Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative APPROPRIATE (at SpeakEasy Stage through Oct. 10th) has at its core the belief that objects have power. Some people wear a cross or a Chai as a talisman against evil. On a smaller scale some save four leaf clovers or baby shoes as keepsakes.
The charged objects in APPROPRIATE are old photographs of Black men hanging from trees, as in Billie Holiday’s searing “Strange Fruit.” It’s estimated that by the mid-nineteenth century, ninety-five million Africans had been abducted and transported to the New World, where they were forced into slavery. The lynching didn’t stop with the twentieth century, either. These photos evidently belonged to the recently deceased white man whose children have assembled at his dilapidated “plantation” house in Arkansas to dispose of the home and his possessions.
At first they’re horrified: Should the photos be destroyed? None of the children wants to believe they belonged to their father… and yet he was a severe man and a daughter-in-law claims he was an anti-Semite. The pictures are a horrific reminder of what happened, perhaps, on this very plantation years ago. Who would want to keep photos of mass murder? Certainly no one would want to profit from another human being’s suffering. And yet… They soon discover via the internet that collectors will pay top dollar for such artifacts. The moral question Jacob-Jenkins poses is should these white people profit from the deaths of tortured Black men?
Jacob-Jenkins’ clever story fleshes out the power of these photos: Are the spirits of these murdered men captured within the photographs (as Native Americans used to believe)? Are their spirits in the house? I am reminded of August Wilson’s THE PIANO LESSON where the ghosts of slavery figure prominently in his cautionary tale about inheritance.
While the siblings squabble about their share of the estate, we witness their problems emerge. Each is wounded in some way and their petty interests are often humorous. However, the play seems to wander way off kilter by having their insults devolve into a full scale donnybrook where life and limb are threatened. It’s played for laughs but to me it seemed, to borrow from the title, inappropriate. I believed the narrative wholeheartedly until the incompatible knock-down drag-out free-for-all.
Director M. Bevin O’Gara gets powerful performances all around, with standout work from Melinda Lopez as the frazzled sister who ended up as caretaker for her ailing father, from Bryan T. Donovan as her take charge but is soon overwhelmed brother, and from Ashley Risteen as a hilarious hippie-dippy earth child who knows bad karma when she sees it.