Review: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate forces us to consider the foundations of our existence

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Gray Powell and Raquel Duffy in a scene in Appropriate at Toronto’s Coal Mine theatre.DAHLIA KATZ/Handout

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  • Title: Appropriate
  • Written by: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
  • Director: Ted Dykstra
  • Actors: Raquel Duffy, Gray Powell, Amy Lee, Andy Trithardt, Alison Beckwith
  • Company: Coal Mine Theatre
  • Venue: Coal Mine
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To October 21, 2023

The sins of the father are visited upon the children.

If you’ve watched any classic American drama, you’ll have seen that theme play out – usually over three long, argument- and booze-filled acts. Back in 2013, when he was in his late 20s, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took on that tradition with Appropriate, an audacious homage and response to plays like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Buried Child and August, Osage County.

The twist? Jacobs-Jenkins is Black, and he understands the unspoken horrors underlying many of those stories – and the country their white writers grew up in. He’s appropriated (to use one meaning from the title) some of the conventions of those plays, but he’s also adding to our understanding of them. Which, in Ted Dykstra’s Coal Mine production mounted in this era of racial reckoning and truth and reconciliation, feels rather appropriate.

The patriarch of the Lafayette clan has died months earlier, and his three children have gathered at his decrepit Arkansas plantation to sell off the estate.

The eldest, Toni (Raquel Duffy), was her late father’s closest caregiver, and she’s stuck in a rut. She hasn’t managed to organize the home into anything sellable – one character says they imagined something “more Gone with the Wind, less Hoarders” – and her husband has just left her, with her problematic son Rhys (Mackenzie Wojcik) about to join him.

Middle brother Bo (Gray Powell) has paid a lot of the old man’s bills, but when he arrives from Brooklyn with his Jewish wife Rachael (Amy Lee) and children Cassidy (Hannah Levinson) and Ainsley (Ruari Hamman), we learn he’s not as well-off as he’s led everyone to believe. He needs the money from the estate.

And finally there’s Frank (Andy Trithardt), who’s been estranged from the family for a decade but is making a surprise visit with his young vegan girlfriend River (Alison Beckwith), who’s convinced him to change his name to Franz. Is he there to make amends for his past behaviour? Or does he merely want his cut of the inheritance?

The character who dominates the play with his absence is the father, a once-respected lawyer who fell to ruin after his wife died. It’s the discovery of one of his possessions – an album of disturbing photographs of Black people – that causes everyone in the house to rethink what they knew about him and the questionable legacy they’ve inherited.

The family’s response to those photographs sets off the minimal action in the play. One sibling wants to hide them, while another thinks about selling them. Most of the adults want to prevent the children from seeing them, but when the kids inevitably do, they’re nonplussed; they’ve seen more extreme things online.

While the play – which is also receiving its long-awaited Broadway premiere next month – feels solidly built, there’s something schematic and predictable about it. Jacobs-Jenkins knows how to plant clues and have them pay off later. We know that the siblings’ various secrets will be revealed, which they are, often in long monologues. One moment late in the play feels manufactured to elicit shock.

There’s also a thinness to the characters. Toni is the kind of embittered, angry woman who only exists in prestige art (in film, she’s often played by Melissa Leo). And while Duffy, who’s done such fine work at Soulpepper, delivers her line readings skillfully, there’s something self-conscious about her performance – as studied as the loose strap on her overalls in Des’ree Gray’s otherwise evocative costumes.

Lee adds some fine comic relief as the outsider figure, and Powell nails his rant about white privilege – a speech that feels timelier than ever. Beckwith shows us that her seemingly flaky character knows more than she lets on. But it’s Trithardt, a gifted actor seen too infrequently on Toronto stages, who best captures the play’s tragicomic, questioning spirit.

Under director Dykstra, I can’t imagine a better looking or sounding production. Steve Lucas and Rebecca Morris’s set has an eerie authenticity about it – every stick of furniture, faded picture frame and dusty knickknack feels believable, and Dykstra makes each of the three acts look different.

Deanna Choi and Michael Wanless’s sound design, meanwhile, feels like another character altogether. The play begins with a bold sonic and visual choice (Lucas also did the lighting design) that sets up the play’s atmosphere and also hints at the chaos to come.

The thoughtful production extends even to the curtain call, which Dykstra has cleverly staged as a family photograph.

“What happened?” asks one character near the end of the play. The other replies, “I don’t know. Why don’t I know?”

We should know. At his best, Jacobs-Jenkins forces us to look at the foundations of our existence and consider, as the land acknowledgement goes, all the recorded and unrecorded people who have come before us.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)