme, naïve at the time about its colonialist implications, may be inappropriate.
Though the play is American, written by an avowedly black author, set in “The living room of a former plantation home in southeastern Arkansas”, Noonuccal Nuugi man, director Wesley Enoch, has placed me at risk of appearing to be just another whitey who claims not to be racist.
In Appropriate, the script ends with describing the stage set of the house literally falling to bits after the departure of the absolutely dysfunctional white ‘family’. The sound of cicadas which began the play starts up again. Then lights go off, and on again. “A knocking is heard at the front door. Someone says, ‘Hello?’ Beat. Then more knocking. But no answer.”
There are seven more blackouts, representing years of passing time, with more parts of the stage set breaking away and “starting to disappear”. Then “One day, lights immediately come up on a stranger in the middle of the living room, taking notes on a clipboard. He inspects the room with a flashlight, takes a couple of pictures. Just before he leaves, he takes a look around, thinking. ‘Look at this place.’ He leaves.”
Enoch chose to make this stranger a young unnamed adult Australian Indigenous woman whom we have not seen previously, shaking her head rather than saying what she thinks out loud, as she leaves through the front door and closes it behind her.
Without previously having read the script or even very much about the play – including avoiding reading the program until after the performance – I took the meaning of this ending to be possibly more than a mere shaking of the head at this family’s failure to deal reasonably with each other in a settlement of the property bequeathed by their father, known as “Daddy”, after his recent death.
She seemed to be assessing the property. Was she a tax office agent, since there had been talk of selling pictures on the black market of lynching black people found in Daddy’s stuff? Was she a criminal investigation officer chasing up the drug/alochol/sex crimes committed by Franz/Frank? Was she a bank insurance officer or real estate agent assessing the value of the property for sale to recoup the over-valued mortgage Daddy had taken out.
Or was she a black person assessing white inequity? A black person in paid employment to take on this task? A black person, in fact a woman, in an important responsible decision-making position?
Does she represent Wesley Enoch himself, a justifiably proud Aboriginal man born on Stradbroke Island in Queensland. “Growing up gay and Aboriginal in a bi-racial family, Wesley Enoch struggled to understand who he was. But theatre helped him break a pattern of violence and find his voice.” Isn’t he now a highly respected leader in Australian society – and in paid employment to take on this task, as indeed he should be?
This brings me to consider whether I agree with a review published in New York Vulture magazine Mar. 16, 2014 that says Appropriate Explains Too Much and Says Too Little, by Jesse Green. https://www.vulture.com/2014/03/theater-review-appropriate.html .
The play, she says, “is as overstuffed as the house, but at least the house gets cleaned during the action. The play just gets more cluttered.” Green asks, “Is Appropriate a comic tragedy? A tragic comedy? No, just a mess, undercooked and overexplained, with enough pregnant symbols (dark lake, shrieking cicadas, two graveyards) for an Ibsen festival." "Granted,” she says, “great plays have been written about some of the same kinds of characters: viragos, pedophiles, wingnuts, dingbats. But in — let’s say — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or How I Learned to Drive, the playwright finds ways to seduce us into accepting his creatures as real and even attractive. That doesn’t happen here. The Lafayettes are under no one’s control; all you want is to get away from them. Fortunately, people like that don’t live in real houses.”
And, importantly, Green concludes “They live only in theaters, and you get to leave them there.”
Although, after my leaving the theatre 24 hours ago, the unforgettable bravura performance of Toni, the sister from hell, by Mandy McElhinney stands out as the driving force keeping the production on track. But I felt, while watching, as Jesse Green had in that original Signature Theatre production. The characters are cyphers rather than real. The plot consists of injections of issues contrived by the author but without finding “ways to seduce us into accepting his characters as real”.
When you do read the program, you find an interview with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins published in 2013 by Signature in which BJJ says “I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked, and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens. The characters in Appropriate are somewhat inspired by characters from the family plays; for instance Franz and River are cousins to Vince and Shelly in Buried Child, and Toni is a little bit Blanche-y and also like Madame Ranevskaya from Cherry Orchard. And then Bo and Rachael are kind of like Mae and Gooper from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof…also like the in-laws from Dividing the Estate. ‘Greedy in-laws’ are pretty much a staple of the genre, I guess…”
And there’s the reason for my concern. It’s called appropriation, in my view. Compare this play with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, and you can only wonder how Jacobs-Jenkins could have been awarded the inaugural Tennessee Williams Award.
Of course, the central issue of the old Arkansas family’s history, one-time wealth and modern dysfunction being based in slavery, racism, and sexual depravity needs to be presented in powerful theatre, but despite the best efforts of Wesley Enoch, his actors and designers – and those efforts are top-class – the play is not a comic tragedy; not a tragic comedy. “No, just a mess, undercooked and overexplained” as Jesse Green wrote.
But, to Enoch’s great credit, that little touch at the very end gives a meaning to the play which the author may have wished for – to make us think more deeply and seriously about how we, personally, relate to people who have grown up in cultures other than our own on a basis of equality and respect.