By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Through May 26
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin Place
By GWEN OREL
Director Mark Liebert was once a Jewish kid from Brooklyn living in a dorm with black athletes at Jacksonville University, a Southern Baptist school. He felt more comfortable with the athletes than the white people in the rest of the school.
The experience of being “other” was an eye-opener. “Everybody knew that I was, you know, the Jew,” he said. “The way they looked at you, the way they avoided you.”
Liebert has always remembered that feeling of otherness. It came back to him, like the ghost of the dead father that haunts the stage in the New Jersey premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate.” Read review here.
Liebert loved Jacobs-Jenkins’ play about a contemporary family dealing with spectres of the past on their family plantation in Arkansas after the patriarch’s death.
“This is an actor’s play,” he said, “Every character has an arc.” The adult siblings arguing about their father’s racism, or lack of it; the children trying to navigate their parents’ anger; the battles over the past, are things anyone can find a way into [see review].
The play is edgy, serious, and quite different from the comedies Studio Playhouse presented this year. That difference was deliberate, Liebert said. People poured in to audition. “I could have cast it three times over,” he said.
Montclairites Deshja Driggs-Hall, who plays the eldest and angriest sibling, Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette, and Bill Barry, her brother Beauregard “Bo” Lafayette, also find things to connect to in Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie Award-winning 2014 play.
Barry said he can relate to the Lafayette family secret-keeping, coming from an Irish Catholic family with its own secrets. And he lost his own father when he was 15, so can tap into that feeling of loss that the Lafayette siblings feel. “I can also connect to the character of Toni, taking on the burden of taking care of the family,” he said.
Driggs-Hall has experienced the discovery that a person was not what she thought. She decided to audition on a day when her kids were irritating her. “I just had to get out of my house,” she said with a laugh. She said that like the character she plays she has had a very difficult year. Performing this role has been therapeutic. And she lost her father 11 months ago, so it’s still fresh.
Driggs-Hall’s husband’s family is from Georgia, and she’s seen a kind of racism up close, too. “But like [Toni] says, maybe he used the wrong word from time to time. It’s a couple of generations ago,” she said.
Barry agreed. “What was appropriate years ago is no longer appropriate.”