Smile Politely

Skeletons in the closet

I’ve often heard of memories being compared to ghosts, as specters of the past drawn up to haunt or comfort those living in the present. Memories can affect the way we view people, places, or even objects. There have been a few instances where I’ve opened up an old box of childhood clothes and instantly remembered random birthday parties and playdates I’d worn them to. Some with fondness, some with bitterness. However, what makes the influence of memories so dangerous is how one-sided those memories can be. What one person may recall as a fun afternoon may have been utter torture for another. And we hold onto that memory, sometimes for dear life, never knowing how others perceived the same event until it has become ingrained into our very being. That power of memory is overwhelmingly present in The Station Theatre’s presentation of Appropriate, which opened this past weekend.

Though the play was written only a few years ago, Appropriate’s plot lends itself as a collection of theatrical memories. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has actually accredited himself as a kind of story chef, taking the best ingredients from various plays and mixing them together just to see what happens. Estranged family members gathering to discuss (or conflict over) a recently deceased patriarch? Sounds a little August: Osage County to me. Potent tension between a sister and her sibling’s controlling spouse? I sense A Streetcar Named Desire in there. Jacobs-Jenkins manages to take many elements of classic family dramas and let them battle it out — sometimes literally — on stage.

Appropriate centers on the reunion of three siblings — Toni (Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson, left, bottom of stairs), Bo (David Barkley, left, top of stairs), and Franz (Aaron Clark) — at their childhood home, a plantation in southern Arkansas. The occasion for the reunion is the recent death of their father. Children and spouses in tow, they set to organizing and cleaning up the estate so it can be auctioned. This task is far from easy, as the place has fallen under major disrepair and neglect. There’s easily as much physical baggage lying around as the emotional kind within the family, not to mention dysfunction.

Each branch of the family is very different, in lifestyle and dynamic, so of course worlds are going to collide. The real drama sparks from the disturbing discovery of a racially charged artifact found among the father’s belongings by one of the siblings’ children. So begins the great question of the father’s identity. Was he a racist bigot, a victim of his generation, or something else? With only their memories to turn to, each character forms his or her own conclusions.

Even before the performance began, I could tell from the look of the set (designed by Niccole Powers) that this particular production would be intense. I had never been to The Station Theatre before, and so the teeny tiny distance between the audience and actors had me a little on edge. Watching every scene unfold barely a few feet in front of us, literally becoming the fourth wall of a family home, was intimate to say the least. You can’t look away from anything, nor can you look at everything wholly. I found myself trying to keep track of where every character was and how they were reacting to what was going on. The beauty of that style of theatre is how much the audience can dictate their own individual experience. “Did you catch how that character flinched when the other mentioned that word?” Unless you were looking right at them, probably not.

Attention to detail is something director Mike Prosise and his cast do not appear to lack. With such a short distance from their audience, each actor is required to make even the smallest movement count. And boy, do they. When Franz is nervous, Aaron Clark (above) can make you see it as well as feel it as his leg trembles incessantly and his face turns red. Every character has a backstory, a ghost of their own, which is revealed to us on a spoken or unspoken level. Details like that set the stakes even higher than the script suggests, and they make the experience that much more engaging for the audience.

Believable as it was, there were a few instances where the fourth wall felt a little broken for me, mainly in the long silences that sometimes passed between two characters. I almost felt nervous for the actors. Did someone forget their line? Are they waiting for the lights to turn down? Maybe, as someone who once forgot to switch off the lights at the end of a scene, I’m just conditioned to think this way. Odds are, most audience members won’t be bothered by it.                     

It is impossible to talk about this play without mentioning subject of race. It’s an elephant in the room which the characters sort of skirt around but seldom talk about directly. This is interesting, as Jacobs-Jenkins is African-American yet there are no people of color in the cast. I think it’s important to mention that family dramas are often metaphorical in that they can represent any societal issue that’s plaguing the American people. Every culture has a barb in its past that it must face, deal with, and often answer for. We live in a society of growing cultural awareness — and sensitivity. It’s hard to talk about current events without mentioning the growing concern over race relations, especially between young black men and white police officers. Many of us try so hard to be inclusive, safe, or appropriate when it comes to our actions. But then returns the power of memory. Franz is a character who suffers from his past continuously throughout the play, and this hinders him from building a new life for himself and his fiancée, River (Heather Harris). He persistently apologizes for his evils, but still he remains the black sheep of the family because that’s the memory they’ve formed around him after so many years of bitter silence.

If you see Appropriate, prepare yourself to take an unsettling new awareness from it, no matter what culture or race you identify with. There are plenty of great comedic moments in this play, but there were also some moments that I almost laughed at, because the delivery resembled a joke, then stopped myself because the content was incredibly disturbing. It opens up many new perspectives on the race question (or any issue) and how we talk about our past in order to form a better road ahead. We will always have our ghosts, memories of a past which we may or may not have created. It’s how future generations remember us, what foundations we lay for them, that can redeem or destroy. It’s a fact that Appropriate unapologetically drives home.

The strong ensemble cast also includes June Eubanks (as Rachael), Sydney Germaine (Rhys), Ellen Magee (Cassidy), and Ellison Radek (Ainsley).

Appropriate continues its run at the Station Theatre until Saturday, May 9th. All shows begin at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays; $15 on Fridays and Saturdays. To make a reservation, call 217-384-4000 or reserve online via

Photos by Scott Wells.

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