Dobama’s ‘Appropriate’ offers another of Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative shades of gray
By Bob Abelman
The dramatist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is on a mission to explore what it means to be black in America by provocatively filtering his storytelling through our nation’s predominant whiteness.
His 2010 “Neighbors,” which was performed last year by convergence-continuum, features a black professor of political philosophy enjoying his white wife and docile suburban lifestyle until a black family wearing the blackface makeup and caricature personas of minstrel show performers moves in next door.
“An Octoroon,” written in 2014 and performed in 2016 by Dobama Theatre, is an adaptation of an antebellum melodrama about the financial woes that have befallen a Louisiana cotton plantation and its impact on its community of slaves.
In “Appropriate,” currently on stage at Dobama after premiering Off-Broadway in 2014, another shade of gray is put on display for our consideration.
The play begins after the patriarch of a white Arkansas family has died in his run-down ancestral plantation home and his three grudge-bearing adult children arrive to supervise the auction of the home and the dividing of the estate.
The oldest, the recently divorced Toni (the incredibly versatile Tracee Patterson), walks the earth like a gelding who has been ridden hard and put away wet. She is a tightly wound bundle of animosity ready to explode at the next inevitable disappointment. Toni arrives with her troubled teenaged son Rhys (Jacob Eeg), who spends most the play smoldering on the couch, angry at the world.
The eldest son Bo (played perfectly by everyman Tom Woodward) arrives from New York with his Jewish wife Rachael (a delightfully defensive Ursula Cataan) and their kids Cassidy (Ireland Derry) and Ainsley (Miles Pierce). Bo believes he has outgrown this family, but finds himself reverting back to and locked into a cycle of sibling rivalry that he doesn’t like and doesn’t fully understand. It is actually the teenaged Cassidy, who spends the play insisting that she be treated like an adult, who actually behaves like one.
Franz (a wonderfully vulnerable Abraham McNeil Adams) is the black sheep of the family. He is a damaged man who has come to atone for past indiscretions at the encouragement of his young vegan girlfriend River (a charming Kelly McCready).
While rummaging through a mountain of hoarded relics left scattered about the homestead, they find a photograph book filled with old pictures of lynched black people. Amidst escalating hysteria and rising volume, the siblings attempt to reconcile these photos with the man they thought they knew and the family’s slave-owning history they’ve rarely thought about.
In a profile of the playwright, who in 2016 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a 2016 MacArthur Fellow “genius” grant recipient, the New Yorker compared the brilliant prose and poetry in this and his other works to that of Sam Shepard, Eugene O’Neill, Tracy Letts and Tennessee Williams. In a play appropriately titled “Appropriate” – to be read as ap_pro_priate or appropri_ate – Jacobs-Jenkins actually borrows heavily and purposefully from the tropes, time-tested narrative recipes and character types created by these great American writers.
The reason is that American plays don’t get any whiter than theirs and these characters and their world-view brings into focus that precise element of cultural discomfort that this playwright attempts to achieve in all of his plays. But while Jacobs-Jenkins’ other plays embrace and exploit the visual nature of race, this one – without a single black character – cleverly offers race as a virtual reality.
And to make sure that uneasiness rises to the surface, he fills every scene change with the irritating, ear-splitting and prolonged sound of cicadas who, like this family, have instinctively returned to their place of origin after years of deep hibernation.
The family’s historical toxicity is evident in the decaying, mold-covered walls of the Southern Gothic mansion, designed by Cameron Michalak, lit by Marcus Dana and then brilliantly dismantled at the end of the play to depict the future of the house once its occupants and its history have been exorcised.
For those with little interest in Jacobs-Jenkins’ clever literary ploys and all-too-clever double meaning of the title, this play still offers a captivating albeit lengthy portrayal of family dysfunction with enough exaggeration to be entertaining. Plus, this production is populated with superb actors turning in memorable performances under the always-forward momentum of Nathan Motta’s direction.
WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Hts.
WHEN: Through May 20
TICKETS & INFO: $29 – $32, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 28, 2018.
Lead image: Abraham McNeil Adams as Franz (from left), Tom Woodward as Bo, Tracee Patterson as Toni, Ursula Cataan as Rachael, and Ireland Derry as Cassidy. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography