06/05/2023 - 03/06/2023
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Nathaniel Lees
The Court Theatre
Dark comedy, family drama and buried histories combine to create an unforgettable weekend in Appropriate, making its Aotearoa New Zealand premiere at The Court Theatre on 6 May.
“This play has the potential to stop people in their tracks” says its director, Nathaniel Lees.
The dysfunctional Lafayette siblings gather at their crumbling ancestral Arkansas home to sort out accumulated years of mess that their father has left behind, but they discover more than just boxes and junk inside the crumbling walls of the old mansion; they uncover a disturbing secret that leads them to question everything they thought they knew about their father, their family, and themselves.
Written by multi-award-winning African American playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins, Appropriate* is a roller-coaster of a family drama – a sometimes scorchingly funny, sometimes shocking exploration of how we deal with some of the most confronting and discomforting elements of our personal, societal and national histories. “It is a play that manages to be fast-paced and hilarious while walloping you with the inescapable history of racist violence” says Artistic Director Dr Alison Walls.
Leading the challenge to tell this powerful story with humour, courage and authenticity is director Nathaniel Lees, well known to Aotearoa and international audiences for his theatre, TV and movie work. Despite a busy schedule, Walls’ gentle insistence that he be involved convinced him to read the script. “I knew then that this is a story that needs to be told”, he says. “It will make people think, ‘what is my attitude to this? Is this part of our history as well? Is it part of my history? If it doesn’t affect me, do I care?’ To premiere a show like this in Christchurch is quite something.”
Lees has assembled a compelling cast, many of whom are familiar to Court Theatre audiences, to present the uncomfortable revelations and questions of Appropriate. “This cast has made it so much easier” says Lees. ”It’s a joy how they interact, how hungry they are to learn from each other and to tell this story.”
A key element in this story, says Lees, is the humour. “This family is so dysfunctional – it’s incredibly funny, what they say about each other, how bitchy they are. They think they know so much about each other, but there is a surprise in there for all of them.”
It is the combination of humour, the seeming familiarity of a family gathering and the uncomfortable shadows of the legacy of slavery that enables Appropriate to be so powerful, yet so accessible and relatable. “It should resonate with anybody in any nation that has grappled with the history and present-day realities of racism” says Walls, whilst pointing out the play’s unique ability to leave you laughing and open-mouthed with shock at the same time.
For Lees, Appropriate does exactly what theatre should do. “Theatre is there to challenge” he says. “Appropriate shines a light on things, on people’s different perspectives. If it shocks, it shocks, but this play will not be uncomfortable for everyone. For some people this will be an acknowledgement, underlining their experience. I hope it initiates discussion and then they talk about their different points of view, and I hope they listen to each other.”
*Appropriate – Obie Award Winner, Best New American Play, 2014
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, named a MacArthur Fellow (unofficially known as the “Genius Grant”), 2016
Appropriate runs at The Court Theatre from 6 May – 3 June 2023.
Adult $62 – $68
Senior (65+) $55 – $62
Friends of The Court Theatre $52 – $58
Concessions (see website for details) $34
Group (6+) 10% Discount* Applies to Standard Adult, Friends, Child and Senior price tickets
● Monday and Thursday 6:30pm
● Tue/Wed/Fri/Sat 7:30pm
● Forum (incl. Cast and Crew Q&A) 6:30pm 8 May 2023
● Matinee performance 4:00pm 27 May
● Communication Friendly performance 2:00pm 3 June 2023
Bookings: phone 0800 333 100 or visit https://courttheatre.org.nz/whats-on/appropriate/
Eilish Moran Antoinette ‘Toni’ Lafayette
Serena Cotton Rachel Kramer-Lafayette
Tom Eason François ‘Franz/Frank’ Lafayette
Roy Snow Beauregarde “Bo” Lafayette
Laurel Gregory Cassidy “Cassie” Kramer-Lafayette
Barnaby [Barney] Domigan Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette
Franklin [Frankie] Domigan Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette
Lily Bourne River Rayner
William Burns Rhys Thurston
Nathaniel Lees Director
Mark McEntyre Set Co-Designer
Tony De Goldi Set Co-Designer
Daniella Salazar Costume Designer
Matt Short Sound Designer and Operator
Sheena Baines-Alhawamdeh Lighting Designer
Jo Bunce Stage Manager
Haydon Dickie Assistant Stage Manager
Rosie Gilmore Rehearsal Assistant Stage Manager
Marcella Herrera Chaperone
Mandy Perry Chaperone
2 hours 40 min including interval (subject to change)
A provocative dark comedy about the meaning of inheritance
Review by Erin Harrington 11th May 2023
The acclaimed American dark comedy Appropriate starts in the massive living room of a decrepit Arkansas plantation house. It’s still, night, the atmosphere oppressive. The light changes almost imperceptibly through the oversized windows as the cicadas’ roaring summer song throbs and loops. We are invited to peer through the gloom at the eclectic partially-organised piles of household crap, aging furniture, dirty windows, dusty chandeliers, stained walls, and a long piece of sheer fabric, perhaps designed to soften the light, that hangs like a enormous spectre in the middle of the room. This painterly opening is languid, and eerie – proper Southern Gothic.
A surprising number of people in the audience titter and whisper, clearly uncomfortable at the lack of actors and movement. I admit I find this reaction frustrating, as I think the opening and its emphasis on place, space and absence is both beautiful and subversive. And anyway, it’s trying to provoke us to sit, to really look. This is an unusual but compelling start to a funny, challenging satirical drama about history, memory and the contemporary legacies of America’s original sin, slavery. And this is all before we’re even introduced to the dysfunctional adult Lafayette siblings, here to sort the house and its contents for auction after the death of the elderly patriarch. [More]
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Consistent excellence of the acting ensures it never outstays its welcome or overreaches its thought-provoking content
Review by Tony Ryan 07th May 2023
As we enter the Court Theatre’s auditorium we’re ‘confronted’ by chaos. But in these minutes before the lights dim, we’re unaware that it contains the inanimate essence of almost every confrontational aspect of the human drama that’s about to play out before us. Both play and playwright are new to me (as for most of the audience), so please bear with some consideration of the work itself before I talk about the performances.
Set in a decaying homestead in small-town Arkansas (an appropriate location for the play’s content, considering the state’s place in the USA’s history of conflicting priorities and perceptions), designers Mark McEntyre and Tony De Goldi have created a visual representation of the complex tapestry of attitudes, misconceptions, aspirations, relationships and, above all, secrets that feed the plot. The sprawling, extravagantly detailed and disorderly visual impact of the scene sets the action in motion before a single human character appears on stage.
Even after the houselights go down, director Nathaniel Lees makes the most of this visual environment with a daringly long and totally static dawn as daylight gradually begins to filter through the windows. The only sound is of cicadas, almost enabling us to feel the heat and humidity of a hot southern summer night. The singing of the cicadas also contributes to our sense of the slow passing of time and, throughout the play, is effectively used to represent changes in time from dawn to day to night and to the following day. And, incidentally, at the play’s end, the set continues to play its part in the most extraordinary way after every actor has left the stage.
The first appearance of human characters is, itself, a series of surprises, and their initial reactions on first encountering one another immediately sets in motion a succession of the memories, perceptions, assumptions and beliefs that draws the members of the Lafayette family together and simultaneously divides them.
Although the printed programme book tells us that author Branden Jacobs-Jenkins “has written a story […] most definitely one about race”, ‘race’ is just a hook on which the playwright hangs an exploration about the traits that I list above. At the end of the play, Toni wonders how each member of the family will tell the story of this weekend – how each of her two brothers might see it, and how she sees it herself. And Jacobs-Jenkins also uses time, place, the generation gap, personal desires and despairs, and much else to explore our inability to see things from others’ perspectives. He seems to be telling us that ‘the truth’ is nothing more than what each of us wants to believe.
The plot centres on a book of photographs that highlights these opposing perceptions. The middle-aged adults find them exceptionally shocking; the twenty-three-year-old finds them informative and illuminating; the teenagers, sensually numbed through life-long exposure to the internet and the ‘normality’ to which everything is reduced, simply take them in their stride as just another new experience; and the eight-year-old, with his yet childish thought-processes and lack of prior knowledge, observes them without any sort of formed response. But each individual projects their own response onto the others so that misunderstanding and conflict escalates.
As Toni Lafayette, Eilish Moran is extraordinary. If I hadn’t seen her in so many different roles at Court Theatre over the last forty years, I would almost believe that she is bringing her own personality to the character, so convincing is her portrayal. I find myself wanting to tell her to shut up and listen to the others, so blinkered and single minded is her behaviour. Toni is so much the centre of her own universe and so determined to hold on to her own world view, that she cannot be reasoned with. Moran plays the character to the hilt, making her so infuriatingly and disconcertingly convincing. If, occasionally, she seems to listen too uncharacteristically passively when the writer needs us to hear what another character has to say, perhaps that is more the fault of the author than the actor. Whatever the case, Moran’s performance is exceptional by any standards.
All seven of the remaining actors are equally convincing. As Toni’s younger brother, Frank, Tom Eason gives us the play’s most sympathetic portrayal. Despite his past and all his lingering flaws and weaknesses, in Eason’s hands, Frank establishes himself as the one character that we (or at least I) most want to influence the others.
As the older brother, Bo, Roy Snow turns a rather stereotypical middle-aged family man into another real and believable personality, struggling with his responsibilities and trying to provide a stable anchor for the anarchy around him … until his own needs also colour his judgement and affect his actions.
Serena Cotton as Bo’s wife, Rachael, feels somewhat an outsider to the family’s inner circle, and, while Cotton firmly maintains Rachael’s strong, if sometimes hysterical, personality, and makes herself another sympathetic character, she also convincingly depicts the destructive influence that others have on her.
In some ways, Frank’s fiancée, River, is the most difficult part to play, but Lily Bourne turns another stereotype into a believable individual who successfully realises many of the author’s key insights. And although they’re experienced actors, both Laurel Gregory and William Burns are totally convincing as teenagers, conveying their youthful attitudes to perfection.
Whether, Ainsley, the youngest member of the cast, is played by Barney or Frankie Domigan on the night you see Appropriate, I’m confident he will engage you as delightfully as he does on opening night.
Delightful he may be, but Ainsley’s childish innocence heightens the climactic horror of the family’s secret. However, I don’t find the staging of this quite as convincing as intended. Even so, the combination of Nathaniel Lees’ otherwise masterful direction, the brilliantly conceived set, Daniella Salazar’s varied and imaginative costumes, Sheena Baines-Alhawamdeh’s wonderfully realistic and unobtrusive lighting, and Matt Short’s evocative and atmospheric sound design, make this production well worth experiencing.
At its longish two-and-a-half-hour duration, it’s the consistent excellence of the acting performances which ensures that Appropriate never outstays its welcome or overreaches its thought-provoking content.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer