When it comes to American theater, we love a good blistering family drama. If American drama were a quilt, its squares would be comprised of tortured and beaten portraits of humanity’s ill-equipped exploration of memory, guilt, blame, lies, truth, and dreams. And speaking of quilts, Speakeasy Stage is about to show off a new and glorious patchwork called appropriate by Obie Award-winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
It is an intentional patchwork, mind you; Jacobs-Jenkins has sewn together bits of his favorite works by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Horton Foote, and Sam Shepard. Basically, it’s a theater lover’s dream; appropriate is brimming with themes that have haunted American drama for decades. The play is about a family that converges at the Arkansas plantation home of their late father in an attempt to divide the estate and settle his affairs. When they discover a photo album filled with pictures of dead black people who appear to have been lynched, all bets are off as the Lafayette family (each of whom has enough baggage to fill a streetcar named Desire) attempt to search for answers.
Melinda Lopez stars as Toni, the eldest and perhaps the most damaged of the Lafayette clan; this will mark her first appearance as an actress on the Boston stage in three years. Director M Bevin O’Gara and Lopez are friends and have worked together before; most recently, O’Gara directed Lopez’s Becoming Cuba at the Huntington Theatre Company, which was one of my favorite productions in Boston last year. “I think I was three pages into Toni’s first scene when I started to think of Melinda in this part,” said O’Gara. “That sort of ferocity that she has but also the intense vulnerability.”
When the role was offered to Lopez, she didn’t accept immediately. Her father had recently passed away and she was caring for her ailing mother. “I read it once and I had to put it down because the character of Toni has just been through that and she’s so raw. I sat on it for a long time … I accepted the role not knowing if I would be able to do it,” Lopez said. Her mother passed away in May, and she says that losing both of her parents in the same year is the most difficult thing she’s ever been through. It was really Lopez’s relationship with O’Gara that made her feel comfortable enough to accept such a taxing role at such a fraught time in her life. “She knows when to push and she knows when to back off,” Lopez said of O’Gara. “I’m so ready for this part because Toni is everything I’m not; she’s bitter, feels cheated, she takes it out on everyone, she makes a lot of drama … well, maybe I do that too, I don’t know,” she said with a laugh.
“The part is an actor’s dream,” said Lopez of Toni. “When Toni is talking about caring for her father and the whole huge package of feeling that comes with that, because it’s not all grief, I thought, “I know how to do that.” It’s not necessary for good theater, but it’s very exciting when the lines and the actor and the truth all line up.”
What sets Jacobs-Jenkins instantly apart from the aforementioned fathers of American drama is that he is black; all of the characters in the play, however, are white, which makes for a fascinating and layered examination of race in a way that is fresh and exciting.
“What the play is attempting to ask is ‘Can race be invisible?’ As a black writer, there’s a constant pressure to write about race … What he was attempting to do with this by putting a play with all white characters on stage was to ask the question “Do you still think of it as a play about race?” And I think the answer is very much ‘yes,’” says O’Gara.
The family’s inability to productively discuss matters of race also mirrors that of society today: There’s been an awful lot of discussion about race lately, but very little of it has been substantial.
“Because of all the rest of our issues, we’re unable to talk about it, even if we were able to engage in a meaningful conversation about it. I think the big question is, given all of this gunk, this junk, all of this personal crap that we all have, is there any way of talking about this or dealing with this history?” says O’Gara.
“We’ve all got our own shit. I can say that in the Dig, right?”
APPROPRIATE. SEPT 12 THRU OCT 10 AT THE CALDERWOOD PAVILION AT THE BCA. 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. FOR TICKETS AND SHOWTIMES VISIT SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM/APPROPRIATE