When Sarah Paulson was 23 years old, she did a play where she had to strip down naked onstage. It was Off-Broadway. It was called Killer Joe by a then-up-and-coming playwright named Tracy Letts. It was about a dysfunctional family. It was violent. “It was something I could not say no to, even though the subject matter would potentially be hard to live inside while doing it,” the actor recalls of that time. “Exposing myself literally and figuratively...that might cause some people to turn away. Instead, I ran towards it. And I think there has certainly been that thread running through my life.”
Indeed, the Emmy Award-winning Paulson has never shied away from a challenge—whether that’s giving new dimensions to Marcia Clark in The People V. O.J. Simpson on FX, playing a fearsome plantation mistress in 12 Years a Slave, or putting her own stamp on The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. And now she’s making her return to the stage after a decade away, in another play about a troubled family: Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
It follows three siblings who all gather in their family home in Arkansas to go over their recently deceased father’s belongings. There, they discover some disturbing secrets about him. The reunion also uncovers old wounds and long-held resentment—Paulson plays Antoinette, or Toni, the oldest who’s the executor of the estate. Appropriate began performances at the Helen Hayes Theater November 29, with an opening night of December 18. Its limited engagement just extended until March 3, 2024. The play also stars Corey Stoll, Michael Esper, and Elle Fanning (making her Broadway debut).
Paulson first read the script in 2021 and immediately committed to following the piece to Broadway. “It was one of the best things I read, in any medium, in a very long time,” she says.
Appropriate (yes, there’s a pun there) first premiered in 2013. It then won an Obie Award for Best New American play and quickly put playwright Jacobs-Jenkins on the map as a creative voice to be reckoned with. The play has been produced around the country and even internationally, including in London and Japan (where it contains the very informative subhead: Afterimage of the Lafayette Family's Father). As Paulson puts it with no hesitation, “He’s one of the great American playwrights.”
The feeling is mutual for Jacobs-Jenkins (who explored similar themes as the showrunner of Kindred on FX): “Sarah Paulson is unbelievable, she’s one of the best we’ve got. And if you look at her body of work, she is not interested in doing stuff that makes her look pretty or good-hearted. She’s an artist, to me, who’s after what’s dangerous.”
Paulson has made playing unlikable women into an art form. That's especially the case in Appropriate. All of the siblings in the play are wounded in their own way. In Toni's case, she is the oldest and the mother figure for her brothers. She is also going through a divorce, so she's grieving the losses of two huge parts of her life simultaneously. While most female characters would suffer silently and then suddenly burst open, Toni comes in with fiery anger from the jump.
Toni is in a vein of Paulson's other characters, who tend to present a veneer of toughness that hides a damaged core. As an actor, Paulson tries to not focus on what audiences will think. "It's my job not to think of it as a humanization, but rather an opportunity to represent them as truthfully and honestly as I can," she explains. "You might not like them, you might not approve of their choices, the way they behave, the way they speak. But at least I can sort of get inside the why of it. And the more I sit in the place of the truth of the character, and why they behave that way, some of the humanity inherently is produced that way."
According to Jacobs-Jenkins, Appropriate has always allowed him to work with "amazing actors" who can sink their teeth into some juicy material. He was originally inspired to write Appropriate because of his love for American family dramas, such as August: Osage Country, Death of a Salesman, and Buried Child.
“Those plays are always about race. But they were never read that way by critics. Like, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is about Irish immigrants trying to pass as white,” he explains. "Whiteness is not neutral." The only playwrights who had race ascribed to their work were Black writers, like August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry, says Jacobs-Jenkins. “No one ever talks about Raisin in the Sun as a family drama. It’s always ‘a social allegory about race and class’... There’s a double standard here.”
It's a standard that Jacobs-Jenkins himself has felt, where he is usually placed in a category with other Black playwrights. In reality, his influences are far more vast, ranging from American family dramas to Middle Ages morality plays to melodrama. "There's this kind of gaze that always wants to put people in camps. I'm always gonna live in, 'Black drama,'" he reflects. "There's still something that happens in the mind that segregates artists. People can't seem to conceive of us as talking across color lines, across gender lines."
It is this segregation that positions any Black playwright that is being produced as a political act, something to right a historic wrong. In reality, those writers are simply writing the best play. "Six of the last eight Pulitzers have been won by Black playwrights," says Jacobs-Jenkins, without stopping to look it up, almost like that fact lives rent-free in his head. "The actual story here is that something is happening in American drama. The best writers in America right now, the majority of them are people of color."
Appropriate, by extension, becomes a thought exercise: If Jacobs-Jenkins is writing a play with all white characters, can that play still be categorized as "Black drama"? Or is it a family drama for the 21st century, with all of the knottiness that's prevalent in today's discourse? In Appropriate, all the characters in the play are white and, here’s the twist, their family home is a former plantation with a slave graveyard on the grounds. The play is them struggling to come to terms with that legacy, while mourning their father.
“I want to make it completely invisible,” Jacobs-Jenkins says of the play’s treatment of race. “Race is a hallucination, a collective hallucination—we don’t need to see that thing to feel everyone responding to the thing. It's a tribal designation based on power and disenfranchisement, it's not a real thing."
Though it’s reductive to say Appropriate is about race. The cast wouldn't have signed on if the characters weren't compelling. For Paulson, the appeal of the play is how it recreates some painfully true-to-life family dynamics. “You can have three siblings who all have different experiences and relationships with their parents, and who see it very differently—that happens in families all the time. But I can’t think of a ton of plays or films where that is really explored,” explains Paulson.
But the play isn’t all people shouting in living rooms—it’s whip smart and darkly funny. It runs at over two hours and there’s a coup de théâtre moment that we won’t spoil here. “The theatre can do so many things,” says Jacobs-Jenkins emphatically. “We don’t have to just sit on couches and pout. It’s an amazing form... My hero, for so long, is Tennessee Williams and he would say, ‘the only advice I give young writers is, don’t bore me.’”
And boredom is far from what Paulson is currently feeling about Appropriate, summing her experience as: “Totally thrilling, exciting, terrifying—all the things you want when you’re pursuing an artistic endeavor.”