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Appropriate review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘a stunning act of theatrical subversion’

Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg in Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Much happens in this ingenious drama by African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that is far from appropriate. And the play itself is an act of appropriation.

That double meaning in the title is a clue to the sophistication of the play’s mechanism: it employs a kind of theatrical trompe l’oeil effect, in which the familiar takes on revealing fresh dimensions when viewed from a different angle. Jacobs-Jenkins appropriates a classic form: the great American family drama, in the manner of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard; there are strong echoes, too, of Tracy Letts’ later take on the genre, August: Osage County.

His rancorous Lafayette clan come together in a mouldering old Southern plantation in Arkansas, and it would seem that this miserable white family is all alone there. But as Ola Ince’s absorbing, unsettling and provocatively funny production plunges us into the inevitable furious recriminations and spilling of secrets, we realise that this is a play haunted by the ghosts of others that came before it, and what appears to be an absence is, in fact, an extremely potent presence: there are multitudes in this story whom, tellingly, we just do not see.

The Lafayette patriarch is dead and his children, along with their partners and their own offspring, gather to divide the spoils. It’s airless and sweltering, while cicadas create a clamour of ugly insect noise. Papa was a hoarder and the place is crammed with junk. It’s also full of unquiet spirits: those of the ancestors buried in the cemetery outside – or of the slaves on whose bones this extravagant mansion was really built? Toni (magnificent Monica Dolan), a harried and embittered divorced single mother, thinks she’s in charge; her prissy brother Bo (Steven Mackintosh) begs to differ. Then there’s the youngest, family fuck-up Franz (Edward Hogg), a recovering addict.

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: ‘The secret to writing? Read everything – even if you hate it’

Tensions come to an ugly head when they find an album of photographs of lynchings. The shocking discovery brings them face to face with their past – but when it turns out the pictures are valuable, no one thinks twice about making money from them.

With its apparent emphasis on personal history and legacy, the play subtly and insistently reminds us of its context: of the black history that accompanies what the Lafayettes call their “heritage”, as well as all the black narratives and characters ignored by, or relegated to the margins of, so much major drama. Jacobs-Jenkins’ approach is brilliantly subtle; he withholds resolution, both from his characters and from us.

Instead, he offers a moral reckoning that never quite adds up, the debts left unpaid, redemption and healing still elusive. Executed with a light touch and formidable intelligence, it’s a stunning act of theatrical subversion.

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Verdict
Revealing and stunningly acted subversion of American theatrical family dramas
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