The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse theater department hopes to broaden awareness of our current racial climate, using an award-winning play as the vehicle.
The theater department will stage “Appropriate” starting next Friday and running through Oct. 22 in the Toland Theatre.
“Appropriate,” winner of the 2014–15 Obie Award for Best New American Play, follows members of the Lafayette family as they return to their dead father’s Arkansas homestead and discover evidence of his racist past while going through his belongings.
Director Beth Cherne said she is drawn to plays that having something important to say, and in today’s national racial climate, “Appropriate” brings these discussions to the fore.
While the cast of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is entirely white, it still allows audiences to take a look at the nuances and subtleties of racial attitudes.
“That was part of the fun and challenge with this play,” she said. “The themes and messages are not direct. The actors have to bring them up and highlight them in their performance.”
A relatively unique feature of the production was the use of a dramaturg, or research specialist, who helped dig into the history and culture of Southern racism. UW-L senior Caitlyn Nettesheim started working on the play last January and her work helped flesh out the play and get the actors into the right mindset for their roles.
Her research also will be on display on the panels and murals in the lobby that audiences encounter before each production. Along with information on the cast and crew, the panels let audience members explore the history of hate crimes in the United States. Lynchings were common not just in the South, with recorded lynchings as far north as Duluth (in 1920).
“A lot of the show deals with the family dealing with its history of racism and the country’s history of racism,” Nettesheim said. “My job was to bring forth this information and provide more perspective.”
As part of the Thursday, Oct. 19, performance, UW-L ethnic and racial studies Professor Richard Breaux will facilitate a post-show discussion. Audience members will have a chance to reflect on some of the heavier content of the play as well as the history of race and whiteness in the United States.
Instead of leading the discussion, Breaux hopes to be a facilitator of the conversation. And it is an important one to have, he said, in light of recent incidents such as the protests and violence in Charlottesville, Va., as well as incidents of white nationalism and white supremacy around the country.
“I hope to add perspective rather than just give perspective,” he said. “It is appropriate given the time we are living in.”
Because of the mature themes and content of the play, Cherne said “Appropriate” is not intended for audiences of all ages. She hopes audiences will get a lot out of watching this dysfunctional family deal with its past and the actions of its patriarch.
“I hope they enjoy the roller-coaster ride,” she said. “I hope they listen and get the full depth of the play.”