Song, noise, cicada, rattlesnake


a thought on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, by Maddy Costa


Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play Appropriate opens with the

Two takes on the ways of the cicada, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

In the second half of Appropriate, Cassidy – grand-daughter

crumpling, rustling, crackling sound of crickets, a sound

The first is from the finished script, which I saw at the

of the play’s great patriarch, 13 but insistent that she’s

that surprises me every time I hear it out in the real, hot world:

Donmar Warehouse on 4 October 2019:

basically an adult now, a city-smart product of middle-class

how do creatures so small produce such a racket?

Cassidy: Are you feeling better?

New York – talks about the cicadas. Really talks about them.

In Ola Ince’s production at the Donmar Warehouse,

Rhys: Yeah. I just had a headache. I just needed some quiet.

Talks about their life cycle, the way in which they lie buried

the sound has an abrasive, industrial edge, as though

Cassidy: Yeah… Did you know that cicadas are the oldest

underground for years – literally the whole of her life span

the noise made by crickets weren’t already oppressive enough.

bugs on earth? I just looked it up. Or, like, they live longer

so far – before hatching and crying out to each other

Sound designer Donato Wharton makes them sound like 

than any other bugs. These bugs outside, they’re thirteen

in search of a mate, only to reproduce and immediately

rattlesnakes, stalking through long grass, ready to bite.

years old. I just realised… they’re as old as I am. But this is,

die. It’s a speech I listened to rapt, feeling instinctively that

Mostly the characters in Appropriate talk about the bugs

like, the end of their life. They’re about to die. Can you imagine

this might be the thrumming, insistent heart of the play.

that surround their father’s crumbling mansion home

if I just died this year? And do you know why they’re

I didn’t buy the text so I put a call out on twitter asking if

as an annoyance: a reason to hide indoors on sunny afternoons.

singing? It’s because they’re trying to find each other

someone could send me that section. And I’m so glad I did,

Their father is dead now and they’ve come to his house to

to mate… They spend like all this time underground

because two people responded – with two different versions.

clear it ready to sell it, and the crickets exist on roughly

becoming teenagers, waiting to hatch, and then they just

One, the text I’d seen at the Donmar; the other from an

the same plane of irritation as the slave graveyard

sing for a few weeks in the summer so they can find another

undated document with the words “Draft 2.0” printed at the

that sits at the edge of the former plantation land.

cicada to do it with and then they die before the children

top of the page. It’s fascinating looking at both of them:

The house would once have belonged to the slave-owners;

are even born? Isn’t that so messed up? That this song is

a momentary glimpse into the brain of a writer at work,

the family had bought it with a plan to transform it into a B&B,

like the whole point of their existence…

cutting through the flim-flam to slide up close, closer, to

which never came to fruition. Because how do you bury

Do you think I have a crush on you?

what he’s really saying. In the earlier draft Cassie’s talking

such a past, how build a place of welcome on toxic land?

Rhys: I hope not…

to her uncle’s girlfriend, reading from her mobile phone,

I’ve read a few reviews of Appropriate now and no one

Cassidy: Yeah… How do you think the baby cicadas learn

the information she’s regurgitating a bit sprawling, stretching

writes about those crickets as astutely, or with as much

the song? Is it just something that’s programmed in them?

across America. In the version I saw, she’s talking to her

penetration, as JN Benjamin for Exeunt. She strikes to the

Or maybe they just pick it up somewhere, listening when

older cousin, Rhys, just after he’s caught her flicking through

heart of the metaphor of them: understands the way in which

they’re eggs. Maybe they’re hearing it in their sleep, and

a photo album discovered among their grandfather’s possessions:

they function as a symbol of racism. This is what she says:

that’s how they learn? And their parents are dead, but

each black-and-white image document of a lynching. Everything

“If you’ve ever found yourself near an open forest or

they have this memory of a song that they think is just

she says about cicadas is connected to her own life, her own age.

woodland on a balmy evening in summer, the unmistakable

a part of them…

And then she says the sentences that both versions of the

sound of the cicada will be familiar to you. Chances are you’ve

Rhys: Did you hear something?

script have in common – the sentences in which the speech

never actually seen one, though – for the most part, the

Cassidy: Hear what? Sorry, I’m being so weird.

starts doing all those things identified by JN Benjamin in

elusive insects are cryptic. In ecology, crypsis is the ability

I think it’s this place.

the Exeunt review, using the cicadas as a metaphor for thinking

of an animal to avoid detection from other species that

Rhys: What?

about how racism functions. Is racism something that’s

threaten its existence. Methods of crypsis include nocturnality –

Cassidy: Or I think I’m just upset. Maybe it’s the pictures.

programmed in people? Or maybe they just pick it up

being active when nobody else is around; mimicry – taking on

See you in the morning.

somewhere, listening when they’re foetuses. Maybe they’re

characteristics of their surroundings so as to hide in plain sight;

And the second is from an older document titled “Draft 2.0”:

hearing it in their sleep, and that’s how they learn? And now

and, adopting a subterranean lifestyle – living completely

Cassidy: There are no cicadas up there. In the Pacific Northwest.

they have this internalised racism that they think is just

underground, basically. The thing about cicadas, though,

They’re like an East Coast, Midwest, Deep South thing –

a part of them.

is that they are exceptionally loud – whether or not you can

Trisha: Oh.

That’s already smart as a metaphor. But what makes this

see them, you always know they’re there because it is literally

Cassidy (into her iphone): They’re really amazing, huh?

speech key, and so devastatingly brilliant, is that the metaphor

impossible for them to keep quiet. You see, if they do, they

They’re called magicicadas and there’s about twenty three 

of the cicada song functions on another level simultaneously.

die out – the noise they make is part of their mating ritual.

different broods all around America and they all come out

Jacobs-Jenkins is also thinking about song here. About art.

“You could say racism functions in similar ways. That racism,

at different times – like every seventeen years, which means

About theatre. About song – art – theatre as life-sustaining,

too, is cryptic. It lives completely underground in white

that these bugs are older than I am, which is so crazy.

necessary to existence. About the ways in which humans use

supremacist hate groups, and operates in rooms behind

They’re like this incredible mystery. No one knows how

song – art – theatre to express love, but also learn about

closed doors within the gilded walls of prestigious institutions.

all those different broods happened or how they got

love: maybe even to love better, love more generously.

In its most insidious form, racism brazenly steals from those

where they got. And they all sing the same song.

Live better together. Appropriate asks its audiences – knowing

it oppresses and then screams plausible deniability when

Trisha: Wow. Yeah, listen to them. It sounds like…

that, the theatre industry being what it is, it will have a mostly

challenged by those who want to eradicate it. And racism

like all those little songs are just one big… song. One big

white audience – to think about the ways in which they

is loud. Damn loud to everyone except racists themselves.

angry thing. Listen. It’s like it’s waiting outside for us

reproduce the abrasive, oppressive song of racism,

Which is funny because the cicada is anatomically formed

to fall asleep and then it’s going to come in and get us.

unwittingly, from a deep internal place that needs tender

in a way that means it literally cannot hear itself when it sings.

Cassidy: You know, these things, they spend seventeen years

attention to draw it out and excise it. Appropriate asks its

I wonder if Branden Jacobs-Jenkins knew that the ways

of their lives as pupae, waiting to become these bugs and

audiences, who include other theatre-makers, to consider

of the cicada would make such a perfect metaphor

when they finally emerge from the ground they sing

that the song of love they think they’re singing – a song of

for his Obie Award-winning third play.”

and sing and mate and lay their eggs and then they die

liberalism, of tolerance – might not be the right song.

Looking at a section of an early draft of Appropriate sent

before the children even hatch. But how do the baby cicadas

Might be a song not of life, but of death.

to me via twitter, I’d say that Jacobs-Jenkins had done a

learn the song? Is it just something that’s programmed

Sitting in the Donmar on 4 October, listening to the mostly

bunch of research on cicadas and crickets and knew exactly

in them? Or maybe they just pick it up somewhere, listening

white audience laugh uproariously as though we were watching

how the creatures would make the perfect metaphor.

when they’re eggs. They haven’t hatched yet, but maybe

a comedy as the the youngest grandchild of the dead and

they’re hearing it in their sleep, and that’s how they learn.

haunting patriarch wandered downstairs wearing a white

And their parents are dead, but they have this memory

Klan hood oblivious to its meaning, thinking it an innocuous

of a song that they think is just a part of them.

Halloween costume, I wondered whether Jacobs-Jenkins’ song

Maybe that’s how they know everything they need to know.

[With thanks to the theatre community who helped with this:

was being heard. Whether theatre as a medium is failing

to Adam Goodall and Evangeline Cullingworth on twitter

this conversation, this attempt to forge new life, and new ways

but especially to JN Benjamin for that insightful review.]

of living together.

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