The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 15, $30 ($75 starting October 10)
In Fucking A, the first of the two Red Letter Plays that Suzan-Lori Parks wrote in the late 1990s inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Smith, is an ostracized abortionist with an “A” branded near her heart, a single mother with a son in prison, both caught up in a cruel system. In the first Red Letter Play, the extraordinary In the Blood, which is currently running in tandem with Fucking A at the Signature Theatre, the main character is Hester, La Negrita (Saycon Sengbloh), a welfare mother with five young children from five different men. In her case, the “A” is the first letter of the alphabet; she is trying to learn to read and write, without much success. Hester and her kids — Jabber (Michael Braun), Bully (Jocelyn Bioh), Trouble (Frank Wood), Beauty (Ana Reeder), and Baby (Russell G. Jones), all wearing Montana Levi Blanco’s fanciful costumes — live in filth under a bridge, where trash is regularly pumped in. The town blames Hester herself for the predicament she’s in; at the beginning of the play, members of the community yell at her, “That’s why things are bad like they are / cause of girls like that . . . And now we got to pay for it. . . . She don’t got no skills / cept one,” adding, “She knows she’s a no count / Shiftless / Hopeless / Bad news / Burden to Society / Hussy / Slut / Pah!” But Hester adores her children, constantly referring to them as her “treasures,” her “joys.” She wants her life to be a fairy tale; she even tells her kids a bedtime story that serves as an uplifting metaphor about their situation. Hester is desperate to provide for her family, but she sometimes gets in her own way, looking for shortcuts because she doesn’t know any better. Each of the actors playing Hester’s children also doubles as an adult with ties to her: Amiga Gringa (Reeder) is a prostitute who is friends with Hester; the Doctor (Wood) offers her free medical tests and advice; Welfare Lady (Bioh) wants Hester to start helping herself and being more conscientious; Reverend D. (Jones), the father of one of Hester’s kids, keeps avoiding acknowledging their former relationship; and Chilli (Braun), the love of her life, is back in town and looking for her. (The names Reverend D. and Chilli are direct references to Puritan minister Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, from Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, although the plot is completely different.)
In the Blood is beautifully written by Pulitzer Prize winner Parks (Topdog/Underdog, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and superbly directed by Obie winner Sarah Benson (An Octoroon, Samara), never heavy-handed as they explore racism, misogyny, religious corruption, and inefficient government bureaucracy. Louis Thompson’s set has Hester trapped from the outset, a curved metal ramp serving as a Sisyphean non-exit, while bars put Hester in a zoolike cage. Tony nominee Sengbloh (Eclipsed, Hurt Village) gives a deeply heartfelt performance as Hester, La Negrita, a caring woman who just wants her family to be happy. “My lifes my own fault,” she recognizes. “But the world dont help.” Each of the adult characters delivers a soliloquy, called a “confession,” regarding their connection, primary sexual, to Hester, seeing her first and foremost as a sexual object, not as a person with very real problems. “Do not for a moment think I am one of those people haters who does not understand who does not experience — compassion,” the Doctor says. The Welfare Lady explains, “I walk the line / between us and them / between our kind and their kind. / the balance of the system depends on a well-drawn boundary line / and all parties respecting that boundary.” And the Reverend D. admits, “Suffering is an enormous turn-on.” In the Blood, which also features choreography by Annie-B Parson and movement by Elizabeth Streb, is a riveting, deeply intelligent and powerful parable that takes place in the “here” and “now,” marking it as a timeless work about institutionalized social ills that don’t look to be going away any time soon. (Parks will be playing with her band, guitarist Christian Konopka and percussionist Julian Rozzell, on October 7 at 4:15 and 6:30 at the Signature Café + Bar; admission is free and open to the public. There will also be a talkback with members of the cast and crew following the October 5 performance of In the Blood.)