Through Sun 5/20
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, author of Appropriate, which is now getting a compelling staging at Dobama, Cleveland’s “off-Broadway theatre,” is noted for writing plays that shimmer in spectacle, theatricality and melodramatic substance. The African American centers his themes on race in America, white privilege, the ills of capitalism, and the use and abuse of minorities to build the “American dream.”
Jacobs-Jenkins writes sick comedy. Audience members often find themselves laughing at ideas and pronouncements that they know should be not funny but are — topics that should invoke horror, but in the writing hands of the author become stunningly hysterical.
Appropriate, like An Octoroon (which garnered Dobama a Cleveland Critics Circle Award for Best Production in 2016), checks off all of Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing tendencies. Probably no one will leave the theatre in neutral gear. There is an automatic rev-up of the mental faculties and sensibilities that should be put on notice from experiencing the production. In fact, some might wonder why the play wasn’t entitled “Inappropriate.”
The production introduces us to the family Lafayette, a Southern clan descended from what turns out to be unknown sources and attitudes. The family comes together after the demise of the patriarch of the family. They are left with an unkempt “mansion” and grounds that contain two cemeteries, one for slaves, the other unknown as relatives are buried elsewhere.
The property is of little value because of the “boneyards,” which make it too expensive for a developer to use due to legal and historical restrictions. The contents, mementos and junk should garner little at an estate sale, far less than the debt run up by the patriarch supposedly in his desire to convert the place into a bed-and-breakfast. And then there is a newly found photo album which is filled with pictures of lynched black men and Ku Klux Klan members in their traditional garb.
A normal family would have trouble dealing with these problems. But the Lafayettes, whose membership and hangers-on consist of a pedophile who impregnated a young girl, a drug-dealing teenager, a new-age hippie, an alcoholic, a fired educator, a teenager with a crush on her older cousin, a businessman about to lose his job, a Jewess who feels she was shunned by the prejudiced patriarch, a youngster who finds a Klan hood in his grandfather’s bedroom, and a group of people with anger issues are constantly at a loss for civility. This is dysfunctional dysfunction.
At the start of the play, director Nathan Motta, following the playwright’s explicit stage directions, lets the audience sit in the dark listening to the overloud sound of “a billion cicadas trilling in the dense, velvety void.” “It goes on and on and on and on and on until the same thought occurs in every head: ‘Is this it?’ ‘Is this the whole show?” We are now ready for the trilling overwrought sound of human voices in our ears.
The end of the show seems choppy and overly long until one realizes that the playwright has instructed the director to quickly bring up and down the stage lights seven times, with different visual effects taking place each time. This cascade of happenings keeps up until an unknown character with a clipboard and a construction hat enters, looks around and says, “Look at this place.” Blackout! (This place — a house and family destroyed!)
Much to his credit, Motta is true to the author’s intent and purpose and finely hones the tension, confrontations and volatile ending.
He has chosen a superlative cast. These performers know how to milk everything out of Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing. Both the cast and the audience are wrung dry of emotions at the last blackout.
Abraham McNeil Adams (Franz), Ursula Cataan (Rachel), Kelly McCready (River), Tom Woodward (Bo), Ireland Derry (Cassidy), Jacob Eeg (Rhys) and Miles Pierce (Ainsley) are all character-perfect, nicely texturing their roles. Cleveland Critics Circle and BroadwayWorld Best Actress Award Winner Tracee Patterson is superlative as Toni.
Cameron Michalak’s set is remarkable. In the confines of a theater with no fly space, little offstage room and no floor trap-doors, he makes the very world explode! Wow!
Marcus Dana’s lighting and Jeremy T. Dobbin’s sound designs help build the tension. Ryan Zarecki deserves special recognition for his fight choreography and Yesenia Real-Rivera and her prop crew deserve a curtain call of their own.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Everything from the foundation of the ill-kept, once-grand plantation home, to the very souls of every member of the Arkansas-bred family, is weak and crumbling. This must see Dobama production gives clear insight into effects of family dysfunction and repercussions of long-held secrets.
Appropriate runs through Sun 5/20 at Dobama Theatre. Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.
[Written by Roy Berko, member: Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics]