Woolly Mammoth’s “Appropriate” is anything but when you’re thinking about material that’s kosher for kids. The comic drama by native Washingtonian Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one of those “big, estranged Southern family reunites after a tragedy, which of course leads to horrible revelations, airing of dirty family laundry and possibly more tragedy” plays and is set during a huge wave of cicadas. (Remember the cicadas, friends? Before the shutdown? Before the big “Homeland” plot twist? We were so young then.)
Two of the members of this sprawling, dysfunctional family are played by real-life youngins Maya Brettell, 16, Eli Schulman, 11, and Cole Edelstein, 11. Maya plays Cassidy, and Eli and Cole share the part of Ainsley, Cassidy’s younger brother.
Maya, a sophomore at Metropolitan School of the Arts, has been singing and acting since she was 10 and dancing since she was a toddler. She made her professional theater debut two years ago in Synetic’s “Macbeth” and is already just as eloquent about the whole process as many a grown-up Backstage has interviewed.
The biggest difference between the community theater she had been exploring and the professional stage, Maya said, was the amount of “competition. There were higher stakes, I think. It really intrigued me, and it made me push myself. It made me want to train more. It made me more dedicated. I realized: I really wanted to do this. I wanted to be at the top. I wanted to get those callbacks.”
She said, “I knew it was a really edgy script. It’s controversial, and it brings up a lot of topics that people are afraid to talk about. That was amazing for me, to be in a show that stands up for certain beliefs and questions other beliefs.”
Maya’s character, Cassidy, “wants to be treated like an adult, and she’s only 14,” said Maya. “She’s really intelligent, but she’s not mature yet. She’s really curious about the world, and she doesn’t know anything about the world. . . . And that’s so similar to how I was: I was starting professional theater, and I was with adults all the time, and I was wanting to be a part of their world.”
Even before she auditioned, Maya said she understood Cassidy’s motivations. “It was clear to me what she wanted,” she said. “I think she wants a lot, and she’s not able to give a lot. And I think that’s how you judge whether somebody is mature or not. If you’ve lived and you’ve matured, you’re able to give advice, you’re able to give help, and you’re able to sympathize. And she’s not.”
She says Eli and Cole “are so awesome. The first read-through, they were raising their hands afterwards and saying such intelligent comments. Everyone was so impressed by them. . . . I think to a certain degree, I need to look out for them, and to a certain degree, I need to let them figure things out, too.”
Eli and Cole are classmates at Chevy Chase Elementary School. They were also double-cast in Kensington Arts Theater’s “Ragtime,” sharing the role of Edgar.
“We’ve been best friends for six years,” Eli said. “We can practice together and we can really relate to each other well, and we can talk about a lot of things that I couldn’t really talk about with other people.”
Cole said that, for him, auditioning was “way more nerve-racking than performing.” And joining the ranks of professional actors has its downsides. “I was astounded by how unfair it is for kids to get in[to] professional shows. Because I realize it’s not about having a good time or being good. It’s about if you’re the right height, do you have the right hair, are you tall enough? And it was a little disappointing to me when I learned that.”
Not that it takes away from his favorite part of performing. “It’s really fun to just go on the stage and be a different character,” Cole said. “I love pretending to be someone else. Sometimes backstage, I get nervous. But when I’m on stage, I’m on, and I’m in my character.”
“Appropriate” will run Nov. 4 through Dec. 1 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW, www.woollymammoth.net, 202-393-3939.