Hailed as one of the country's most promising young playwrights, McArthur fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins received a lot of praise as well as an Obie award for Appropriate , his 2014 play that approaches the topic of race sideways, elliptically. The form is familiar, influenced by such well-known family dramas as Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Tracy Letts's more contemporary August, Osage County. After seeing Appropriate, observed Hilton Als in the New Yorker , "I understand how committed [Jacob-Jenkins] was to rooting around in and talking back to 'the culture,' that is, the theatre history that was capable of producing him and, before him, Sam Shepard and Lorraine Hansberry and Eugene O'Neill...."
The family that gathers after the death of a patriarch in Appropriate, which opens at Curious Theatre Company on Saturday, September 2, is white, and much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny — until a book of hideous photographs of lynch victims is discovered in the attic, and points to a possible side of their grandfather that his offspring had never suspected.
Jamil Jude, an up-and-coming young director whose relationship with Curious artistic director Chip Walton goes back over six years, is currently in Denver rehearsing the cast for Appropriate, a play he's deeply enthusiastic about. "He's so smart," Jude says of Jacobs-Jenkins. "Today's new plays can often be one-sided; it seems like they always lead toward preaching to the choir and proselytizing. Branden doesn't have to try hard to make his point. He shows the different side to a familiar argument."
The playwright fell in love with theatrical family
stories and appropriated that form, but then wondered how he could use it to address larger issues. "He's talking about history and the legacy of inequality and white supremacy, how ingrained the systems are — without having to say those words or have a character stand on a soapbox," Jude explains. "He's got identifiable characters, and at the end of it, you can't help saying, 'There's something about this system that's not right.'"
The mystery of the photographs is never solved in Appropriate. "I think a solution would let audiences off the hook," says Jude. "What do you do with the skeletons in your family? Each individual is forced to come up with their own way to deal with the things they find unsavory. It's disingenuous for the play to say, 'Here's what you do with them.' It's up to the individual to say, 'I'm going to tackle this head-on.' Only then can we really start to move toward greater inclusion."
Jude has had long talks with his team of eight actors, discussing the play's themes, sharing articles about white supremacy and privilege, and preparing them for responses to the show — "especially," he says, "because as contemporary white artists, they'll be facing questions from the audience, members who push back or don't understand."
Under Walton, Curious has made it a mission to take on thorny contemporary issues. The company calls itself "a social justice organization whose platform is live theater." Admirable as this is, it raises questions about whether artistic quality will be sacrificed or audiences subjected to earnest moralizing. Jude has an answer for that.
"The folks at Curious are really great, really smart," he says. "I'm thankful to be working with an organization like that. They would admit they're on a journey and there is no place that, once you get there, your work is done. I feel very certain that Curious doesn't see themselves as having achieved some state of transcendence or reached some height. It's more like, 'What can we do? How can we share our message?' This is an entire company dedicated to that idea.
"For so long, we have thought of social-justice work and art as standing at two different ends," he continues. "Twentieth-century artists did that a lot: either/or. We did ourselves a disservice. Now we find things that are highly artistic, where social justice is just part of the artistic fabric." Jude notes that a television show like Blackish is "smart and well done and has a social-justice thing inside of it. I feel like in the work of artists of color, like Frida Kahlo, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, the social justice and the art are so inextricably linked. Curious is aligning themselves inside a tradition where you can't separate them."
Two youngsters are present when the family in Appropriate discovers some of the attic's secrets — a child under ten and a young teenager — and for Jude, this represents one of the moments when the play touches organically on contemporary issues. "I'm struck with how the parents respond, how they navigate this," Jude says. "What do the kids know about violence? What should parents be doing to actively educate their children about the true history of this country? How do we begin to talk about these things? We all can agree about the big things, the Charlottesville riots; we all can point to that and say, 'That's wrong.' But can we look at how our schools are being re-segregated and say, 'Here's an issue, and when I participate in this system, take my kids from one school to another, I'm contributing'? That's how systems of injustice are built — defendable choices that reflect a system of inequality. The play presents these situations for these characters, and you see them navigate.
"That's not to discredit the need for family," Jude adds. "Often we flock to those who share our cultural background. I would imagine that if you are, say, in Spain, and you see someone with Colorado Rockies gear, you might say hello, maybe find yourself visiting with that person. I think that is just a normal human tendency. But we have to recognize that 'Here are the people I sit with at the lunch table at school' perpetuates. When people become adults, they go back to the same thing: 'When I have a job opening, I'm going to my network, and my network's all white.' So many of us people of color, trans persons, we don't get that same 'I'm going to find my group of people to sit around the lunch table with' in the professional world.
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"There are the white supremacists — I try to watch Fox News," he adds. "They're saying, 'What do you want Trump to do? He's already denounced the KKK and the Nazis' — as if the civil-rights movement and common decency haven't told us that that's the bare minimum. I'm hoping this play is an opportunity for us to pull back that curtain. Most of us have passed the 101 class. The question is, 'What does 201 look like?'"
But even with such weighty issues, Jude stresses how much fun he's having working with the Appropriate cast. "Everyone is tremendous — their dedication not only to their artistic craft, but to the topics of the play, their willingness to talk it through and learn more about themselves and the world around them.
"The play is gonna be great," he concludes. "But even if we stunk up the building, the conversation with these people is the thing I'll cherish most."
Appropriate opens on Saturday, September 2, and runs through October 14 at Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma Street. Tickets range from $20 to $48; for more information, call 303-623-0524 or go to curioustheatre.org.