What Is Appropriate?

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

On the surface, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Appropriate, which just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, is terribly familiar and simple.

We follow a dysfunctional white southern family back to their ancestral home for a final goodbye. Even if you've never been to the South, you'll recognize the archetypes of this family. In one sense, they're the descendants of William Faulkner; or more recently, another version of August: Osage County. The patriarch of the family has recently died so his three adult children, families in tow, have all descended on their old plantation home for the final estate sale.

It's the typical family play gaggle: there's the alcoholic brother, the divorced sister, the financially successful but threatened older brother who's bankrolling it all. We have the Jewish wife who's always felt like an outsider, the precocious thirteen year-old, the troubled older teen who needs to get his G.E.D. You've seen all these characters before in the American theater.

The seemingly simple question driving the action is "Was Daddy a racist?" You see, as they're cleaning things up for the auction, they stumble on some disturbing photos of what we imagine are dead black slaves. These photos, which in a beautiful twist of irony may be the only thing of value that Daddy left behind, are the cause for much hand wringing.

Again, on the surface, it's a familiar, almost derivative, narrative journey and, if you want to, you can experience this successful, funny, tragic white family play on that level. . . . but I'd suggest you dig a little deeper because playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is up to something more.

The first hint may be the title itself, Appropriate. Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has suggested in interviews that the title comes from the responses to his earlier play, Neighbors: a play with cartoons. Now, lucky Angelenos got a chance to see it at the Matrix a couple of years ago. The basic, and disturbing, plot for that play is that a black-faced family mysteriously moves in next to a suburban couple. I don't mean black but literally black-faced -- like a minstrel show. It's jarring, jarring, frightening and, in some ways, terribly in-appropriate. Apparently, some folks told the playwright that this material wasn't appropriate for the American theater. So he wrote Appropriate.

Or maybe I should say "Appropriate."

The writer of this dysfunctional white family play, Branden Jacob-Jenkins, is African-American. So what exactly is being appropriated? Well, on one disturbing level, the tragic suffering of this family's slaves. But there’s more . . .

When you go -- and you should -- you'll pick up on the August: Osage County references but there's also the ending: which you can either read as a gratuitous coda or a sly nod to the ending of Clybourne Park. Those references aren’t accidents, they’re appropriations. On a more complicated and ingenious level the playwright is appropriating the American regional theater audience itself.

He’s using all too familiar form to force us to confront our racist past both outside and inside of the theater.

Appropriate plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through November 1.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening The Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 3 hours with two intermissions.

Photo: Craig Schwartz