01 November 2017

The Red Letter Plays, Continued

by Kirk Woodward

[As Kirk says below, he and I saw the two Suzan-Lori Parks plays In the Blood and Fucking A in production at the Signature Theatre Company on, respectively, 19 September and 4 October.  Kirk had read almost all of Parks’s plays, but he confided that he’d never seen one on stage.  Since my usual theater partner had gone off Parks after last season’s STC productions of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and Venus (reported on Rick On Theater on 1 December 2016 and 7 June 2017), I invited Kirk to join me for the two final productions in the playwright’s Residency One tenure at Signature.  I’d never seen these plays before—they premièred in 1999 and 2000—but I felt they’d make a good introduction for Kirk to the dramatist’s work in production, given especially Signature’s customarily excellent productions and the writer’s participation in the presentations.  I think I can safely say, I judged rightly—and I think Kirk will agree.

[As he notes, Kirk’s written on Parks for ROT a couple of time before (the dates and titles of Kirk’s posts are noted below), based then on his close readings of the scripts.  Now, as a sort of companion/supplement to my usual performance reports, he’s contributed  an evaluation of the plays as he sees them fitting into Parks’s body of work.  (My recommendation, especially if you haven’t seen the STC productions, is to read my reports, referenced below, and then read “The Red Letter Plays, Continued.”)  He brings his habitually careful and perspicacious analytical skills to his discussion of the Red Letter Plays, based now on both his familiarity with the texts and the staging at the Signature Theatre Company.  He unquestionably makes several excellent, and important, points about both the plays and Parks’s dramaturgy.  ~Rick]

Rick has recently written in this blog about the two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks (b. 1963), In the Blood and F**king A, collectively known as the Red Letter Plays. The playwright writes the second play’s name as Fucking A, but I am using it as it appears in the program for the productions of the two plays at the Signature Theatre in New York City from August 22 through October 15, 2017. 

I saw both plays with Rick, and I agree with pretty much everything he writes about the plays and their productions. (See the reports on the two productions, posted on 12 and 17 October, respectively.) I want to say a few things looking at them from a slightly different angle: I have written about the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in this blog before (see “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays Of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009, and “A Playwright of Importance,” 31 January 2011), and have expressed my opinion that she deserves to be considered among the great playwrights in the United States, alongside Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.

A quick look at those four names shows ways in which Parks is not like those outstanding writers. She is a woman. She is also black, her plays are clearly written by a black playwright, and as she writes she uses the resources of theater very differently from her predecessors. (Tennessee Williams, in his work as a whole, is the one she resembles most.)

As to why she deserves a high rank as a playwright, I want to say more about that, using In the Blood and F**king A as exhibits of her qualities and skills, but not as examples of undeniably great plays, because to my mind they are not. However, in a culture where five star ratings, top ten lists, and One Hundred Greatest lists are familiar reviewing tools, it’s easy to forget that a play may be both flawed and still vital and important.

In the Blood (1999) and F**king A (2000) are “middle period” plays for Parks (so far), and may be examined both as works of art in themselves, and as steps in her growth as a playwright.

Because Rick has described the plays, their productions, and their reviewers’ responses with his usual thoroughness, I propose not to go over that territory again, but instead to offer a sort of “pro and con” evaluation of the plays, remembering that in art the same feature of a work can be both a “pro” and a “con.” The “con’s,” when it comes down to it, are not terribly negative.

One frequent fault of beginning playwrights is overwriting. Parks does not in my opinion do this in In the Blood and F**king A in the sense the word is often used – she is not flowery, she doesn’t show off, she doesn’t include passages that have no purpose but to demonstrate how brilliant she is (despite an apparent exception I will mention below). Her plays are thoroughly grounded in their characters and their situations.

Still, to be sure, she is an exuberant playwright, and language is particularly important to her. You can literally see this by opening one of her plays at random to any page – her very typography is different. In particular she goes further than almost any other playwright in “writing” the timing of words and phrases.

And she is capable of letting it rip when appropriate. The set piece of F**king A is the character Butcher’s glorious list of the offences his daughter Lulu (never seen in the play, to our everlasting regret) has committed. It is far too long to quote – it takes up almost two full pages in the published script – but here is a sample of what Lulu has done:

. . . fraternizing with known felons, copulating with said felons with the intent to reproduce, espionage, high treason, mutiny at sea, operating a dump truck without a license, having improper identification, slave trading, horse stealing, murder in the first degree, not knowing what time it is, talking too much, laughing out of turn, murder in the second degree, standing on one leg in a 2-legged zone, jumping the turnstile, jumping the turnstilee, burning down the house, murder in the nth degree. . . .

The actor Raphael Nash Thompson, who played the role in the Signature production, brought the house down with his understated, offhand, take-it-as-it-comes delivery of this tour de force. One would not want it to be a single word shorter.

But in my opinion overwriting occurs in these two plays in a different way: structurally. Parks uses theatrical devices throughout both In the Blood and F**king A to enrich and to startle – a number seem to be borrowed from Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), such as asides and choral speaking. But some seem to me to work against the plays instead of helping them.

For example, the invented language “Talk” in F**king A, translated for the audience in words projected above the actors’ heads, serves little purpose in the play that I can see, except once in a minor way (it does make one conversation unintelligible to other characters), and it takes attention away from the play rather than reconfiguring our attention. 

And two other major devices, to my mind, say too much. In In the Blood, five characters in turn deliver soliloquies, direct addresses to the audience, called “Confessions,” describing their sexual relations, of varied sorts, with the lead character, Hester.

We are familiar, to mention examples from another play, with the soliloquies in the play Hamlet by Shakespeare, who uses the device to share the inner workings of the minds of the characters. But Parks uses the Confessions more to tell the audience about events that have happened, and that is a weaker use of the device – in general, audiences would rather see something happen, than be told that it occurred.

But the Confessions weaken the play further because they make explicit sexual relations that are already inferred by the play. They give “backstory” that is already hinted at, and by spelling the backstories out, it seems to me,  they weaken the play, leaving us with no uncertainty, no mystery. Everything is revealed, and that is not a strong dramatic strategy.

Simply, I think In the Blood would be a more interesting play if the confessions were not in it. The relationships between the characters would be less clear – as they would likely be in life – but filled with more tension, and as audience members we have enough information to make the proper deductions.

I feel the same way about the songs (which Parks wrote, both music and lyrics) in F**king A. They tell us things we already understand the characters are thinking. No matter how good they are, they can’t help seeming redundant.

There are other strategies available for musical numbers in plays. Two of these are to write songs that move the story along, or to write songs that tell us something about the character that we didn’t know before. (Those are approaches frequently used in Broadway musicals.) Another, which Brecht often used, is to write songs with moods that contrast with the scenes they are in. Both are stronger than using songs to illustrate what we already know.

Parks does none of these things. As a result the songs are a matter of A + A = A, and that equation is not dramatically useful.

And I do not feel that the plots of In the Blood and F**king A work as well as they are intended to. In the Blood, a play depicting a poor, unmarried woman with five children, each with a different father who has never acknowledged them, is a story about sexuality run amok, and it is the sexual drives of all the characters that combine to leave Hester condemned at the end of the play, driven to distraction to do the last thing she would want to do.

But what stands out for me in the play is essentially a different story: the desperate efforts of a poor woman to keep her family intact. So for me the plot of In the Blood is insufficiently connected to this core meaning. 

Also, Rick points out in his posting on In the Blood that the device of five actors playing both the adults around Hester and the children they’ve fathered, has an exception in the case of one of the characters (Amiga Gringa), who couldn’t have “fathered” Beauty. (See the report, “The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood” on 12 October, for a fuller explanation of this matter.) This is not a crucial issue, but it does indicate either a too schematic approach to the plot, or else too little concern over its nature.

As for F**king A, its plot strikes me as too blatantly “well made,” with its characters driven by the plot, rather than driving it. Parks I imagine would say rather that the plot is driven by the characters’ needs for money, and this point is clearly made in the play, but it still strikes me as overly schematic.  Spoiler alert – here’s one plot point: Butcher tells Hester how to kill a pig painlessly (he hopes), by slitting its throat. A knife works its way into the story. When her son is about to be tracked down by savage bounty hunters, you know that knife is going to be used.

The plot of F**king A also strikes me as extremely reminiscent of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the 1979 musical written by Hugh Wheeler (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), in its revenge plot, its lead character sent into practically mania at the end of the first act, and its half-sacrificial killing at the final curtain. 

Having said those things, I have run out of negatives about In the Blood and F**king A. After all, these “cons” are relatively few, and are far outweighed by the “pros,” which I will briefly recapitulate, and which make the plays, despite any possible shortcomings, important pieces, well worth seeing, both because of their technique and their content. On the most basic level, neither play, once you’ve seen it, will soon leave your mind. You will have plenty to think about. The characters (I’d say) remain vivid to us. The stories haunt us.

The points of the stories ought to haunt us – the fragility of family life; the ways society threatens marginal families, especially their children; the courage required to live in an urban world, especially as a member of a minority group (but not exclusively, and the Signature production of F**king A used “color blind” casting).

Then, Parks has a strong interest in United States history, and a vivid way of presenting it, as shown in the title of her play Father Comes Home From the Wars (in its various parts). She is always mindful of the African-American experience so central to our national story, and she is mindful of the rest of our history as well. When the central characters in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog (2001) are named Lincoln and Booth, that’s not a gag; that’s a lesson in American history in two names.
And the African-American experience, with our historical legacy of slavery, is crucial to our understanding of ourselves and our world. Freedom, liberty, and personal security, as we see every day, are not issues restricted to one race or to one time.

And, as Rick has shown particularly well in his posting on F**king A, and as I have tried to indicate here too, Parks is brilliant in her use of the resources of theater, and equally brilliant in the sweep of her imagination.

That imagination reaches awe-inspiring heights in her 365 Plays/365 Days (2006), the results of her successful effort to write a play a day, which sometimes produces scenes like the following, the concluding stage direction from “August 20”:

The Man takes a bite from the cabbage.
The Woman continues to build the house of cards.
It gets quite grand. They lacquer it and live in it.
It survives the rains and the mudslides. It makes the cover
of House Beautiful. Their children sell it for a pretty penny.
In short, life goes on, and it goes on pretty well
when you compare the existence of the average American Joe
to the existence of the Average Joe in a less-fortunate country.
Still in all, the Woman’s worries, while mostly forgotten,
were very well-founded.

Although I haven’t seen Plays/Days professionally produced, I have seen acting classes use such scenes with remarkable results.

Parks continues to be a particularly active playwright, and her presence in our theater gives me great hope for its future.

[It’s no longer practical to list all of Kirk’s past contributions to Rick On Theater over that past 8½ years.  They’re far too numerous now—not least because the blog was in large part Kirk’s idea to start with.  I’ll just say that, in addition to his pieces on Suzan-Lori Parks (referenced above), my friend has also written for ROT on many various topics, including several kinds of music (jazz and rock ’n’ roll), the Beatles, stage directing, reviewing (on which he’s published a book, The Art of Writing Reviews), playwriting, and a whole host of other topics, including some very personal ones, on which I could never write.  If any readers find “The Red Letter Plays, Continued” interesting, I recommend using the blog’s search engine (in the upper left-hand corner of the site) to find other Woodward articles.  Whatever ones you select, I guarantee you’ll encounter something interesting—and edifying.]

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