Entertainment » Theatre

The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A

by Marcus Scott
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Sep 14, 2017
Christine Lahti as Hester Smith
Christine Lahti as Hester Smith  

Suzan-Lori Parks, the singular Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, despite her palpable virtuosity, has made one thing very clear within her 30-plus year career: She is obsessed with the fetishization of the brutality of black bodies. Some might say she has come fixated on this, conjuring premises and stories that accentuate the harrowing atrocities that have plighted the African-American experience and has blighted black communities en masse.

Parks, who has gained critical success as author of "Topdog/Underdog" and other acclaimed works as "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)," exemplifies her infatuation with this level of subterranean ultraviolence the most in her profanely titled 2000 play "Fucking A," a theatrical riff on "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 Colonial-era historical fictional novel.

Makeshift skiffle band in tow, alongside the additional elements of Jacobean revenge tragedy, Bertolt Brecht's distancing effect, and diegetic folk-blues operetta song fare results in one of the most wildly uneven outings in recent memory. Directed by Jo Bonney (Manhattan Theatre Club's brilliant "Cost of Living") under the billing "The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A," Parks's incendiary drama receives a lobotomized and cryogenic revival at Off Broadway's Signature Theatre Company.

The production features Christine Lahti in the central role of Hester Smith, branded with the letter "A" on her chest is an abortionist. Like the original work that inspired it, the protagonist of Parks's drama is indeed a strong "nasty woman" with an unwavering love for her illegitimate child. Unlike Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, however, Parks's heroine is not an adulterer who looks to her parish's local pastor for comfort.

Desperately yearning to be reunited with her loved one; Hester hoards the loot from her prohibited trade in order to gain enough capital to eventually procure the release of her son Boy, who has been for much of his adolescence locked away in a high-security prison. Unfortunately for her, the criminal activities of Boy over the course of his sentence have multiplied in his fight for survival and the bail bond, according to the Freedom Fund Lady (played by Ruibo Qian) -- whose motto is "Freedom Ain't Free" -- informs her that the price has doubled.

Instead of initiating a war with the prison industrial complex, Hester decides to take revenge on the First Lady (played by Elizabeth Stanley), the debutante-aristocrat wife of the local Mayor (played by Marc Kudisch), whom she mocks for trivial common conditions of infertility when she isn't faulting the highborn for reporting her son to the authorities for committing a petty theft.

Hester ultimately enlists the help of best friend and streetwalker Canary Mary (played by Joaquina Kalukango), who has become the proud concubine and mistress of the Mayor. She also makes nice with the local Butcher (played by Raphael Nash Thompson), a blithe and happy-go-lucky man with a romantic interest in Hester, who obligingly demonstrates the ultimate way to slit an animal's throat without suffering. Oh, and rounding out this basket of deplorables is Monster (played by Brandon Victor Dixon), a seductive sociopath and menacing escaped convict who is being pursued by three bounty hunters who hope to snare and torture him by using 17th-century methods of sadism.

If you think that's not abominable enough, when Hester finally manages to secure enough capital to enjoy a conjugal visit picnic with her detained son, she realizes to her horror that the young man before her, Jailbait (played Ben Horner), is another incarcerated inmate; not only does he gorge on all of the food, he reveals that he butchered her son in a jailhouse brawl before proceeding to rape her. That's only Act I. It gets worse from there. And by worse, I mean structure, logic, theatricality, and entertainment take a hit.

While the latest reincarnation illuminates an astronomical level of transparency on objectification and exploitation oozing from Parks's script, the sexual politics and power play within it seem to be remnants from the ash heap of second-wave feminism; the author's dated animus signifying the play's shortcomings. Sadly because of this, Bonney's production in full never skyrockets into a truly enthralling unanimity of revelation.

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