Photo courtesy of Christopher Bartelski.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Bartelski.

By Manning Harris

Actor’s Express is presenting the Atlanta premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jennings’ award-winning (2014 Obie Award for Best American play) drama “Appropriate,” directed by Freddie Ashley, running through Nov. 20.

Mr. Jacobs-Jennings, only 31, is the recipient of numerous awards, the most auspicious of which is the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” award, which honors outstanding work as well as promise. The award comes with a tidy sum, which eliminates the recipient’s option of calling himself a starving artist for a good while.

The playwright is African-American; this fact is interesting because his explosive “Appropriate” has an all-white cast and deals with an “American family drama” of the sort that makes one think of legendary plays such as “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and most recently, “August: Osage County.” This is pretty heady company; and if Mr. Jacobs-Jennings is not quite in that pantheon yet, he’s coming close.

We have an Arkansas family convening in their murky, cluttered mansion after the death of the patriarch, who may have left behind a book of old photographs; but this particular “family album” is filled with photographs of dead black people who have been lynched. None of the survivors knows where these pictures came from; and the family cannot reconcile this album with their father, whom no one thought of as a racist.

Yet there remains the disconcerting discovery of a “slave cemetery” practically right outside the front door. “Appropriate” is in part both a ghost story and a horror story, but it is first a fractious, macabre family reunion to “appropriate” (used here as a verb; sometimes as an adjective) the spoils that remain; and yes, there are conflicts.
“Regrets, recriminations…if you’d done this, it wouldn’t have cost me that,” says Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” There’s plenty of this sort of accusatory talk in this convocation of the Lafayette clan. They argue about clutter, debt, and a contentious family history, but the discovery of the book of photographs soon supersedes everything.

There are the Lafayette siblings: Toni (Jan Wikstrom), who has a teenage son, Rhys (John Osorio); Toni has taken care of her father through his last illness. Then there is Bo (Kevin Stillwell) and his wife, Rachael (Cynthia Barrett) and their two children, Cassidy (Devon Hales) and Ainsley (Dylan Moore).

And there is Franz (Bryan Brendle), formerly known as Frank; he’s been incommunicado for quite a while, but he shows up with his young fiancée, River (Alexandra Ficken), who’s quite the New Age princess, with an uplifting quip for every occasion. To say she rubs Toni the wrong way is putting it mildly. By the way, Franz may be the most complex and vulnerable of the male characters, and Mr. Brendle turns in fine, funny, and subtle work.

But then Toni (fiercely played by Ms. Wikstrom) has issues with almost everyone, and God help you if you become the object of her wrath (not that the others are shrinking violets). She takes a breath, rares back, and charges like a wounded buffalo. She may seem a bit over the top at times, but that’s the way Jacobs-Jennings wrote her; and you can’t escape the notion that the playwright enjoys the fireworks he has created. Part of the fun is that everyone seems to know what a truly dysfunctional family they are.

I cannot go into more plot permutations, but you will not be bored. This is an outstanding cast; and director Ashley is at the top of his form. What a lush production this is; Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have outdone themselves with their gorgeously decayed scenic design.

If you’re a true theatre fan, I would call the Express’ “Appropriate” a don’t miss show. It has wonderfully broad theatrical strokes, and fine and subtle characterizations. It also has the loudest and most ominous-sounding cicadas I’ve ever heard.

For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.