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Appropriate by Yehong Tan

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is an Afican-American playwright. He won the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play for his plays Appropriate and An Octoroon. His plays Gloria and Everybody were finalists for the 2016 and 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama respectively. He was named a MacArthur Fellow for 2016.

Abstract

This study explores why is it so hard for a white family to bring the topic of racism to the table by using the example of the play Appropriate. Throughout an observation of the behaviors and the interaction of the dysfunctional family, the Lafayette family members return to their deceased father's plantation home in Arkansas to claim their inheritance. Soon they were uncovering an album full of dead black bodies in their father's belongings, as they only want to hide and erase what they had been discovered, rather than figure out what happened in the past of their father. It becomes difficult to resolve the problem as they even cannot accept the fact that their father is a racist. Thus, the issue of racism will past from generation to generation. Furthermore, in order to better understand why racism had always been a controversial topic in American society, it is important to be aware of the history of social structure in the past and how is that influenced today's American society.

How do the racial issues shown in the play Appropriate reflected in today’s American society/culture?

This play named Appropriate written by a black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. The play was about a white family members wanted to inherit a house and the possession by their deceased father. The family was reunited to claim their portion of the inheritance, but in the process, they were confronted by their unsolved issues. In addition, they discovered a dark history and secret of their father. The play took place inside a house which was an old abandoned house. One of the family members found a book of photos within their father’s possessions...they tried to figure out what happened to all those dead bodies of black people and why this book here...the outcomes was that they burned it at the end. The photo album in Appropriate symbolized the history of black slavey. Burning the album would never be meant that their father’s behavior did not happen at all. Racism could not be suddenly disappeared without looking at the root cause, hiding and denying the fact that their father, a legal scholar, was a thoroughgoing racist wouldn’t help to solve the problem at all, but worse the fact that this ugly family tradition was passing from generation to generation because they were not taking it seriously, they were justified their father’s action, the black people were born to inferior to them. They pretend this history did not exist by destroying the photo album. Through family issues and values of what had been performed in the play reflected the historical racism and prejudice left by their father. Therefore, this play was a good example of using the common family dysfunctional drama to explore issues of race and the legacy of slavery. Racism inevitably became a part of American culture because it had been part of American history for as long as it has. This was not a simple issue but it was important to recognize the problem and not to hide it or neglect it, then we could move toward minimizing the issue.

Left: Franz (Robert Beitzel) and his girlfriend River (Zarah Mahler). Right: Toni (Melora Hardin) and his brother Bo (David Bishins). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Essay

What makes it so hard for white people to talk about racism in general in American society? In the play Appropriate written by a black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, it talked about a white family reunited at their passed away father’s plantation home to claim their portion of the inheritance. But during the process, there was some dark history and secrets about their dead father uncovered little by little. Most significantly an album, one of the family members found within their father’s possessions which were full of pictures of Black people being lynched, so they were being forced to confront the unsolved issues among their family history as they tried to figure out what happened to those dead bodies of black people and why this book exists at their home. The title of the play reflected the meaning of the word “appropriate” in both it’s adjectival and verb forms. Characters were testing the boundary of what suitable behavior was just as they were questioning claims of legitimate ownership. The problem of historical and power differences between whites and blacks still remains today, one of the reasons was because the white people deny to talk about it and to look at the root of racism objectively, they rather attempted to bury the history than to acknowledge it; therefore, in this extent, the problem of racism became even more sensitive.

The background of Appropriate was taking place in Arkansas, a former plantation estate. Three adult siblings gathered inside their abandoned plantation house after the death of their father. They need to sort out their father’s possession as to estate sale.

(L–R) Toni, Bo, and Franz. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Toni (Melora Hardin), Bo (David Bishins), and Franz (Robert Beitzel) were the three siblings. Their relationship with each other had been dysfunctional, they were not close to each other. As the story developed, the ugliness of their father’s history started to emerge to the surface as they discovered an album of dead lynching black people within their father’s belongings. None of them could believe that their father actually owned this item. So they started to deny it and tried to hide it as if the album had never existed before.

(L–R) Franz, Rhys (Will Tranfo), and Toni in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

For example, Rhys (Will Tranfo), who was Toni’s son holding the album and looking at it secretly, Toni and Franz took back the album from Rhys’s hand right away when they noticed it. They were not allowed Rhys to see those pictures, or even not allowed Rhys to know the existence of the album because those pictures represent the dark history and secret of their father which also Rhys's grandfather, who was Harvard Law School-educated patriarch whose life they were packing up might have harbored noxious racial prejudices and might even have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. From this scene, it indicated that the family was not treated this problem properly as they tried to wipe off the dark history of their father rather than to recognize it. So how could the problem be resolved?

Also, there was another scene showed that Toni was so angry and upset because she noticed that Cassie (Grace Kaufman), Bo’s little daughter, also knew the existence of the album, she was questioning how Cassie (Grace Kaufman) finds out the photo albums. River (Zarah Mahler) who is behind Cassie tries to explain to Toni that there is nothing wrong about for Cassie to know the existence of that photo album. River, who was Franz’s fiancée, as an outsider of the family pointed out that they had to accept the fact that their father was a racist, denying the fact wouldn’t help the problem at all, it only worsens the situation.

(L–R) River, Franz and Toni. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
All photos by Craig Schwartz. LEFT: Rhys and Franz, Franz discovers that his nephew Rhys is looking at the photo albums of his father. MIDDLE: Franz and Toni, Toni is questioning why Franz is all wet. RIGHT: Tony, River, Bo, Franz, Cassie (Grace Kaufman), Rachael (Missy Yager) and Rhys. Franz is standing in the center of the house, everyone else in the house is asking where's he has been and why he is all wet from head to toes. Franz said because he notices that there is a lake located close by. He tries to purify himself and all his family members' sins.

In conclusion, if racism has been part of history for as long as it has, it inevitably becomes a part of the culture, which operates in conscious and unconscious ways. While Appropriate doesn’t offer solutions to race relations, I think it is honest about the obstacles and challenges in categorizing them. Jacobs-Jenkins gives us a window into potential ways that we can start the process, but he doesn’t give easy answers. And I think it starts with ownership of, and atonement for, the past. We can’t begin to fix these things without acknowledging it. Thus, all of us, as well as this family, requires the right attitude to treat their father’s racism history and move forward.

Work Cited

Admin. “Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.” General Commission on Religion and Race, 9 Aug. 2019, http://www.gcorr.org/why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism/.

Reflection