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Signature Theatre mounts a pair of shows by Suzan-Lori Parks
During In the Blood -- the first of Suzan-Lori Parks' two plays inspired by The Scarlet Letter -- the main character Hester remarks, "I don't think the world likes women very much." That's the brutal takeaway of Blood and its sister work Fucking A, which are being produced in tandem for the first time at Signature Theatre under the collective banner The Red Letter Plays. Jo Bonney, who directs Fucking A, believes both shows are about disenfranchised women "who never had a chance in life and who have to be survivors," she says. "They're not given any power in society and they have to strike out down the path they're given. They have to fight to survive and protect themselves and their children. That's never-ending."
Parks wrote the two plays in the late '90s as "riffs" on Nathaniel Hawthorne's 19th-century novel. And while neither is really an adaptation of that classic, like the source material, they are examinations of morality. "The Scarlet Letter is looking so much at how we judge people," says Sarah Benson, who directs In the Blood. "How we forge assumptions about other people, and how we don't give each other dignity and space. I hope those are questions that people come away with."
Both productions tell separate stories, and have distinct casts and directors. They began rehearsals a week apart, and are running just across the lobby from one another. "It has been interesting to feel that energy down the hall, to know that the two plays are being rehearsed and put up in tandem," says Benson. Yet neither director has seen the other's work, and they both stress that the plays are completely independent -- Fucking A is a Brechtian revenge tragedy while In the Blood is more naturalistic.
But, as in the original book, both feature a protagonist named Hester. In Fucking A she is an abortionist with a bloody A branded on her collarbone, who is trying to buy her son's freedom from jail. In In the Blood, she's a homeless and illiterate single mother of five, who only knows how to write the letter A.
Parks wrote Fucking A first and it's intentionally placeless and timeless. Characters speak in contemporary vernacular but their world seems archaic. "We put it in a place that could be anywhere," says Bonney so "the viewer would be able to place it where they want to."
In contrast, In the Blood is set in the "here and now," so Benson conjures a modern inner city. Hester and her kids live under a bridge surrounded by refuse. "The set is basically a giant trash chute and slide, which hits the deck," says Benson. The point was to "feel the city shitting on this family."
Despite the shows' myriad differences, the directors agree they're thematically linked. "Both plays are about motherly love," says Bonney. "The length that a mom goes to nurture and protect her children in a society that's less than kind to mothers -- and to women." Both works also explore income inequality, the plight of the working poor, and the patriarchy's need to control women and their bodies. These Hesters are ostracized by their communities, and that collective judgement of women less fortunate is a tale as old as time. That was true in 1850 when The Scarlet Letter was published, and it's sadly still true today.
"It's a hypocritical morality that sets standards just for women, and particularly for women who are poor," says Bonney, while Benson cites a particularly depressing parallel. "This mother of five with multiple partners is treated one way, and yet the president of our country has five children with different partners!"
Both directors hope that audiences leave the productions with a heightened sense of empathy for society's outcasts. "It's impossible not be caught up in all the bullshit of the assumptions of our society," says Benson. "But the effort to try to live beyond that, and be aware of that, is something to aspire to."
Top image: Brandon Victor Dixon and Christine Lahti in Fucking A. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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