On the surface, black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ all-white family drama is about siblings and their grievances.
Under that surface, it’s about what’s buried out back, what lies in the unmarked graves, what is known but never spoken of.
Appropriate is a story haunted by injustice and the most ruthless forms of exploitation.
It’s this facet of the play that elevates Appropriate above the level of an enjoyable August: Osage County-like rollercoaster of familial dysfunction and into political significance.
It’s also what makes this most American of stories resonate in Australia.
The Lafayette family have gathered in their late father’s decaying Arkansas mansion – formally a plantation house – to sell off the old hoarder’s effects and watch the old place go under the hammer.
Eldest sister Toni radiates grievance. Brother Bo, who has flown in from New York with his wife Rachel, is very much focused on the division of the sale proceeds. Estranged sibling Frank, aka Franz, a reformed addict, has arrived late at night via a window with his hippy girlfriend. He has an entirely different agenda
This is the first time the three have been together in years. One imagines it may be the last. There are some big debts to settle – and some personal scores, too.
But the arguments about who deserves what are overtaken by the discovery of a photo album, a collection of images taken at lynchings of black men.
Did they belong to their father, a prominent – and apparently liberal – lawyer? If so, what does that mean?
And there’s another question vexing the shocked siblings: what might these images be worth? It would seem that the desire to profit from black suffering runs deeper than any of these 21st century inheritors of antebellum privilege could ever own up to.
Directed by Wesley Enoch, this is a physically grand production. Arriving as it does in a period of Covid-era restraint, designer Elizabeth Gadsby’s set is thrillingly detailed and weighty. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting brings it alive, cycling through many moods and atmospheres.
The acting ensemble is excellent, led by Mandy McElhinney as the sourly funny Toni, whose only form of defence is all-out attack. Jonny Carr is perfectly unhinged as Frank attempts to wash away his own guilt and that of his family. Sam Worthington, in his first stage role in years, seems comparatively reticent at first but fills out strongly as Bo’s desperation mounts.
Brenna Harding is excellent as River, Frank’s earnestly spiritual girlfriend. Lucy Bell is contrastingly spiky as Bo’s profoundly uncomfortable partner Rachel. James Fraser and Ella Jacob are terrific as teenaged kids coolly observing the carnage.
Like the house, the family members are pretty much wrecked by the end of the play. Then Appropriate unleashes a wordless coda: a rapid sweep forward in time, captured in massive snapshots, in which the house itself becomes a decaying corpse. Later, the singing of cicadas, themselves emerging from the ground after years buried, rises to a scream.
It’s a remarkable thing to behold.