The Red Letter Plays: Signature Theatre Company 20 September 2017

by Carene Lydia Lopez on September 27, 2017

There was a Facebook ad for a Suzan-Lori Parks play starring Christine Lahti and the ticket price was only $30. I thought that sounded like a good deal and when I went to the Signature Theatre Company website, I saw that there was a companion play. Parks had written two plays that riff off Nathaniel Hawthrone’s The Scarlet LetterIn the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000). Now I would be spending $60 but I still thought that Parks was worth it. I’d seen something of hers many years ago and loved it (even if I can’t remember the name).

The Red Letter Plays In the Blood The Griffin Signature Theatre-20170920-06323

The Red Letter Plays Fucking A The Linney Signature Theatre-20170920-06324

The Pershing Square Signature Center is on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. It’s a modern building, which is not my taste but I really liked it (it was designed by Frank Gehry). Everything flowed well. The company was founded in 1991 by James Houghton and the Pershing Square Signature Center was completed in 2011. There are three small theaters, two rehearsal studios, a café and bar, a bookstore, and offices all on the second floor. Going up the staircase gives you a view of the entire floor. There’s a Residency One Program, which celebrates a single playwright with multiple productions over the course of the year. This year it’s Parks. The Residency Five Program supports several playwrights with each writer getting three productions over a five-year period. And the Legacy Program brings back writers from both programs for productions of a premiere or an earlier play.

The Red Letter Plays Signature Theatre-20170920-06318

The Red Letter Plays Signature Theatre-20170920-06319

The Red Letter Plays Signature Theatre-20170920-06321

The Red Letter Plays Signature Theatre-20170920-06322

I bought tickets for the same day with a Page to Stage interview with Parks and director Jo Bonney before the evening play. The matinee for me was In the Blood. In the Playbill is the story of how these plays came about. Parks was canoeing with a friend and, as happens when you’re canoeing together, there was conversation and Parks announced that she was going to write a play based on The Scarlet Letter and call it Fucking A. It may have started as a joke but by the time she got to shore, she decided she was really going to write the play. First step? Read the book since she had never read it. The play was going to be a riff and not an adaptation. Like jazz, this was a contrafact that took the chords and created a new melody. The first draft didn’t work. Neither did numerous subsequent drafts. She went to the computer and decided she would delete everything that didn’t work and she was left with nothing but the title because that was the only thing that worked. Then a voice from the trash spoke to her. “I will tell you the story of your play. A woman with five children by five different lovers, that’s your play, and the children and adults in the play are played by the same adult actors.” She didn’t think that sounded like Fucking A and the voice responded, “No, it’s not. It’s called In the Blood.” In the Blood was easy to write and then Fucking A came easily once the first play was written.

While we were waiting in the lobby or café, a voice announced that the doors were open for Fucking A and In the Blood. The woman kept repeating the announcement and it was funny to hear this genteel voice repeating “Fucking A.”

The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre is just that. I was in the last row, which was row L. The stage was a half-pipe (that looked metallic) like skateboarders use. In one corner was a large yellow tube and there was garbage at the bottom and garbage would continue to come down as the play progressed – usually between each scene. There were metal staircases on either side and balcony above. There was also the occasional noise like a truck or train passing above. The place is Here and the time is Now. A grid of lights came down and shined on the audience so we couldn’t see the people in front of the grid – just the dark outlines of their bodies and their voices as they berated and shamed the woman sitting downstage holding a baby. Her oldest, Jabber (Michael Braun), comes out from under the stage and sees “SLUT” written on the wall. Hester, La Negrita (Saycon Sengbloh) comes out and asks what the word is and doesn’t know why her son is so agitated. He lies to her and erases the word. Hester only knows how to write the letter “A” (Jabber is teaching her the alphabet) and she writes it over and over again on the wall. Hester calls her children for dinner and they all crawl out from under the stage. There’s Beauty (Ana Reeder), Trouble (Frank Wood), Bully (Jocelyn Bioh), and Baby (Russell G Jones). Hester and her five children live under a bridge. Dinner is a watery soup and there’s just enough for the children. She calls her children her treasure. One by one we meet the adults in Hester’s life. Each one matches the name of the child the actor portrays – The Welfare Lady (Bioh) is a bully, Amiga Gringa (Reeder) is a prostitute, The Doctor (Wood) causes more trouble than helps, Reverend D (Jones) is a self-involved childish adult, and Chilli (Braun) is a talker, who makes little sense. After each adult in some way harasses, insults, uses, abuses, or dismisses Hester, s/he makes a confession standing and facing the audience. We hear how they used (usually sexually) her in the past but it is never their fault – Hester is to blame for her own situation and the confessor usually thinks of her/his self as the victim. An incredibly sad play comes to an even sadder ending when Hester commits the worst act that a parent can do. And while she languishes in front of the lowered grid of lights, the adults behind the grid taunt and insult again.

In the Blood was brilliantly directed by Sarah Benson. The new (different than the original production) scenic design was by Louisa Thompson; costume design by Montana Levi Blanco; lighting design by Yi Zhao; sound design by Matt Tierney; original song by Suzan-Lori Parks; fight director was J David Brimmer; wig design by Cookie Jordan; choreographer was Annie-B Parson; and movement by Elizabeth Streb/Streb Extreme Action.

After the play, I went to the café and got a much-needed glass of wine and an empanada trio. Both were very good. I hung out at the bar while I waited for the Page to Stage interview to begin. The stage is where Parks performs with her band on the weekends. By the way, the café, bar, and bookstore are free to enter so available to the public. You can listen to Parks’ band even if you’re not going to see a play.

Parks and Bonney were interviewed by Signature’s associate artistic director Beth Whitaker. Parks repeats the story that was in the Playbill (the event was free and open to the public). Some in the audience had already seen Fucking A another day or years before. Houghton (who died in 2016) had approached Parks about putting on both plays again. Some of the changes for the new production of Fucking A was stripping down the cast. Now each actor (except Lahti) doubles as a musician, so they have to run from the stage to where the musicians stand (on either side of the balcony) and get into a different headspace as they switch from one role to another. One of the actresses plays several instruments and in the play, she’s a character who is not liked by the other characters and not by the audience either, but you see her play a solo just before a scene she is in and your opinion of her changes. Bonney also asked Parks to make the songs longer. One thing different about this play is how much humor is next to the seriousness. Because the play is so dark (even darker than In the Blood) this is a relief. At first, every question from the audience came from someone with a British accent and I was wondering if I’d wandered out of the US somehow. Finally, someone with a non-British accent asked a question. I think she was Scandinavian. Parks was asked if she was sad that the plays were still as relevant today as they were almost 20 years ago and Parks said that she was sad 20 years ago but now there was a sort of joy that others are feeling the same as she was/is.

The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre is slightly bigger and I was again in the last row, which was row CC. Fucking A had a 15-minute intermission and, funnily or interestingly, no one from my row came back after intermission. Why would you sit for over an hour and then leave before the last half-hour? It’s puzzling.

The time is Anytime and the place is a Small Town in a Small Country in the Middle of Nowhere. From left to right, there’s a small door with a brick wall next to it, a flight of stairs under which is another small opening with a curtain, and another door. In front of the curtain is a table and two chairs with a drain in the floor. Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) comes out from behind the curtain. She has a blood-covered apron on top of her dress. She takes a bucket and the tools inside it and washes them and her hands with water from a pitcher on the table. You can see the bloody water going down the drain. In front of her left shoulder, her dress has a hole ripped in it and an “A” is scarred into her skin. Hester is an abortionist. Unlike In the Blood where there was religion, there is no religion in Fucking A. Hester’s job may be illegal (it’s never made clear) and considered immoral by the government and she is considered the lowest of the low but she is providing a service that the town needs so she is tolerated. The one almost religious element is that Hester lights a candle after she performs each abortion. Her best friend is Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), who is The Mayor’s mistress. The Mayor (Marc Kudisch) is a dictator, who keeps talking about his army while The First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley) reminds him that he is the mayor of a town not the president of a country, so he has no army. The First Lady is hated by everyone, including her husband. She comes from a wealthy family and lets everyone know it. She also can’t have children and has visited every specialist in Europe, who have not been able to help her. Hester used to clean The First Lady’s family home and when her son was a boy, he took some food because he was hungry. The First Lady, then a young girl, snitched and Hester’s boy was sent to jail and Hester was fired. Since then her boy has remained in jail because of various trumped-up charges (according to Hester) and she visits the Freedom Fund Lady (Ruibo Qian) every week and gives her money to buy her son’s freedom. If not his freedom, Hester can at least get a picnic lunch with her son. Hester is illiterate and has a drunk, Scribe (Kudisch), write letters to her son, which she also pays for. Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), whose apron is as bloody as Hester’s, is in love with her and will do whatever she asks. There is an extremely funny scene where Butcher lists all the crimes his daughter committed (some crimes you’d recognize and others that you wouldn’t recognize as crimes) and the list goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on.

All the women, no matter their class, speak Talk. Whenever they speak their own language the translation is superscripted on the back wall of the stage. Most of the men don’t understand the language but there are men who have taken the time to learn it (such as Butcher) as long as the women speak it slowly. And all the women, no matter their class, are never equal to the men.

There are three Hunters (J Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, and Qian), who make their living finding escaped prisoners – usually torturing them in horrific ways before they kill them. They make their living as Hunters because all the other jobs are gone. Monster (Brandon Victor Dixon (from Hamilton)) has escaped from jail and is being hunted. Time passes and Hester has paid enough money to have a picnic with her son. The Guard (Barnett) brings Jailbait (Horner) to the picnic with his mother. But Jailbait says he doesn’t know this woman and Hester doesn’t recognize him but it’s been 30 years that her boy has been in jail. Eventually Hester realizes that Jailbait is not her son. There’s a heartbreaking moment later in the play when Butcher reads from a letter that Hester had had written to her son long ago and in the letter, she says that he’s 12 and soon to be 13. It’s the moment when we realize that her boy had to have been sent to jail when he was very very young and there’s a reason why she doesn’t recognize him.

The actors break into song but it’s not a musical. Even though a musical can have sad songs, these are heartbreakers that give you more insight into a character’s inner life than moving the story along. The play ends with Hester singing and when Lahti comes out for her curtain call, she is still wiping the tears from her eyes. And when Stanley plays a sad clarinet solo (as a musician) in a doorway and then plays a scene as The First Lady, your heart breaks for her, mostly because of the musical solo that precedes the scene.

The First Lady snitches again putting Hester’s boy in danger. Hester ends up killing two relatives – one out of vengeance and another for mercy. And when that’s finished, she puts on a clean white apron over her bloody dress and answers the back door where another woman waits to have an abortion.

In addition to the direction by Jo Bonney, there is the scenic design by Rachel Hauk; costume design by Emilio Sosa (who I immediately recognized from Project Runway); lighting design by Jeff Croiter; sound design by Darron L West; projection design by Rocco DiSanti; music and lyrics for original songs by Suzan-Lori Parks; music direction by Todd Almond; choreography by Tanya Birl; wig and make-up design by J Jared Janas; and fight direction by Thomas Schall.

Both plays are dark and sad and relevant and need to be seen.

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