Family drama, biting humour and buried histories combine to create an unforgettable weekend in Appropriate, making its Aotearoa New Zealand premiere here on 6 May, and “This play has the potential to stop people in their tracks” says its director, Nathaniel Lees.
The dysfunctional Lafayette siblings gather at their crumbling ancestral Arkansas home to sort out accumulated years of mess that their father has left behind, but they discover more than just boxes and junk inside the crumbling walls of the old mansion; they uncover a disturbing secret that leads them to question everything they thought they knew about their father, their family, and themselves.
Written by multi-award-winning African American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Appropriate is a roller-coaster of a family drama – a sometimes scorchingly funny, sometimes shocking exploration of how we deal with some of the most confronting and discomforting elements of our personal, societal and national histories. “It is a play that manages to be fast-paced and hilarious while walloping you with the inescapable history of racist violence” says Artistic Director Dr Alison Walls.
Leading the challenge to tell this powerful story with humour, courage and authenticity is director Nathaniel Lees, well known to Aotearoa and international audiences for his theatre, TV and movie work. Despite a busy schedule, Walls’ gentle insistence that he be involved convinced him to read the script. “I knew then that this is a story that needs to be told”, he says. “It will make people think, ‘what is my attitude to this? Is this part of our history as well? Is it part of my history? If it doesn’t affect me, do I care?’ To premiere a show like this in Christchurch is quite something.”
Lees has assembled a compelling cast, many of whom are familiar to Court Theatre audiences, to present the uncomfortable revelations and questions of Appropriate. “This cast has made it so much easier” says Lees. "It’s a joy how they interact, how hungry they are to learn from each other and to tell this story.”
A key element in this story, says Lees, is the humour. “This family is so dysfunctional – it’s incredibly funny, what they say about each other, how bitchy they are. They think they know so much about each other, but there is a surprise in there for all of them.”
It is the combination of humour, the seeming familiarity of a family gathering and the uncomfortable shadows of the legacy of slavery that enables Appropriate to be so powerful, yet so accessible and relatable. “It should resonate with anybody in any nation that has grappled with the history and present-day realities of racism” says Walls, whilst pointing out the play’s unique ability to leave you laughing and open-mouthed with shock at the same time.
For Lees, Appropriate does exactly what theatre should do. “Theatre is there to challenge” he says. “Appropriate shines a light on things, on people’s different perspectives. If it shocks, it shocks, but this play will not be uncomfortable for everyone. For some people this will be an acknowledgement, underlining their experience. I hope it initiates discussion and then they talk about their different points of view, and I hope they listen to each other.”
Make sure you know what the conversation is about by booking your tickets to Appropriate now.