Author: Becca Vaclavik

In “Appropriate,” America grapples with its ghosts

APPROPRIATE
adj.
· suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc.
· belonging to or peculiar to a person; proper.

v.
· to set apart, authorize, or legislate for some specific purpose or use
· to take to or for oneself; take possession of
· to take without permission or consent; seize; expropriate
· to steal, especially to commit petty theft.

How is the American experience defined? Who defines it and what are its histories? These are questions playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins found himself digging into when he noticed how stories about White families and Black families are critically received differently. Speaking to BOMB Magazine in 2018, Jacobs-Jenkins shared:

“… Nobody calls ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ or ‘The Piano Lesson’ family dramas—they’re plays about the ‘Black experience in America.’ So I read all those ‘American family’ plays and started thinking about the way whiteness was being encoded. Like, how might I read these plays as being about the ‘White experience in America?’ … I wanted to write a self-consciously ‘American family drama.’ … I had this impulse to see what would happen if I made blackness present but essentially invisible.”

The result was his work “Appropriate”—whether pronounced ap·PRO·priate or appropri·ATE· is intentionally vague; both definitions are present on the opening pages of the script—a play about a White family unpacking their family’s dilapidated Arkansas plantation in the wake of their patriarch’s death. This spring, the Department of Theatre & Dance will stream a virtual production of the work.

“This is a subversive play about a White supremacist family and their repressed histories,” says Cecilia J. Pang, director and associate professor of theatre. “Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ intention is to deliberately ‘appropriate.'”

It’s “classic” American family drama. But it’s also brimming with more, through its double meanings in the text and cultural iconography.

“I like that something can look like one thing, but mean two different things,” said Jacobs-Jenkins in an interview with Vogue. “Language is really unstable in that way.”

Heather Kelley, who serves as the production’s dramaturg as well as a cast member, encourages audiences to listen to how the characters discuss ownership—of the property, of people—as well as how ghosts, both literal and figurative, are present in the play.

“This play asks who’s not there on stage—whose story is not being told, whose story is not being privileged—in a very deliberate and meaningful way,” said Kelley. “How often—when people think of an American family—are we picturing a White one? And what does that mean? How can we begin to unpack and challenge that in all forms?”

Pang says Jacobs-Jenkins’ play helps the department advance some of its meaningful inclusion goals in a predominantly White institution: “For us to do this play now represents a very small step towards the realization of a very big departmental dream: ‘to decolonize our curriculum, to dismantle structural inequality and build more inclusive, accessible and equitable ways to create.’”

“[As White cast and audience members,] we have a responsibility to know as much as we can about this history and grapple with its ongoing perpetuation and legacy, rather than rest in our privilege.”

“Appropriate” is available to stream at cupresents.org from April 23-30, 2021. Virtual tickets start at $7. Audience members are also invited to attend a free virtual talkback with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the acting company on April 25 at 2 p.m.