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The Red Letter Plays

Signature Theatre Company
480 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036 40.759416 -73.995409
at Tenth Ave.  See Map | Subway Directions Hopstop Popup
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    Off-Broadway, Special Events

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Thru 11/26 Tue-Fri, Sun, 7:30pm; Sat-Sun, 2pm; Sat, 8pm


Fucking A Review:

Fucking A is the second of two meditations by Parks (she calls them “riffs”) on The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mid-19th-century novel about a woman, Hester, forced by the self-righteous, hypocritical Puritan society she lives in to wear a red “A” as a sign that she’s committed adultery. (Signature is producing these sister dramas concurrently under the banner of “The Red Letter Plays.” In the Blood, which Parks wrote first, is now in previews and opens on September 17.) In its theatrical DNA, Fucking A is closer kin to Brecht than to Hawthorne — indeed, it’s almost as much a riff on Mother Courage and Her Children as it is on The Scarlet Letter.

Like Brecht, Parks builds her world out of archetypes. Her characters are mostly named by their social roles: The Mayor, Butcher, Scribe, Jailbait. She revels in stark, often crass language that cuts across the fourth wall. Her characters speak directly to us and, when impassioned, break into ragged bursts of song providing commentary on their actions and social positions. (The original music and lyrics — which are clever, campy, and harrowing by turns — are also by Parks.) It takes the ear a moment to adjust at the play’s beginning, but Bonney and her actors handle the blunt, clipped rhythms of the text with confidence. They don’t overplay the style, nor do they try to force it into naturalism. They trust that we as an audience will listen and will learn the language. And we do.

Suzan-Lori Parks is obsessed with language — its mutability, its power both to illuminate and obfuscate, its use as a tool of oppression and as a weapon of resistance. In more ways than one, Fucking A is a play on words. According to the playwright, it began as a joke, a pun that Parks found amusing but that had no actual story attached to it (she hadn’t even read The Scarlet Letter when she thought up the idea for an irreverently titled riff). The story came later, after reading Hawthorne and then much writing and rewriting (a process that also birthed In the Blood). Fucking A finally emerged as a fiery, raw-throated shout in the face of hypocrisy, privilege, and injustice.

The play deals in the unspeakable. Its title even appears on the Playbill cover as F*cking A — we still can’t just say it. Its anti-heroine Hester Smith (embodied with fearsome monomania and frighteningly dead eyes by Christine Lahti) is marked with her “A” — a brand seared into the flesh above her heart — as a signifier of the profession that dare not speak its name, a job that’s done in the shadows, making Hester both savior and pariah in her impoverished community. She is an abortionist.

Hester’s best friend Canary Mary is a prostitute, though she currently provides “exclusive rights” to the wealthy Mayor. She and Hester open the play with a sardonic ode to their unmentionable yet indispensable professions, a Kurt Weill–esque ditty called “The Working Woman’s Song.” As Canary Mary, Joaquina Kalukango is rich-voiced and winning, a striking contrast to the flinty, brooding Hester. They are both skilled survivors, but where Hester is iron-willed and obsessive to the point of deep self-delusion, Mary is a flexible, open-eyed pragmatist.

What they share, though, is language — specifically, what Parks calls “Talk,” a kind of pidgin tongue created by the playwright and used only by the women in Fucking A. When the actors speak “Talk,” English subtitles appear on the set’s back wall. In the setting where Hester’s tragedy takes place — “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere”— “Talk” is a means for women to say the things that can’t be said. They use it to discuss all things bodily — sex, menstruation, abortions, anatomy. It’s a language of gossip, joking, and insult that’s also a way to maintain autonomy, a verbal refuge where the demands and dangers of men can’t follow them.

For almost without exception the men of the play’s world are frightening creatures. The Mayor (Marc Kudisch in a teeth-glinting-for-the-camera performance) is a smiling tyrant willing to bump off his seemingly infertile First Lady if it means shacking up with a better breeder. The Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, and Ruibo Qian) are a violent, cocksure trio who make their living — and get their rocks off — catching and torturing runaway criminals. And then there’s Monster, the escaped convict whose reputation for limitless perversion and cruelty makes him the Hunters’ prize bounty. And of course, he’s also the son that Hester lost to prison 30 years ago, the son for whom she allowed the “A” to be cut into her chest — indeed, she took on her ignominious calling in order to make the money to pay his way out of prison.

I would apologize for the spoiler, but Parks’s play traffics not so much in surprise as in inevitability. There’s only one person Monster can be, and there’s only one way Hester’s story can unfold. Her character is the unholy product of two all-consuming forces: her love for her son and her desire for vengeance against the First Lady, who was once the “spoiled little rich girl” that ripped Hester’s child from her by turning the boy in for petty theft. After Hester’s story takes a particularly gruesome turn, her response is to double down on her hatred of the enemy she has long blamed for her suffering. At this moment, as Lahti slumped to her knees with a face like a stone slab, I found myself thinking of other characters whose fierce parental love warps into something horrible in the drive for revenge, notably Titus Andronicus and Sweeney Todd. Indeed, Hester’s grating battle song — “The low on the ladder / The barrel’s rock bottom / Will reach up and strangle the Rich / Then God rot ‘em!” — is her own version of Sweeney’s “Epiphany,” all the way down to the conviction that the human race is made up of those that wear the boots and those that are crushed under the heels. I will have vengeance! I will have salvation! So think both Sweeney and Hester, as they start down the path toward the destruction of all that they love. However, unlike her male counterparts, Sweeney and Titus, Hester doesn’t get to die. The revelation of Parks’s twist on the revenge drama is that there is no release for a woman. No matter what, she has to keep on working.

“The Working Woman’s Song” — which receives a shattering reprise by Hester at the play’s end — and its fellow musical numbers are perhaps the most vital, disturbing elements of Fucking A. The songs are a daring move from a playwright undeterred by the inescapable comparison to Brecht and Weill, and the ensemble members, skilled musicians and singers all, understand the specific vocal demands of these rough-edged, embittered tunes. The superb Brandon Victor Dixon, who has played Aaron Burr in Hamilton, can surely make a song sound beautiful, but here he does the opposite, to terrifying effect, as he sings of the treacherous world that turned him from Hester’s once innocent son into the man known as Monster. “You’d think it’d be hard / To make something horrid / It’s easy,” he croaks — his voice ripping, turning ugly and discordant, as he warns us that “a small bit of hate / In a heart will inflate / And that’s more / So much more / Than it takes / To make you a monster.”

Fucking A is a rare play in our contemporary landscape. It reaches across genres and performance styles — musical, Jacobean revenge play, Brechtian epic theater — drawing on the gifts of a multitalented ensemble to touch something frighteningly prescient about a world twisted by inequity and disenfranchisement, a world in which resentment and hatred can bloom into a cancer. The fiery Russian poet and playwright Mayakovsky, in defiance of Hamlet’s famous dictum to “hold a mirror up to nature,” once wrote: “The theatre is not a reflecting mirror, but a magnifying glass” — it can enlarge and, held at the right angle, it can burn. In the hands of Jo Bonney and company, Fucking A both amplifies specific brutal aspects of the society it observes and leaves a smoldering mark.