The hum of cicadas transformed the cramped Tustin Auditorium into a rather unfamiliar setting – a former Arkansas plantation, home to the aristocratic Lafayette family, sprawled amid the humid summer of 2011. So began Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Appropriate, a thought-provoking take on white fragility and the complex legacy of race in the United States directed by Anjalee Hutchinson. The death of the Lafayette family patriarch forces the younger generation to return and administer their father’s estate and affairs. Siblings Toni (played by Bethany Fitch ‘23), Bo (Jon Riker ‘22), and Franz (Peter Cholnoky ‘22), confront each other and attempt to come to grips with the family’s shameful upbringing and dark family history. Consistent with this plot summary, the content warning in the program notes that “[t]his production deals with the history of whiteness in the United States, containing explicitly violent imagery and discussion surrounding racialized, sexualized, and traumatized figures.”
Tensions run high when Franz, the youngest of the siblings, arrives at his childhood home with fiancè River (Sydney Dickinson ‘22) after ten years of estrangement from the rest of his family. Franz intends to seek forgiveness from his siblings after a set of unresolved issues from his past drives a wedge between himself and the others. Toni, the eldest, is unmistakably appalled by his presence. Moreover, she resents her siblings for leaving her to take care of their father for the last ten years, along with raising Franz for an additional ten years prior. The time Toni invested in her siblings and late father has adversely affected her relationship with her own nuclear family. Recently divorced, she struggles to keep a relationship with her troubled son Rhys (Kieran Calderwood ‘24), an emotionally distant teenager. Amidst this inner turmoil, elder brother Bo arrives with his wife Rachael (Jillian Flynn ‘22), and two daughters, Cassidy (Haley Dickinson ‘23) and Ainsley (Yasmine Adam ‘24) from New York. He stresses about getting as much money from the estate as possible. Being with his siblings tests Bo’s anger issues, adding to the stress he feels from anticipating losing his job as well as grieving from his father’s death. Although much of the play’s conflict is centered around the siblings, River and Rachael provide a window into how outsiders of the family are treated. River is largely naïve to the complicated family dynamics, and does her best to get along with Frank’s family despite reluctance from Toni and Bo. Rachael has experienced a decidedly more rocky past with the family, noting that she had faced antisemitic remarks from Bo’s father. The discovery of a photo book by eight-year-old Ainsley – almost certainly depicting victims of lynchings, although only explicitly referred to as “photos of dead Black people” – catalyzes the rising action. The unavoidable truth of their problematic history of racial prejudice rises to the surface. Each of the characters grapples with unsettling family histories as well as their current dysfunction, making for a tense, anxiety-producing performance.
The second act digs deeper into the racially rooted intentions and preconceptions of the characters. They limit themselves to taking responsibility for their actions in the past as they keep a tight hold on the loving memory of their father. Late in the play, the family realizes that they can sell the photos to a collector for a significant profit. Not realizing this, a euphoric experience finds Franz throwing the book into the lake in an attempt to free his family from its power. Sparked by these developments, a fight between Toni and Rachael eventually escalates into a physical spar among the entire family. This moment deepens the fracture between the family members. The siblings eventually part ways. They are left to themselves to repair the wounds they opened just in the span of 24 hours.
The ending leaves many issues unresolved – just like how the play began – but truths are nevertheless uncovered and confronted. Director Anjalee Hutchinson comments in the program that “[s]eeing these characters as human, as deeply flawed people, does not abdicate them from their failings, but rather asks us to examine more deeply our own failings, and the failings of the families, of communities, and of the loved ones that surround us […] Just like the truth, cicadas do not remain buried. And when they emerge, they always rise to the surface with a scream.” The play ends with a flood of cicada hums, marking ten years later – 2021, the present day. What we have just watched for the last two hours rebounds back on the audience. It is now up to us to face the truth.
Jillian Flynn ‘22, who played Bo’s wife Rachel, reflected on both her time in the University theatre program and experience in this particularly moving play; “Appropriate‘ tells the story of a broken family coming to terms with an even more broken history. I think on the outside it’s a family drama, but at its heart it deals with very real issues (and the dark history of our country).” “It was such an honor to be a part of this production,” Flynn continued. “It was amazing being back on stage and in front of a live audience after so long. The theatre department has been a huge part of my life at Bucknell. It’s so much more than just a major or a cast, the professors and students have been my family through these past four years.”
The show consists of a cast of 48 members in total, 14 of which are performing cast members and an additional 34 members of the production staff.
Although Appropriate is no longer performing, the Bucknell theatre and dance department is offering a large variety of shows throughout the rest of the semester such as the Fall Dance Showcase, The Taming of the Shrews, the Fall Dance Concert, and a series of One-Act Plays. More information surrounding these future showings can be found in the theatre and dance department brochure.