What happens when a death invites mourning much more than the loss of a loved one? But also the death of the very notion of who that person was and—consequently—who you are? Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play Appropriate, which plays at the Mark Taper Forum through November 1, 2015, explores the consequences of such loss, but it also creates a complex, deeply nuanced landscape in which to explore murky, handed-down histories, hidden pasts and the legacy of silence.
Obie Award-winning director Eric Ting, recently named the new artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, has long been mining the territory of identity and legacy. The founder of the artists’ collective Intelligent Beasts, Ting has been deeply committed to telling vivid stories from a wide swath of cultural perspectives, through showcasing and supporting new and diverse voices for the stage.
In Appropriate, the characters exist in a place of “flawed truths,” which in many ways mirrors the conversations we have in this country around race, identity and class. The play asks repeatedly—“What is it to be a ‘man of one’s times’?” —when those times extend far beyond what we might envision.
This is a tough piece to discuss without giving too much away…
Precisely. It’s full of surprises. People colliding into one another. What’s subversive about this play is that Branden drops this bomb in the center of the room and the characters don’t go the way you expect them to go. Or they go in the direction you expect them to go, but it’s not the direction you expect them to go dramatically speaking.
Is that what drew you to this project?
What attracted me first to the play is the playwright. I had been following Branden for a long time. He had just exploded onto the New York theatre scene with a little play called Neighbors, which was produced here by the Matrix Theatre. And Neighbors—and this is not an understatement—was explosively provocative. It’s also a domestic drama. And I was stunned by the outrageousness and the bravery that Branden exhibits in all of his work—his ability to sort of collide head on with these questions of identity.
Part of what I love about Appropriate is its subversiveness. The title is so charged and filled with layers of meaning. I keep coming back to the fact that it is, finally, a play about family and about how well we know each other and whether or not we can fully know each other. It’s about legacy. It’s about the inability to literally share a life from one generation to the next.
Has this play given you a chance to do something that you haven’t quite been able to do before, precisely because of all of these layers?
I don’t know if I can say it is something that I’ve never done before because thematically the questions that Branden’s play raises are questions that I’ve certainly pursued in my work—questions of identity, questions of legacy, questions of responsibility, questions of cultural appropriation. Those are things I have pursued and certainly are things that drew me to it.
I want to pivot back to this idea you voiced—the title and the many meanings of “appropriate.” The play cleverly deals with those layers but also the choices these characters make and how they define their decisions. What is your challenge as a director to actually tease all of those meanings out?
To recognize them and name them and give bearing and focus upon them is a challenge. There is this pleasure derived from understanding the meaning of the title. It is something I think audiences will get a great kick out of as they are watching the play. What does it mean—it’s not just appropriate but appropriate—it’s both the noun and the verb. What does it mean, this idea of appropriation, whose stories do we have permission to tell, and what is the definition of a civil society?
Also, if there is something specifically unique about what this play offers it is that it is intentionally very subversive. You can take the play on a lot of different levels. The most basic level, which is the level most of us will engage with, is that this is a dysfunctional family. It asks lots of questions about who these people are and what they are running from. Branden’s play is filled with nuance. That is the real pleasure. There is a kind of code language. They—the family—live with a kind of white blindness in this shimmering space that is just above reality—but finally, really, this family is having a big old fight.
Most families in some way, shape, and form have been through a family death, the loss of a parent and the consequences of that death. I know many, many families that have been torn asunder by that, by what happens after that. Money is such a dangerous thing in conversations around family. And while all of that is happening in the play, there is all of this other stuff happening. There are questions that will resonate with where the country is today, wrestling with conversations [about] race in America. It’s incredibly complicated. I don’t want to call them charged moments, but there are facets that are very eye-opening. For an audience that is sensitive to it and is listening for it—it will be a great feast.
While the characters themselves may not, the play deals frankly with family secrets and hidden histories—and the legacy of them. Do you think that this is a particularly American narrative, this idea of ignoring—or shaping and remaking the past?
Well, when you put it that way, no, not at all. It’s a colonial narrative. It’s important to remember that this country was originally a colony—so colonialism is very much in the DNA of this country and that sense of who writes history is very much caught up in that question. The removal of history, a dismantling of cultural history, that’s where part of that power derives. So the larger narrative of hidden history—of slavery and within our own family—makes us question what we can possibly ever fully know about one another.
While the family is untangling new personal revelations, they are forced to explore some explosive secrets that affect their understanding of who they are—their very foundation. And in so doing the audience is privy to a conversation with a white family about race/appropriateness that we rarely get to see. As a director, what does this prism of storytelling offer you?
I think in writing this play, Branden is committing an act of profound empathy. What his play does for me, is that it invites me—and audiences and the actors who are working on it—to empathize with these individuals. How would you feel if you discovered something really horrific about your past? Something that was assaulting your memory?
And yet they also seem to keep asking: “Can I keep partitioning things off, shaving things away, can I continue to keep a few steps ahead of this?”
Yes, and that’s what I meant when I was talking about the sheen of blindness. In our First World lives, we have developed a pretty great ability to be ignorant. Ignorance is a superpower of ours today. We create waste and we pollute the air and yet we are able to silo that information so that we can live, and we can move on and exist in our day-to-day and not be overwhelmed by the kind of harm we are committing on this earth.
I think the same applies with the question of race in America. I think people are just beginning to understand the depth to which racism has been institutionalized. It’s amazing to me that it’s just—only now—starting to become part of the larger public discourse.