Saycon Sengbloh and Frank Wood in ‘In The Blood.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
In the Blood, originally produced at the Public Theater in 1999, is one of two Suzan-Lori Parks plays being revived under the umbrella title of The Red Letter Plays in separate venues at the Pershing Square Signature Center; the other is Fucking A, recently reviewed here. Both, according to the Pulitzer-winning playwright, were created in the late 90s as “riffs” on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which she had not even read at the time, and both, as in Hawthorne, feature a central character named Hester. Each is informed by issues of feminism, poverty, and class, but In the Blood also involves race.
In the Blood, whose nine scenes run an intermissionless two hours, is the more successful of the pair, at least in these productions, both as a script and in performance. Under the expert direction of the gifted Sarah Benson, the rising artistic director of the Soho Rep., it does a far better job of mingling realism and allegorical stylization to tell its tale than its partner. Fucking A is also highly theatrical, but its acting draws attention to itself and away from reality; the actors in In the Blood never lose their sincerity, regardless of Benson’s demands, such as having them joyfully enter by sliding down the wall or expressing their desperation by the Sisyphean task of trying to escape the way they came in.
You know you’re in for something different the minute you see designer Louisa Thompson’s abstract vision of life beneath a bridge—a curving, black, skateboarder-like wall sloping toward the audience, with an open, raised section overhead. At one side hangs a huge, yellow, vertical pipe from which piles of garbage periodically drop, as from heaven, on the poor below, whose children revel in the filthy castoffs.
Living in cubby holes beneath the stage are the homeless, dirt-poor, illiterate, African-American woman, Hester, La Negrita (an outstanding Saycon Sengbloh, Drama Desk winner for Eclipsed), and her five racially diverse kids, all imaginatively costumed by Montana Levi Blanco; each is from a different father, and each is played by an adult actor who will also embody one of the drama’s other grownups.
We see Hester struggling to learn how to read (all she can chalk on the wall, though, is a large letter A), to be a warm, self-sacrificing, storytelling mother to her sprawling brood, and to seek assistance from others, including two of their dads. She’s gradually undone by an unkind world that views her as a “slut” who exists for the sexual gratification of others, with the action tragically resolved in blood and prison.
Jocelyn Bioh plays both Bully (Jocelyn Bioh), in pink pajamas, and the fastidious Welfare Lady, who visits Hester in shoes wrapped in plastic; Michael Braun doubles as Hester’s oldest, the 13-year-old Jabber, and Hester’s old boyfriend, Chilli; Russell G. Jones wears diapers as two-year-old Baby, but also acts the horny street preacher, Reverend D; Ana Reeder covers both the flamboyantly dressed Beauty and Amiga Gringa, a flashy hooker who sells her babies; and Tony-winning veteran Frank Wood is both Trouble, in overall-shorts, and an eccentric Doctor.
The actors—who also form a derogatory Greek chorus-like background—pull out all the stops in portraying youthful silliness; for all its comic exaggeration, the approach somehow works. The actors score thespic points in whichever role they’re playing but dominating the ensemble is Sengbloh’s touching, palpably suffering, turn.
In the Blood mingles straightforward realism with overt theatricalism, including projected titles announcing the adults’ “confessions,” in which they rationalize how they’ve helped Hester while also exploiting her sexually. At one point, time is taken for a charming dance interlude between Hester and Chilli performed to a song by Parks that’s infinitely superior to any she composed for Fucking A.
While interesting, even provocative, Park’s writing suggests that we must sympathize with Hester because all occasions do inform against her; the nettlesome question of personal responsibility is skirted around via throwaways like Hester’s “My life’s my own fault.” Without more background on just how she fell into these circumstances, calling her a tragic heroine, as some have done, seems a stretch supported more by political correctness than empirical fact. The same might be said of the implication that Hester’s mistreatment is reserved for women of color.
It’s fortunate, though, that In the Blood raises such questions in the context of such a smoothly executed production.
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).