On the stage of the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre is a set mirroring the style appropriate for a Southern homestead living room — floral couches, old-fashioned wallpaper and a quaint bookshelf.
But this is no typical house, and the family in it has a lot of baggage to work through. “Appropriate,” written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an American playwright and MacArthur Fellow, and directed by Ricardo Vila-Roger, a professor in Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts, will premiere Thursday at 8 p.m. and continue through March 1.
“Appropriate” chronicles the lives of the estranged members of the Lafayette family who return to their ancestral homestead in Arkansas following the death of their family patriarch. As they go through their father’s home that’s packed to the brim with different heirlooms — a real hoarder’s paradise — they unearth a few family secrets.
The Lafayette family’s ancestral home just happens to be an old slave plantation. And when the Lafayettes discover some secrets related to this dark family history, they have to figure out how to acknowledge it. Vila-Roger said these heinous and horrible secrets cannot be ignored by the Lafayettes because the shiny, joyful version of their family can no longer stand.
“How they’re willing to overlook their family history to maintain this sanitized version of their family, and when they figure out that some of the things they find are valuable, how does capitalism affect their view of racism? If they can make money off of it suddenly, is it OK to do so?” he said.
The theater arts department chose “Appropriate” as its final Mainstage play of the 2019-20 academic year because it wants to acknowledge these themes of race, according to Vila-Roger. He said he likes to explore issues of race in his plays, but due to a lack of diversity in the department, he does not always get to.
“One of the things I really like to do is discuss issues about race and be able to have these difficult conversations that we don’t often get to have. With the school and our department being 75% white it’s hard, we can’t really produce works starring people of color because we don’t always have the actors to fill those roles, so our students miss out on these opportunities,” he said.
The apparent lack of diversity was not a problem when casting “Appropriate,” which, according to Vila-Roger, is deliberately all white. He said when Jacobs-Jenkins, a black playwright, wrote “Appropriate,” it was in response to the idea that all-black family dramas often revolve around race when white family dramas don’t.
“Even though it’s all white folks it is still about race, and we’re not used to seeing that because the things that they experience — family history, a plantation — that would not happen with people of color. It’s the issue of race that white folks have to deal with, and come to grips with their history,” Vila-Roger said.
According to Tyler Lentz, senior theater major and assistant director, “Appropriate” addresses uncomfortable topics, leaving little unsaid. He said if these themes are not discussed properly among the cast and crew offstage, it can really take a toll on people’s mental state.
“We’re handling very difficult topics here with difficult words and things like anti-Semitism or having characters who are saying things that are very racist or anti-Semitic or just very questionable in general,” he said.
Xiao Han, a senior studying theater arts and political science and stage manager for the show, said the cast and crew put up a piece of paper in the work space every day full of motivational reminders for everyone because of the difficult nature of the content.
“For example, don’t bring negative energy, leave the negative emotions here in theater. Walk out feeling fine, and leave the story here. Things like speaking from your own experience, bring ‘you’ to this space,” she said.
Lentz said the production of “Appropriate” was done well because of the amount of discussion required of the whole team beforehand.
“This process has just been about building relationships and setting up comfort levels before we even brought it to the stage,” he said.
After the performances this Saturday at 8 p.m. and next Friday at 8 p.m., there will be a roundtable hosted by the cast, where the play’s dramaturges will discuss issues addressed in the play like racism, capitalism and anti-Semitism.
Vila-Roger said he hopes the people who attend these performances take the time to stay afterward and talk about the issues out loud because the play brings them up in such a brutal, confronting manner.
“The audience can stay and talk about the play and talk about what they saw and the issues it brings out, because we thought it was especially important with this material,” he said.
Lentz agreed that talking about the difficult themes of the show is important. He predicts that audience members will find the emotional content of the play staying with them long after they leave the theater. Lentz said “Appropriate” is a show audiences see to gain perspective in modern day discussions considered taboo by some.
“This is not the kind of show where the audience is going to leave happy, they’re not gonna say, ‘Wow, look at that show!’ They’re going to leave and take a deep breath and sigh and be like, ‘That’s a lot to take in’ or, ‘That’s really powerful.’ Like when you see a horrifying story on the news and you just think, ‘How did we get here?’” he said.
Han saw the show as a critique for society, which she said is something that is sorely needed for many of us who turn a blind eye to the problems plaguing others in favor of remaining in our own bubble.
“This play is like a mirror for society, if you’re watching someone else’s story that could be your story actually,” she said.