Suzan-Lori Parks’s plays have been eccentric, attitudinizing, overambitious. So were her statements about them – e.g., this, in Bomb magazine: “My plays are like these Oberammergau passion plays where the community comes together to re-enact the passion of whomever.” The passion of whomever was there all right, but closer to the Ontological-Hysterical than to Oberammergau.
In her latest, In the Blood, Parks has her characters clumsily voice their interior monologues in spotlighted “confessions,” and Hester La Negrita’s five young bastards, always near starvation under a megalopolitan bridge, are played by the same adult actors who portray their fathers and Hester’s various tormentors. These include the black preacher, father of her youngest; an unfeeling white doctor; a white girlfriend who dragged Hester into drugs and porn exhibitions; and a callous black welfare lady who got Hester involved in a threesome with her husband.
The thrust here isn’t so much antiracist as pro-feminist, and Hester herself, whose knowledge of the alphabet stops at the letter A, is Parks’s take on Hester Prynne. The play itself is Parks’s updating of The Scarlet Letter, as, upon seeing it, you might easily not have guessed. Hester is somewhat shiftless, but she does provide food for her children (we’re not told how) while denying it to herself (we’re not told how she survives).
Nevertheless, the good news is that the stylization largely works, and that a recognizably human story is told. As Hester, Charlayne Woodard gives an affecting performance, unaffected even when she is forced to deliver overpoetic lines. However down-and-out and ragged, this Hester maintains a lambent dignity. Rob Campbell, Gail Grate, Bruce MacVittie, and Deirdre O’Connell do justice to their widely divergent dual roles, and only Reggie Montgomery hams it up under David Esbjornson’s otherwise acceptable direction. If Parks’s next play marks an advance similar to the one In the Blood does over its predecessors, it should be eagerly anticipated.”In the Blood,” an updated “Scarlet Letter,” almost earns an A.