IN BRIEF Star writer turns up the heat on social responsibility in an edgy and thought-provoking evening
As the old saying goes, you can’t choose your family. That’s certainly true in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ uneasy, pitch-black comedy from 2014 which deals with accountability, responsibility and the potential power of apology.
The family are the Lafayettes, who gather at the overstuffed, open wound that is their late father’s house in Arkansas to get the it ready for sale, and to move on with their lives. But, as anyone who has had the awful task of sorting through dead relatives’ things will tell you, unexpected items can throw a stark new light on those departed. As they do here, with a photo album. Containing photos of racially-motivated lynchings.
Recoiling in horror, the three siblings try to figure out who was this man that they thought they knew, why he had this album, and mixed up in a swirling storm of mourning, regret and recrimination, they try to make sense of it all.
Clues come to light, denials are hastily constructed, and accusations are made which further muddy the waters. The album moves around from one character to another, causing an appalled fascination as they try to explain the unexplainable. Comedy often comes in the most inappropriate of ways and times, but it all works most effectively.
In a smart twist, the play gets even more interesting when it comes to light that there are people willing to pay big money for this material, and the climax of the play hinges around whether morality should be sacrificed for money.
The performances are all of a very high standard, but especially those of the three siblings played by Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg which are particularly carefully-crafted and realised. The tortured soundtrack of the cicadas bring a welcome tension to the proceedings. I did, however, feel that the final ghostly convulsions of the house were rather underwhelming
As we have come to expect from this writer, there is much food for thought here, from the partial view we have of others, to the mysteries of the universe not being available to us, to the derivation of the word sorry; Jacobs-Jenkins’ text creates a complex challenge to its audience (as he did in An Octoroon). Rooted in the abhorrence that was slavery, this is a striking slab of soul-searching.
He criticises the modern habit of rushing to ascribe labels without thinking, similar to “Liking” something on social media and then moving on without having made the time or had the courage to explore this thing and what it might mean, or even consider how we might learn from it. People are complex and the stories they tell are not necessarily everyone’s truth.
Jacobs-Jenkins also rightly reminds us that young people are exposed to things which they can’t process without the help of context and the guidance of older minds, so that they rely on adults to show them the way to live. We cannot be responsible for the deeds of earlier generations, only our own. From all this, Jacobs-Jenkins has fashioned a complex and rewarding play which makes you think hard; which is just what theatre needs more of. “People make mistakes. People can change” says one of the characters, and that slightly hopeful ending as the family tries to move on seems very appropriate for our times right now.
APPROPRIATE plays at the Donmar, London until October 5th. Tickets and information here