VPA tackles racism in spring play “Appropriate”

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VPA tackles racism in spring play “Appropriate”

Mitch Gage (‘19), Clare Rolinger (‘21), and Trevor Haren (‘21) perform in African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's experimental play where he says that “Blackness” becomes an invisible, 
dramatic material by featuring an all-white cast.

Mitch Gage (‘19), Clare Rolinger (‘21), and Trevor Haren (‘21) perform in African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's experimental play where he says that “Blackness” becomes an invisible, dramatic material by featuring an all-white cast.

Juhl Kuhlemeier (‘22) | Chips

Mitch Gage (‘19), Clare Rolinger (‘21), and Trevor Haren (‘21) perform in African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's experimental play where he says that “Blackness” becomes an invisible, dramatic material by featuring an all-white cast.

Juhl Kuhlemeier (‘22) | Chips

Juhl Kuhlemeier (‘22) | Chips

Mitch Gage (‘19), Clare Rolinger (‘21), and Trevor Haren (‘21) perform in African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's experimental play where he says that “Blackness” becomes an invisible, dramatic material by featuring an all-white cast.

Juhl Kuhlemeier, Staff Writer

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Luther’s visual and performing arts department put on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play, “Appropriate,” directed by Assistant Professor of Theatre Robert Vrtis as their spring performance. The cast and director’s goal for the play was to raise campus-wide awareness about racism. The performances of this play took place on March 15 at 7:30 p.m., March 16 at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and March 17 at 1:30 p.m. in Jewel Theatre.

The play centers around three white American siblings who face a racist family history. Tasked with cleaning out their late father’s plantation home, the Lafayette family comes into contact with possessions, most significantly an album full of pictures of Black people being lynched, that unearth the racism they had unsuccessfully attempted to bury in the past.

Amidst the family fighting and drama, clear signs of discrimination force the family members to grapple with their father’s racist ideologies. The implication of their fathers ownership of these belongings is that he condoned them.

Assistant director Anna Becker (‘19) detailed the purpose of this play in the program’s director notes.

“Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins writes the history of America into the history of one family, as the estranged members of the Lafayette family return to their father’s plantation home to clean it out the summer after his death,” Becker wrote. “They are confronted with a history that they do not know how to listen to. Just as the cicadas screaming in the trees, in this play we hear the silent scream of oppression as it permeates the world that we live in, seeping into our floorboards, cluttering our shelves, resting on our tongues, and steeping in the air we breathe.”

According to Vrtis, this production is the VPA’s past-due response to the hate incidents that occurred on campus last year.

“In particular what I think thematically is important in this play that is important for Luther too, is the idea that the legacy of white supremacy doesn’t go away because we don’t talk about it,” Vrtis said. “It doesn’t go away because we deny it, and it doesn’t go away while we squabble about the preconditions of talking about race.”

Juhl Kuhlemeier (‘22) | Chips
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Appropriate” centers around three estranged siblings, played by Mitch Gage (‘19), Mikaela Hanrahan (‘21), and Trevor Haren (‘21).

The goal of this show was to set a platform for open conversation at Luther. The cast has been sharing and presenting research and documentaries to each other, in an effort to present accurate and moving performances. Clare Rolinger (‘22), who played the character of Rachel, admitted that she and the rest of the cast knew that this was not a play people would come away from smiling. However, she hoped that it would be worthwhile for these discomforting issues to be addressed through this medium at Luther.

“We just want to start conversation,” Rolinger said. “We want people to think about race; we want people to be uncomfortable and to have to confront difficult topics because so often it’s just easy for us to push those things aside.”

The premise of “Appropriate” as a play that discusses race while also using an all-white cast, initially felt uncomfortable to many Luther attendees. Jacobs-Jenkins, the African-American playwright himself, disagrees with this common critique.

Regarding “Appropriate,” Jacobs-Jenkins had his own goals in mind, wondering how far he could separate “Blackness” into a material.

“I was thinking about ‘Blackness’ as a dramatic material, in the same way that you might think of ‘suspense’ or ‘red herrings’ or something,” Jacobs-Jenkins said in an interview with American Theatre. “For ‘Appropriate,’ I was interested in how invisible I could make Blackness but still have it affect the viewing experiences.”

Trevor Haren (‘21), who played the main character, Franz, feels that an all-white cast discussing race on stage is risky.

“This is definitely different from anything I’ve done at Luther, and it’s challenged me a lot as an actor, and I think the whole cast, too,” Haren said. “The play is written as an all-white cast, and yet we’re talking about themes of race and themes of American Southern history. That was going to be definitely difficult for us to portray.”

This play was indeed both difficult to portray for the cast and difficult to experience for its audience. A range of reactions occurred after the performances, including devastation.

“It’s a very intense play, and a lot of people do get turned off from that sort of idea,” Carter Wittrig (‘22) said. “I do think now and then it’s important to show things like that because it talks about real issues that are sometimes not pretty to look at, but we need to see and we need to hear to know that they exist.”

In the program’s director notes, Becker asked audience members to reflect on how the themes from this play apply to their own context.

“Appropriate asks us to examine the threads of our lives in the tapestry of time — as we see Jacobs-Jenkins’ characters struggle to do so,” Becker wrote. “What do we ourselves appropriate, and what belongs particularly to us?”

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