The Abject Pain of the Red Letter A
Signature Theatre | NYC
directed by Jo Bonney | Sarah Benson
An audience is usually prepared to experience a vast array of emotions when taking in a piece of theatre. If the theatre is especially good they’ll be caught off-guard by something that hits them in a way that nothing ever has - or perhaps something has struck them like that before and the audience member is brought back to that moment. When a play can do these things and then go past the time spent in the theater itself - when a play can live on in someone’s mind for days, weeks, that’s when the play has moved into something greater than the sum of its parts. The Red Letter Plays do more than just live on in one’s mind, they haunt the heart and that is their intention.
Both Fucking A and In the Blood are companion works that draw upon Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Suzan-Lori Parks developed the pieces and both have been independently produced - after twenty years they are finally being performed at the same time in the same place. The two plays comment and respond to one another and, when viewed in tandem, augment each other’s staggering power.
Fucking A is a darkly dramatic tale that revolves around relationships, family and revenge. Hester, physically branded with the letter A, must perform abortions in a rural town in the middle of nowhere in order to make payments for her son’s release from jail. Having lost her son to prison when he was just a boy due to the inhumane law and the act of one rich little “bitch”, Hester has become a shell of her former self and works tirelessly for the chance to see her son once more. The action of the play takes place nearly fifteen years after her son was dragged away to prison. The little girl who effectively ruined Hester’s already down-trodden life has become the Mayor’s wife and struggles to produce a son. After continually being pummeled and disparaged, her plans change from that of getting her son out of jail to those of revenge.
Christine Lahti embodies heaviness as Hester undergoes intense trauma and agony while fighting the buffeting winds of her life. Lahti has the strength of a thousand suns at the emotional crests and yet has the ability to focus that energy and be incredibly subtle on the turn of a dime like that of a master pianist playing Chopin. It’s these incredibly subtle moments that flint like the blink of an eye which make her performance wonderfully devastating.
This ruination of an already tortured soul makes the play difficult to watch and severely heartbreaking. The play does have lighter moments and some wonderfully funny dark humour - one particularly brilliant “rule of a million” monologue delivered by the utterly charming Raphael Nash Thompson comes to mind. These moments not only give the play more texture, but they deepen the pain these characters endure. Parks forces us to examine the darker, harsher side of human nature.
In accordance with the harshness of story, the musical numbers are intentionally brash and raw. They seem to interject the scenes in a style reminiscent of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. The majority of songs are unique yet uniform to the purposefully flat style save for a few, specifically the final song sung by Monster in which Brandon Victor Dixon is simply captivating. The cast also doubles as the orchestra (playing guitar, bass, piano, clarinet, harmonica, drum, etc.) and there are quite a few expertly directed moments (by director Jo Bonney and choreographer Tanya Birl) where the singing is being musically supported by actors who play characters that are being undermined in the song.
The two-level set allows for the majority of orchestration to occur on the top level. Rachel Huack’s design also allows for a variety of compositions and is inventively utilised throughout the two hours and fifteen minutes. The set itself is bare and raw much like the content of the play - it does this while still having a remarkable sense of specificity. The style of the set is reminiscent of a bleak post-war eastern european village. Although the set is, at first glance, rather straightforward, it has a remarkable sense of character and adaptability - very simple changes in shape and lighting (by Jeff Croiter) completely transport the audience from their seats to the heavy world of the play.
There is expert playcraft and there is mastery and then there is Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. The plot of the play is relatively simple - Hester lives under a bridge with her five children from five different fathers. Hester’s goal is to provide for her “treasures” and to take care of them. She is subsequently taken advantage of by every other person in her life who could possibly help her. Each character: the Doctor, Amiga Gringa (her friend), Pastor D (father of her youngest child), the Welfare, and Chili (father of her oldest child) offer her little in the way of help and in the end are the people that are keeping her in extreme poverty.
The bleakness of Hester’s life is brilliantly captured in Louisa Thompson’s set - immediately upon entering the theatre, the weight of the play is felt. The setting is underneath a bridge in a major city - in the playbill it is noted that the place is “here” and the time is “now”. The set is something of a quarter-pipe with a rake going slightly down towards the audience and an extreme slope curving up into a sheer vertical drop upstage. It is adorned with a dilapidated arm-chair, a large pile of trash and the word, “slut” painted on the upstage wall. The world is encased in scaffolding complete with black mesh masking, exposed metal stairways and a construction-site garbage shoot that spews more trash into the pile that sits beneath it. The effect is of a giant, gaping maw coming to swallow us all whole - that maw is felt throughout the entirety of the play’s two-hours.
The supporting cast who play Hester’s children double as their respective adult counterparts in seamless transition. Each member does their part in evoking sympathy as a child and scorn as monstrous adults. The adults aren’t blindly and broadly monsters as we get to see their interior motives on abusing Hester in each of their solo monologues (their confessions). Saycon Sengbloh is earnestly heartbreaking as she becomes a childlike mother of five. Her portrayal brings an ache to my heart from simply recalling it. The depth of anguish is palpable and Sengbloh creates this with seemingly no effort. It is simply a wonder that these actors are able to do this show day after day after day.
The play is a reflection on society’s crushing oppression of those in poverty and women who are involved with multiple men. It further comments on how society views impoverished black women and women in general - Hester says it best, “I don’t think the world likes women much.” This play bleeds into one’s day to day life and runs through our minds like the blood that runs down the stage. Parks is a powerhouse playwright and her work forces us to examine our society, our values and ourselves. She shows us the ugliest side of humanity and helps us reflect. These are important works and simply not to be missed.
photo | ©Joan Marcus