Written by Charissa Roberson
From Nov. 12-14, Theatre Roanoke College presented Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s layered production “Appropriate,” which won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014.
The play centers on the Lafayette family as they return to their deceased father’s house—a former plantation—in Arkansas. As they go through his belongings, they uncover dark facts about their father’s past that force them to rethink the image they had of him.
“[T]his play deals with issues of race, family and protecting memories,” said senior Adeline Huggins, who played the wife of the middle Lafayette sibling. “It’s especially powerful given the BLM movement and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.”
With many people around the country beginning to have difficult conversations about race, “Appropriate” is an extremely timely production. Like the Lafayette family, America must confront the truths about its past that are too often ignored.
“Jacobs-Jenkins has created a world that reflects our contemporary society’s discomfort when reckoning with its racialized past,” wrote Dr. Nelson Barre, the play’s director, in a note on the TRC production. “[N]one [of the characters] can truly escape the fact that the comfortable world they have inhabited is haunted by people and events that have served as the foundation of America’s current unrest.”
TRC itself has played a role in the “omission of racial history,” according to Barre. In the 50-plus years that the organization has been putting on plays, “Appropriate” is the first written by a Black man.
Interestingly, the play is explicit in its direction to have an all-white cast. Using a premise that is familiar to American theater-goers—a family confronting their issues in a domestic setting—Jacob-Jenkins draws the viewer in and then adds his own spin to the narrative, resulting in a work that is “subversively original” (The New York Times).
In addition to the complex material of the play itself, the TRC cast of “Appropriate” also had to contend with COVID-19 restrictions, which made the rehearsal and performance processes more challenging. The cast had to learn to act with masks, and the audience numbers were much smaller than usual, with about 10 people in-house and other viewers tuning in online.
The cast and crew, however, persevered through these difficulties and helped each other along the way.
“Everyone’s been kind to the new theater kids,” said freshman Mateo Biggs, who had his first TRC role in “Appropriate.” “Dr. Barre was a huge support for everyone as he worked closely with us.”
Junior Sarah Jane Ruppert, who played the fiancée of the youngest Lafayette, voiced similar sentiments.
“We all tried to support each other and our director, Nelson Barre, worked tirelessly to make sure we had the resources to be successful in each of our roles,” she said. “This play is so important, and the entire cast feels lucky to have been able to bring this work to life.”