by Carol Rocamora
The key to appreciating Suzan-Lori Parks’s wildly original Red Letter Plays is knowing that she’s a jazz musician as well as a writer. As she herself explains, she’s done a “riff” or “contrafact” of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, that sensational 19th century novel about a woman branded by society. “You take the chords and you write your own melody,” she explains.
So what did her wildly inventive imagination come up with? A pair of provocative plays about what it means to be a woman and a mother in a hostile world. In each of these plays, her protagonist is named Hester (after Hawthorne’s unfortunate heroine, who was ostracized and branded with an “A” when she refused to name the father of the baby she bore out of wedlock.) In the case of Parks’s Hesters, they both struggle desperately to maintain their motherhood – and that struggle constitutes the high drama (and ultimate tragedy) of the plays.
In the Blood (1999), the first of the plays, has already been reviewed in Theater Pizzazz (see Brian Scott Lipton’s critique on September 17). Hester is a homeless black woman who lives under a bridge with her five children (sired by five different fathers), desperately trying to keep them together and alive, while she’s abused by everyone she encounters.
In the second play, F—ing A (2000), Hester is a white woman (played with aching intensity by Christine Lahti) living in an unspecified town and time, whose sole raison d’etre is revenge. Her only son was imprisoned thirty years ago, when a rich woman (named First Lady, now wife of the Mayor) accused him of stealing meat from her home. Impoverished, Hester takes the only job available to her – that of the town’s abortionist – to earn enough money to buy his release from prison. We first meet Hester on Rachel Hauck’s rough-hewn set, clad in a bloodied apron, wearing a letter “A” that signifies her terrible trade. She’s talking to her only friend (Canary Mary, a gorgeous prostitute dressed in yellow, played by Joaquina Kalukango) in a secret language only they understand, asking her help to plot her revenge and kill the wife of the Mayor (with whom Canary is having an affair).
For me, Suzan-Lori Parks’s compelling play, with its rich characters and gripping plot, brings to mind Brecht’s classic, Mother Courage – a parable about a mother who is desperate to save her children, but in the end must choose between them and her own survival. Parks’s play, like Brecht’s, is populated with characters bearing generic names: like First Lady and Mayor; like Monster (Hester’s son, named because of his alleged crime); like Butcher (Hester’s suitor, similar to “Cook” in Mother Courage): and the Hunters, a trio who are out to capture Monster, who has escaped from jail. Like Brecht, Parks projects scene titles on the set’s backdrop. Like Brecht, she punctuates her scenes with songs, played by a six-member band perched on opposite balconies. Parks herself composed the music and lyrics, which, as in Brecht’s plays, are darkly funny, like the Mayor song about his sperm (he’s unable to impregnate the First Lady).
What makes Parks’s writing unique is its bold and fearless inventiveness. The women speak amongst each themselves in “TALK,” a made-up language that’s translated by projected super-titles on the back wall. These kinds of dramatic innovations are arresting, and as in Brecht’s plays, they take you out of the action and then thrust you right back in.
Under Jo Bonney’s masterful direction, the play is gripping and darkly entertaining despite its traumatic content. Christine Lahti is superb as the vengeful, vulnerable Hester, and her scene with her son Monster (a touching Brandon Victor Dixon)– with whom she has a final tragic encounter – are powerful and deeply moving.
Ultimately, F—ing A is about women and their struggle to survive in a hostile world. Like Venus, her earlier work produced at the Signature last season, she champions women in the direst of circumstances – and celebrates their perserverance against all odds. “I don’t think the world likes women much,” says Hester in In The Blood. Given her fierce courage and determination, you can bet that this playwright is going to do something about that.
F—ing A, by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Jo Bonney, at Pershing Square Signature Center, now until October 8