12 October 2017

The Red Letter Plays: 'In the Blood'

Suzan-Lori Parks’s Residency One tenure has extended from its start in the 2016-17 season at the Signature Theatre Company (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, reported on 1 December 2016, and Venus, 7 Jun 2017) into the company’s 2017-18 season, which just got underway.  Parks’s final entry in her residency (she will be followed by Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose first Signature production will be Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, which I’m booked to see on 27 October with a report to follow) is comprised of two plays drawn from the same source material, though they were composed separately and are vastly different in nearly all respects. 

Under the umbrella title of “The Red Letter Plays,” STC’s presenting In the Blood and Fucking A, both inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter.  (If you’ve never read The Scarlet Letter, which isn’t necessary to respond to Parks’s riffs, I’ll let you look it up on your own.  For now, it’ll suffice to say that in the novel, set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s, Hester Prynne, married to a man believed lost at sea, has a daughter whose father she refuses to name.  She’s cast out of the community and forced to wear a red letter A for “Adulteress” embroidered on the bodice of her dress.)  Both plays, which have never been produced together before, have as their lead character a woman named Hester who lives on the margins of society.  (This is also the first time that the Signature Theatre Company has presented two plays by the same writer simultaneously.)  Together, In the Blood (not to be confused with the 2014 action-adventure film of that title from Anchor Bay Films) and Fucking A speak about motherhood, fatherhood, and family; class, the injustice of the social system, and the struggle to survive against a stacked deck.  Both plays, too, are modern-day tragedies that depict a devastating story and end with a wrenching and disturbing final action.

I’ve seen a number of Parks plays now, and though both of these two are quite different from what I’ve become accustomed to (and, as I’ll remark in my next report, Fucking A is even more distinctive), there are still clear marks of her dramaturgy evident here, especially her use of language which, as always, is unique, startling, and exciting.   In addition, I was astonished at the breadth and depth of the playwright’s imagination, as I have been at every Parks play I’ve seen.  If the truth be told, I can’t begin to understand how this artist conceives of the ideas she uses to make her plays.

The STC production of In the Blood, directed by Sarah Benson (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s OBIE-winning An Octoroon at the Soho Repertory Theatre in 2014 and the Theatre for a New Audience in 2015), began previews in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the small proscenium house at the company’s Pershing Square Signature Center, on 29 August 2017 and opened on 17 September; the revival will close on 15 October (after a week’s extension from 8 October) and my friend Kirk Woodward and I saw it at the 7:30 performance on 19 September.  The play, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, premièred under the direction of David Esbjornson at the Joseph Papp Public Theater on 22 November 1999 (with Charlayne Woodard as Hester) and was subsequently presented at the Edison Theater in Los Angeles in July 2003 and the Schaeberle Studio Theatre at New York City’s Pace University in the fall of 2004.  Both plays are published in The Red Letter Plays from the Theatre Communications Group (2001):

Parks explains in a program note that the birth of the Red Letter Plays came around 1997 when she was canoeing with a friend, and they were singing songs and making conversation.  Parks remembers saying, “I’m going to write a riff on The Scarlet Letter and I’m going to call it Fucking A!”  She thought it was a funny idea—but she’d never read Hawthorne’s novel.  So the playwright read the book and began writing.  She wrote a draft of a play about Hester and when she finished, she realized that it wasn’t working.  She wrote several more drafts, “trying to find the story.” 

Parks described the riff she was trying to do on Scarlet Letter as “a contrafact, if you know jazz.  You take the chords [of an already-existing composition] and you write your own melody.”  Still, it “wasn’t coming together.”  She wrote more drafts.  She sat at her computer and deleted everything but the title, Fucking A.  Then she says she “heard this voice saying, ‘I’ll tell you the story of your play.’”  

The voice continued: “‘A woman with five children by five different lovers, that’s your play, and the children and the adults in the play are played by the same adult actors.’  And I was like, ‘that doesn’t sound like Fucking A.’  And the voice, a woman’s, was like, ‘No, it’s not.  It’s called In the Blood.’”

After that, Parks recounts, she found it very easy to write Fucking A.  

It was as if they were twins in the womb of my consciousness, twins in my mind.  And one couldn’t get out because they were entangled together.  So when In the Blood came out easily, then Fucking A was very easy to write.  They’re sisters, these two plays.  Both asking that question that I seem to keep asking in my work: “Who are you to me?”  And out of that questioning, hopefully, will come an understanding.

(There is a brief biographical profile of Parks in my report on The Death of the Last Black Man, as well as a discussion of the importance of jazz to her work.)

The play’s performed at Signature as a two-hour one-act of nine scenes (plus a Prologue), though In the Blood’s published text indicates an intermission after Scene 4.  The unmarried Hester, La Negrita (Saycon Sengbloh), has five children of varying races—Jabber (Michael Braun), Hester’s oldest son, aged 13; Bully (Jocelyn Bioh), her oldest daughter, 12; Trouble (Frank Wood), her middle son, 10; Beauty (Ana Reeder), her youngest daughter, 7; and Baby (Russell G. Jones), her youngest son, 2—each from a different father, none of whom acknowledges his relationship with Hester, much less his paternity of any of Hester’s children.  

The destitute family of six make their home under a bridge, where Jabber tries to teach his mother to read and write as she goes hungry so that her children can eat.  Hester’s illiterate—she gets Jabber to read things for her, including the pejorative graffiti scrawled on the bridge abutment—and so far, she’s mastered the letter A, which she chalks shakily on the same bridge structure—an unmistakable allusion to Hester Prynne and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  Her friend Amiga Gringa (Reeder), a poor white neighbor who visits the family often, offers useless help; Amiga tells Hester her “first love,” Chilli (Braun), Jabber’s father, is back in town and is looking for her.  Amiga, a kind of street hustler who’ll do anything to get “a leg up,” suggest, too, that one of the fathers of Hester’s children might offer her some help.  As the children come home, they disappear under the set floor (between the floor of the set and the stage proper), which represents the shelter of their home, and while Amiga and Hester are talking, the Doctor (Wood), a road-side physician to the street people, passes through wearing his self-advertising sandwich board.  

Others who are part of Hester’s world of the streets are the Welfare Lady (Bioh), a representative of the state who’s married with children and living a prosperous, comfortable life, and Reverend D. (Jones), a neighborhood street preacher (and former alcoholic street-dweller himself) who’s on the verge of having his own church.  Reverend D. (a reference to the character Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne’s lover in The Scarlet Letter) is two-year-old Baby’s father, though he’s never acknowledged it, and we learn as each member of Hester’s little community has a scene with her and a “Confession” (which Ben Brantley of the New York Times aptly called “monologues of self-justification”) that they’ve all engaged in some kind of sexual relationship with her: the Doctor, Amiga Gringa, and the Welfare Lady, who, with her husband, had a one-time three-way with Hester. 

(Hester’s designation, La Negrita, is a polysemous locution.  It literally means ‘little black girl’ and can be no more than descriptive.  Apparently, it’s usually applied as a term of affection or endearment among Latin Americans, depending somewhat on nationality, but it can be derogative in some contexts.  The word negrita also has a second meaning of ‘bold,’ in reference to typeface, and that sense of bravery or strength carries over as well.  [Obviously from this characterization, Hester’s played by an African-American actress; other characters need not be any particular race or ethnicity except Welfare, who’s also a black woman, and Amiga Gringa, who’s Caucasian.]  The actors playing the children are all adults.  Parks calls for these five actors each to portray two characters—Hester is the only character who’s not double-cast—one child and one adult.  They also make up the chorus who appear at the beginning and end of the play to torment Hester.

(During the performance, I began thinking that each of Hester’s children are played by the same actors who play their fathers—with Bully played by Bioh, who’s also Welfare, whose husband is presumably Bully’s father.  We know from the text about Chilli/Jabber and the Reverend D./Baby.  But then, who’s Beauty’s father?  She’s played by Reeder, who portrays Amiga Gringa—who had a fling with Hester, too, but couldn’t have sired a child.  Of course, I could just be wrong—or is this something we’re just not supposed catch?  I kind of like the symmetry—except that it may just be imaginary.  The 5/5 cast of characters is certainly an issue of practical playwriting; but the assignment of the doubling, if it falls the way I thought—with whatever explanation arises for Beauty/Amiga Gringa—could be thematically significant, at least subliminally.  [The published script and the on-line casting breakdown in Back Stage specify this pairing, but have nothing more to say on the matter of paternity.])

Amiga’s news about Chilli (the name refers to Roger Chillingworth, the name Hester Prynne’s husband takes when he, like Chilli—who’s also taken a new name—reappears) seems to promise help, and when he arrives, he plays their song (“The Looking Song,” written by Parks) on a tape recorder and offers her marriage.  But when Hester’s four other children start coming home, he quickly withdraws the proposal and abandons her once again.  Indeed, everyone who purports to offer Hester help is really just betraying her and using her for their own gratification and selfish needs: Amiga, who’s essentially been stealing from her all along anyway, suggests Hester perform a sex show she’ll call Chocolate and Vanilla with her; Welfare has a job for Hester—sewing piecework—and suggests that Hester have a hysterectomy—a “spay,” Welfare calls it, like for a stray dog—and threatens to have her children taken away so she’ll “never see them again”; the Doctor also wants to remove Hester’s “womanly parts” (his eye chart—which Hester can’t read—spells out “SPAY”) and examines her like a mechanic checking under a car, sliding between her legs and beneath her dress on a dolly.  Finally, Reverend D. refuses to take any responsibility for Hester or Baby, stringing her along with empty promises and finally telling her not to come around any more. 

At the beginning of the play, vandals had graffiti’d “SLUT” on the supports of the bridge, but Jabber had told his mother he couldn’t read the words.  At the end of the play, Jabber admits he had refused to read the word for her because “It was a bad word”—the word that for Hester, La Negrita is what “Adulteress” is for Hester Prynne: a label of outsiderness.  Once having said the word, however, Jabber keeps repeating it until Hester strikes out in a rage and beats her son to death.  In the blood of her son, she scrawls the letter A on the ground before the bars of a prison cell come down and enclose her.  The voices of the community chorus show no sympathy for Hester, concluding the brutal drama with no hint of mercy. 

In the Blood, the first of the two Red Letter Plays, is considered to be the demarcation between Parks’s thoroughly poeticized and anti-realistic scripts like The Death of the Last Black Man (1990) and Venus (1996) and a move toward Realism, or at least a sort of Brechtian Realism.  The play still has many distancing characteristics, including choral scenes, the spoken-aria-like Confessions, poetic use of language, scene labels (for the Confessions), music and song, and others—not the least of which is the casting of adult actors to play little children.  As you’ve seen, except for Hester and Chilli, none of the characters has an actual name; Reverend D. comes closest, but the rest only have descriptive labels.  In fact, three of them, the Doctor, Welfare, and Reverend D. are clearly representatives of the societal structures that neglect and oppress Hester and those like her: the medical establishment, the state, and religion.  Not even Hester’s children have real names; they’re almost allegorical. 

In addition, Louisa Thompson’s scenic design is in line with the playwright’s description of the setting as “spare,  to reflect the poverty of the world of the play.”  It’s only vaguely realistic, suggesting an actual bridge abutment without reproducing one.  Aside from this suggestion, Thompson’s set is more an environment for the actors to work in than a visual image to orient the audience.  One naturalistic touch is the big, yellow chute that brings garbage and construction debris down from above at intervals—some of which refuse become the children’s playthings.  The floor of the set, constructed above the stage floor, is severely raked and the rear “wall” is sloped like a giant slide—down which the children slide from a catwalk above, representing the street level.  That slope is a metaphor for the plight of Hester and her family, though: the children can slide down it, but there’s no way to climb up the wall (as Sengbloh observes in an interview); it’s absolutely Sisyphean—like Hester’s life.

This calls  for some non-naturalistic physical performance, directed by Elizabeth Streb.  (Other physical performance elements were in the charge of choreographer Annie-B Parson and fight director J. David Brimmer.)  The stark lighting design of Yi Zhao and the sound designer of Matt Tierney blends with this scheme as well, with moody and slightly noirish effect.

Hester has been rejected by the system with no possibility for redemption because she’s poor, black, and homeless.  Her fate is in her blood, society had concluded.  But beyond race and even social status, by connecting each child to a father and painting that father (or his surrogate, as in the case of Welfare) in defining colors, Parks asks what is “in the blood”?  What is innate and what is imposed by societal forces (that is, prejudices and assumptions)?  Because Parks has universalized the saga by drawing on a classic piece of literature, setting the play “Here” and “Now,” giving most of the characters descriptions and labels rather than names, and casting them from all races and genders, the message is that this fate applies to all in Hester’s situation not just one person called Hester, La Negrita.  In the Blood is a class-action indictment.

As Hester, Saycon Sengbloh manages to make a woman who doesn’t seem to be able to control her own life, much less her destiny, sympathetic, even down to the awful act she perpetrates in the end.  Sengbloh exhibits a certain resilience in the face of her destitution, but her Hester believes the lies she tells herself.  She’s almost Candide, but with a dash more cynicism: the world she inhabits isn’t the best of all possible worlds, but she’s doing the best she possibly can in it.  Neither Sengbloh nor Parks condescends to Hester: she’s no saint or pitiable, misunderstood soul.  She’s a survivor who’ll do (and does) unapologetically whatever’s necessary to keep herself and her children going—and that’s what the actress plays..

The five members of the ensemble are all excellent, making distinct personalities for both their adult and child characters, each one a different individual.  The adults are already cold and selfish, each in his or her own way, and the children are beginning to show the signs of where they could be going, as Bioh’s 12-year-old Bully sleeps with her hands clenched into little fists and the 10-year-old Trouble of Wood has stolen a cop’s truncheon (with which his mother later beats Jabber to death).  But these actors really play three roles since they’re also the Greek chorus that represents the community that judges Hester and finds her unworthy.  These five are the five-fingered hand that Hester sees blocking out the sun, the dark shadow she says is the hand of fate—Hester’s fate.

On the basis of 23 published reviews, Show-Score calculated an average rating of 79 for Signature’s In the Blood.  The tally of positive notices was 91%, with the highest scores two 90’s (including Broadway World) and eight 85’s (among them, the New York Times and New York magazine/Vulture), 5% mixed reviews, and 4% negative, represented by a single notice with a score of 40 (scribicide).  My review survey will include 16 notices.  (A number of reviewers covered both play in one notice, as if the Red Letter Plays were being presented as a two-play rep.  This makes it hard to summarize those reviews as they pertain specifically to each play—but I’ll give it a try.)

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness described Parks’s play as “as bleak and unredeeming as Hawthorne’s novel” but added that its “bursts of theatrical energy ensure that In the Blood’s social critique never feels heavy-handed.”  In the Blood “remains topical” and “never flirts with sentimentality.”  Sengbloh, said McGuinness, plays Hester “with consummate understatement” and “the hypocritical bromides of evangelical Christianity prove a rich source of satire thanks to Russell G. Jones’s pompous yet insecure” Reverend D.  Director Benson, the FT reviewer declared, “creates a winningly anarchic atmosphere full of offbeat comic touches.”

Barbara Schuler of Long Island’s Newsday stated in her “Bottom Line” that “Parks delivers powerful riffs on ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”  Schuler’s review was an omnibus notice covering both Red Letter Plays, so her assessment of In the Blood consisted of the judgment that Hester is “played with a driving force by” Sengbloh and the description that a “better life seems momentarily within her grasp, and when that hope is dashed, there’s unspeakable tragedy.”  Of both plays, which she labels “powerful pieces,” the Newsday review-writer observed that “they’re about mothers, and the choices—sometimes excruciatingly terrible choices—they must make to protect their children from all that life throws at them.  Any mother will relate.” 

Matt Windman wrote in am New York that both In the Blood and Fucking A “are packed with ominous tones, intense emotions, freewheeling theatricality, social criticism and an inevitable sense of tragedy.”  In the Blood “is the more serious and sensitive of the two plays,” however. “In spite of some slow patches,” caviled Windman, naming the Confessions specifically, Benson’s staging “has a scorching brutality, which grows in intensity as the play heads to its violent climax.”  Both Signature productions, the amNY reviewer asserted, are “outstanding staging[s] of a bold, difficult and provocative work.  When viewed together, ‘The Red Letter Plays’ proves to be one of the most interesting and rewarding theater events of the fall.”

In the Times, Brantley declared, “Tragedy stalks Hester La Negrita . . . as relentlessly as it does the doomed queens of Euripides and Racine.”  Calling the play a “genre-mutating” drama, Brantley labeled the Signature mounting a “first-rate revival” staged “with finely measured restraint and a dangerously relaxing sense of humor” with Hester enacted with “exquisitely clouded radiance” by Sengbloh.  The Timesman asserted that “this enduringly fresh work” plays “craftily . . . with theatrical traditions and the expectations that come with them.”  The performances are “both subtly stylized and naturalistic enough for us to identify the characters as people we know,” said Brantley, and though it “may sound like agitprop,” the director “reins in the hectoring and melodrama.”  (The Times reviewer had one complaint: he doubted that “the sexual element in two of the monologues is either necessary or convincing.”) 

Hilton Als of the New Yorker, characterizing the two plays as “masterpieces of the form,” asserted that Parks “shows how pain wears on [both Hesters], but also how they outwit life—which is to say a life that is dominated by male-generated puritanism.”  Als observed that he didn’t see the original New York productions of these plays, but he had read them and “ was amazed . . . by Parks’s gift for theatrical synthesis” in the way she melds her diverse influences and makes the combination her own.  (Als names Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Samuel Beckett, and William Shakespeare.)  He posited, however:

There’s a great gulf in the mind between reading a play and seeing it, and I wonder if the disappointment I felt at both shows had to do with how I’d first imagined these essential works—and how far short of that these productions fell.  Perhaps the greatness of Parks’s language shut the directors out, before they even got started.  There isn’t a lot of air in her scripts, and I can see how an actor could feel cowed by them. 

The New Yorker reviewer found that “Parks’s complicated view of motherhood—is it fulfillment or destruction, biology or destiny, liberation or prison, or all these things?—isn’t played out enough.” 

For Vulture/New York magazine, Sara Holdren dubbed the Signature revival of In the Blood a “powerful production” and declared that “we never forget that we are grappling with the particular horrors of the here and now, facing down the specific breed of resentment and contempt this society reserves for women of color.”  In the play, and its companion piece (which I’ll cover next week), Holdren asserted that “Parks rages incisively, articulately, and sometimes even humorously against the capitalist machine that grinds these women down.”  Director Benson and the “skillful design team have brought the harsh texture and soundscape” of the city streets onto the stage as the “intelligent and versatile actors are by turns exuberant, touching, and even a little menacing.”  Sengbloh’s performance is “both innocent and frightening—and finally, devastating” as she “brings a cheerful, loving determination to Hester that makes . . . her story all the more heart-wrenching.”  The plays “may be almost 20 years old,” observed the woman from New York, “but make no mistake, the productions currently playing at Signature are proof that these stories belong to our world, right now, today.”  She warned, “They’re not easy to watch, but they’re vital, scrappy, angry, witty, articulate.”  Holdren acknowledged, however: “If this sounds grim, trust me, there’s humor here as well. . . .  Parks is canny—she knows that laughter opens up the ribs so that later you can slip the knife in.” 

In the Blood “seizes you from the get-go,” wrote Raven Snook in Time Out New York, with “a simmering Saycon Sengbloh.”  The play, Snook observed, is “even more relevant” today than it was in 1999, and “[i]ts urgency is heightened by director Sarah Benson’s relentless pace . . . and the ensemble cast’s unfettered performances.”  The TONY review-writer’s conclusion?  “Parks’s scathing indictment of how society treats impoverished women gets your pulse pumping even as it breaks your heart.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio reported that Sengbloh “gives a remarkable performance as Hester.” 

Elyse Sommer dubbed the Red Letter Plays “terrific productions” with Hester “played with great passion” by Sengbloh.  Labeling the play “very raw,” Sommer cautioned, “While In the Blood has its comic moments, what it’s definitely not about is light entertainment.”  The CU reviewer added that In the Blood is “an unremittingly dark and hopeless tale and yet, there's something poetically gut-wrenching” in its telling.  Sommer concluded that “while Hester’s story remains downbeat,” In the Blood “is a stirring, highly recommended theatrical experience.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller called Signature’s In the Blood “stunning” and reported that it “grabs you by the throat from the moment it begins and does not let up.”  The play, “brilliantly helmed” by Benson, “hits all of the marks and absolutely makes the case for why the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parks is considered to be one of our great contemporary playwrights.” 

Brian Scott Lipton of Theater Pizzazz labeled Benson’s In the Blood at STC “first-rate” with an “extraordinary” Sengbloh who “never shies away from the play’s most difficult moments.”  On scribicide, Aaron Botwick (in the lowest-rated review on Show-Score) begrudged that the production “looks great,” with its “exquisite set,” but “the emotional wallop in the text never materializes onstage.”  Botwick pointed out that “Parks is working in the tradition of Brecht, which has a tendency toward flat execution.”  The scribicide review-writer feels “that eliciting empathy from the audience highlights and focuses metatheatrical alienation rather than distracting from it: cold derives its meaning from heat, distance from closeness.”  He asserted that “we only see Hester from very far away, we only hear her in monotone.  When the curtain falls, she is covered in the blood of her favorite child.  I felt nothing,” he complained.

Michael Dale, noting that In the Blood is “more sensitive” than its sister play, pronounced in Broadway World that it “receives a solid remounting” at STC.  In the Blood “takes on the style of Greek tragedy,” reported Dale, “though, especially in director Sarah Benson’s production, reality is raised to near-absurdist proportions.”  Sengbloh’s performance is “heart-tugging,” and the BWW reviewer asserted, “With America's current leaders looking to severely limit the government assistance made available to people like Hester, IN THE BLOOD has sadly lost none of it's relevance.”  Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania dubbed the production a ”searing revival” under the “steady direction” of Benson, guiding an “excellent” cast.  Sengbloh plays Hester “with a steely determination that immediately makes us root for her.”  In the end, Stewart remarked, “You may find In the Blood dystopian, but is it really so far off?”

On TheaterScene.net, Joel Benjamin proclaimed that, no matter how you feel about Parks’s  work, the Red Letter Plays “certainly deserve attention.” Benjamin, however, found himself “conflicted about these plays.”  Parks, he acknowledged:

is brilliant at generating fire with the source of the heat difficult to pinpoint.  It’s her talent to write dramas which sizzle, constructed in her strange vernacular, yet somehow leave too many questions unanswered, the better to prove her one-sided stories.

In both the Red Letter Plays, Benjamin complained, Parks avoids “revealing or analyzing the two Hesters’ inner lives which is Parks’ major weakness as a playwright.”  Though he found In the Blood’s Hester “played heroically and passionately” by Sengbloh, The TheaterScene review-writer had qualms.  “Colorful language?” he asked. “Yes.  Memorable characters?  Check.  Motivation?  Not so much.”  Nevertheless, Benjamin concluded, Benson “turns In the Blood into a chamber opera” and watching Sengbloh “resourcefully taking every blow and not fall apart is excitingly satisfying.”  Stanford Friedman, dubbing the play a “captivating revival” on New York Theater Guide, found “moments of playfulness that feel like 1960’s improvisational theater, sexually frank monologues that would be at home in the 1980s, a clear feminist political agenda . . . and, conversely, a touch of musical comedy.”  And, Friedman added, “There is also a healthy dose of absurdity.”  He called Hester “a slowly ticking time bomb,” played by Sengbloh in a “finely measured performance.” 

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