The song of the cicada vibrates through the air as the casually dysfunctional Lafayette family come together for a long anticipated reunion. The meeting point is their family home – a former plantation somewhere in Arkansas – that’s been left to disintegrate into disrepair under the neglectful eye of the recently deceased patriarch. You can just about make out the former glory of the house from the state of the disused living room; a dead chandelier precariously hangs from a luxuriously high ceiling over a lifetime of hoarded mementos and other junk. Weird taxidermy, a rusty zimmerframe, floor lamps, table lamps, clip on lamps, an original playstation, boxes upon boxes of who-knows-what, and many, many fans. Also, an antique upright piano, ornate candlesticks, vintage tankards and more mahogany chairs than any household could conceivably need. Everything is covered in dust.
It’s up to the children to clean up and settle their father’s affairs in preparation for the estate sale following his death. There’s eldest child Toni, bitter from the memories of being burdened with the responsibility of two younger siblings and an ailing parent; middle child Bo – the most discerning of the trio but ultimately disappointing; and youngest sibling Frank, a convicted paedophile and much maligned for being the family fuck up. They’ve not been in the same room together nor spoken to each other in years, decades, perhaps, and past grievances thaw out into explosive arguments as if no time has passed at all. As the conflict reaches boiling point they discover some disturbing relics that force the siblings to face the reality of Daddy’s racism. In the background, still, the cicada sings.
If you’ve ever found yourself near an open forest or woodland on a balmy evening in summer, the unmistakable sound of the cicada will be familiar to you. Chances are you’ve never actually seen one, though – for the most part, the elusive insects are cryptic. In ecology, crypsis is the ability of an animal to avoid detection from other species that threaten its existence. Methods of crypsis include nocturnality – being active when nobody else is around; mimicry – taking on characteristics of their surroundings so as to hide in plain sight; and, adopting a subterranean lifestyle – living completely underground, basically. The thing about cicadas, though, is that they are exceptionally loud – whether or not you can see them, you always know they’re there because it is literally impossible for them to keep quiet. You see, if they do, they die out – the noise they make is part of their mating ritual.
You could say racism functions in similar ways. That racism, too, is cryptic. It lives completely underground in white supremacist hate groups, and operates in rooms behind closed doors within the gilded walls of prestigious institutions. In its most insidious form, racism brazenly steals from those it oppresses and then screams plausible deniability when challenged by those who want to eradicate it. And racism is loud. Damn loud to everyone except racists themselves. Which is funny because the cicada is anatomically formed in a way that means it literally cannot hear itself when it sings. I wonder if Branden Jacobs-Jenkins knew that the ways of the cicada would make such a perfect metaphor for his Obie Award-winning third play.
Critics of Jacobs-Jenkins work will question what he’s presenting here. An exploration of the subject of racism exclusively through the lens of a white family. A white family from the American south, no less. Surely there needs to be a Black perspective in debates of this nature? But what he is doing is shifting the dialogue to its rightful focal point. Just like Reni Eddo-Lodge did with her debut book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Robin DiAngelo did the same thing with her US bestseller White Fragility; and so did Peggy McIntosh with her academic paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. The thing these women and Jacobs-Jenkins have in common is that they ask white people to interrogate their behaviour, instead of asking Black people to modify theirs. Appropriate holds a mirror up to cognitive dissonance, mental gymnastics and and demands for ‘concrete examples’. Jacobs-Jenkins shows us – in punctilious form – exactly how nonsensical that all is. Because the only way outdated attitudes, prejudices and power dynamics will die out is if those who control them understand how they are passed on.
Appropriate is on at Donmar Warehouse until 5th October 2019. More info and tickets here.