Jeff Mikoni had read a great deal about “Appropriate” — winner of the 2014-2015 Obie Award for Best New American Play — but hadn’t read it. Silver Spring Stage’s intent to produce the play motivated him not only to pick up the script but offer to direct it.
“I was looking for a family drama, with a more traditional structure, more chronological and naturalistic, than the two plays I had directed at the Stage recently — but also a more-contemporary one, Mikoni said.
The work by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins seemed to fit the bill.
“Appropriate” walks a fine line between being a new and powerful play that is also indebted to the classic plays of the past, by Arthur Miller, Tracey Letts, Horton Foote and Edward Albee, Mikoni added. The playwright took something from each of the stories that came before him and blended them together.
Jacobs-Jenkins admired the earlier plays but with a critical eye.
“You can love something and criticize it at the same time, which applies to people too,” Mikoni said. “ It’s both the way the show comments on the theatrical canon and the way we need to look at ourselves and our loved ones.”
Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American, has achieved, in the director’s opinion, a universal cautionary tale as well a family drama that is explicitly and consciously rooted in the family’s whiteness.
When all the estranged members of the Lafayette clan come to their crumbling homestead to settle the accounts of the newly dead patriarch, his three adult children collide over many issues until a disturbing discovery escalates the tension further. Among their father’s things, they find photographs of lynching victims. Was he involved?
The underlying question is: How much do we engage with racism in America, and to what lengths will we go to avoid the subject? The Lafayette family members try to discuss the significance of the photos, but keep sliding away to subjects that are less difficult.
Maura Claire Harford plays Antoinette (Toni) Lafayette, the oldest of the three Lafayette children, who took on a parental role with her siblings very early in life due to their mother’s protracted illness and untimely death.
“Toni maintained this caretaker role, subjugating her own life’s ambitions for the sake of her father and younger brother. Even when she finally breaks away geographically to start her own career and family, her inability to establish boundaries with her father and siblings contributes to the demise of her marriage,” said Harford.
Further, a serious episode of delinquency by her son cost her job and career.
An exhausted and bewildered Toni wonders how in the world she arrived where she is in life, added Harford. “She struggles to detangle her affections from her resentments and her delusions from her expectations from others. While Toni is very loving, she is far too tired and grounded down to be subtle. She is also done with being pushed around.”
The challenge of playing Toni, said Harford, who was making her debut at the Stage, is that she “reflects the full portfolio of human complexity. It is to be faithful to the script while not letting anger be her only emotional note which requires creating a Toni who is far more emotionally transparent than someone like Toni would probably care to be.”
The greatest reward, she added, is finding the love between Toni and the other characters.
“Appropriate” runs April 5 – 28, 2019 (there will no performances the weekend of April 19-21). The theater is in the Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. www.ssstage.org