On stage, a woman in her 20s and a teen girl bend their heads over a smart phone. Both are white. They are Googling to inform themselves about America’s racial history.
“Who is Emmett Till?” the teen asks.
“I don’t know,” the woman answers.
It’s a moment in the sprawling “Appropriate” that sums up the question playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins asks audiences to wrestle with: How can we unite without a shared understanding or our fraught history?
Jacobs-Jenkins is a 2016 MacArthur “genius” who tied himself for a Best New American Play Obie in 2014 for “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon”, the latter an updating of a 19th century melodrama about interracial love. He wrote “Appropriate” before white nationalists helped elect our president, before deadly violence broke out over our Confederate legacy, before protests over inequality and brutality were hijacked by a debate over respect and loyalty. But not before the development of the forces that made all three possible.
In another “Appropriate” scene, a little boy appears on the stairs of crumbling Arkansas plantation house in his grandfather’s Klan robes, shocking and humiliating his parents. It made me imagine parents of Neo-Nazis watching TV footage of their sons marching in Charlottesville. Some, mortified, must have thought: “I didn’t teach my child to hate other people.” But did their nurturing include frank talk about race and history? If not, they may just have brought up polite racists. Is it possible to raise moral Americans without asking them to consider the morality of racism?
When I’d asked my 13-year-old daughter _ who does know who Emmett Till was _ whether she wanted to join us for “Appropriate” at Denver’s Curious Theatre, she said yes immediately. I started to tell her more about the play, but she stopped me, saying, “I trust Curious.”
Curious, which is celebrating its 20th season this year on Denver’s version of Off Broadway, traffics in the ambitious and the complex, which is certainly what you would expect of a play about race that a black artist wrote for an all-white cast. I’d now like to revisit the plays “Appropriate” brought to mind -- “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” -- to listen to what they say about race in the choices their playwrights made about what not to say, what not to show.
“Appropriate” was hard to watch, but worth watching. The Curious cast sometimes stumbled as Jacobs-Jenkins’s script swerved from sly humor to quiet pathos to savage revelation. The audience was often uncomfortable. As my husband said, none of the characters in what is essentially a family drama are particularly sympathetic – though he might think differently about one named River if he could get over his anti-vegan bias.
The play ends in silence, with an American flag fallen as if in battle, limp on the floor of a divided house. Following that scene last night, the cast returned to the stage and asked the audience to stand with them, arms linked, and contemplate what we can do to restore unity.
We trusted Curious to challenge itself and its audiences. It delivered.