NY TIMES THEATER REVIEW; 'The Scarlet Letter,' Alive And Bitter in the Inner City
By MARGO JEFFERSON
Published: November 23, 1999
Artists talk with one another across the centuries; they talk about their obsessions, their ancestors, the particulars of their time and place and about whatever can go beyond the particular to take on a new life.
Suzan-Lori Parks's extraordinary new play, ''In the Blood,'' which opened last night at the Public Theater, is a conversation with -- a revision of, a set of improvisations on -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''Scarlet Letter.'' Ms. Parks and Hawthorne share an obsession with American history and the large patterns of sin, cruelty, punishment and redemption that give it form and content.
Hawthorne was the descendant of Salem, Mass., Puritans who persecuted Quakers, denounced witches and had their deeds recorded in the annals of New England history. His fiction unveiled and sought to redeem those ancestral crimes; in his introduction to ''The Scarlet Letter'' he vowed: ''I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them . . . may be now and henceforth removed.'' Ms. Parks is the inheritor of an African-American history much of which has gone, in her words, ''unrecorded, dismembered, washed out''; her task, she says in an essay called ''Possession,'' is ''to locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.''
This time around we are in New York, not Salem. The adulteress is Hester, La Negrita, played -- no, embodied with stunning coherence -- by Charlayne Woodard. She is a woman on welfare living under a bridge with her five children. Like Hester Prynne, she offers tortured assertions of her responsibility. (''My life's my own fault. I know that. But the world don't help. . . . I ain't afraid of hard work. It's a leg up. Can't start from the top.'') But she, too, is being ground down by a society that wields power pitilessly and, when it sees fit, vengefully. (Hester Prynne longed to be the prophetess for a new truth that would ''establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.'' Three centuries later Hester can only say bleakly, ''I don't think the world likes women much.'' As for the people around her, they are just a little more powerful (therefore better at being selfish) or just a little more canny (therefore better at manipulating things).
''In the Blood'' is about the way we live now, and it is truly harrowing. (What is ''in'' Hester's blood, as the world sees it? Sin, sluttishness, the lower-class racial weakness that leads to sloth and reckless procreation.) We cannot turn away, and we do not want to. The play strikes us as Hawthorne claimed his first glimpse of the scarlet letter struck him: with ''a sensation not altogether physical yet almost so, as of burning heat, as if the letter were not of red cloth but red-hot iron.''
This Hester can't read or write. Her oldest son, Jabber (Rob Campbell), is supposed to be teaching her, but she hasn't gotten past A. She certainly can't make out the word ''slut'' scrawled on a nearby wall, and Jabber won't read it for her.
They live on mean words and slim chances. Her son Trouble (Bruce MacVittie) steals a policeman's club, her daughter Bully (Gail Grate ) sleeps with her hands in fists; her youngest, Baby (Reggie Montgomery), is learning how to smash the soda cans that earn them small change at the local supermarket.
Still, when we first see them all sitting around Hester as she ladles out a dinner of soup, there's a tenuous sweetness there; she is trying so hard to keep them together as a family. Then, when Hester makes up a bedtime story in which a princess changes the law of the land and gets to marry all five of the men who court her, we realize that those folk tales we love so would be narratives of misery and woe if poor and powerless storytellers hadn't invented supernatural forces to save the day.
Having no recourse to those forces, Hester's path leads no place but down. She is hungry all the time (the children get whatever food she has), and the world is eating her up. There is the doctor with the community street practice (Mr. MacVittie), her snappy drug-besotted white friend, The Amiga Gringa (Deirdre O'Connell), The Welfare Lady in the prim pink suit (Ms. Grate ), the minister who is building his own church (Mr. Montgomery) and Chilli (Mr. Campbell), Jabber's father and her first love.
Every one of them has used her for sex. And they try or pretend they will try to do better by her, especially the Rev. D, who is the father of Baby and promises child support money if she keeps quiet.
These exchanges are taut and packed. Ms. Parks's writing has grown leaner and hungrier since plays like ''The Death of the Last Black Man on Earth'' and ''Venus,'' with their layers of historical allusion and soliloquy-like dialogue. Here the dialogue alternates with beautifully timed and paced confessions from each character, delivered in a square of harsh white light.
The confessions strip these people down to their bare selves with an insistence that comes as much from the anguished intimacy of Adrienne Kennedy's plays as from Hawthorne: ''Times are tough: what can we do?'' asks the doctor. ''There's a mama dog running loose and her puppies are crying because there's not/there's not enough food for those poor little pups/and the pups grow into dogs unhousebroken and ill-mannered with families of their own.'' The caseworker is a black woman, too. ''I walk the line/between us and them/between our kind and their kind'' she reminds us.
The Amiga Gringa regrets the money they could have made together as Chocolate and Vanilla: ''We coulda done a sex show behind a curtain/Then make a movie and sell it/for 3 bucks a peek.'' The Rev. D confides that suffering is an enormous turn-on, up to the moment when he realizes that through Hester, God ''wants to drag me down/ and sit me at the table/at the head of the table of her fatherless house.'' And Chilli, the long-gone lover who comes back to town looking for her, still remembers the days when they were so desperate to make love in a car, all-American-boy-and-girl style, they would go to a vacant lot and ''sneak in those rusted Buicks that hadn't moved in years/and I would sit at the wheel and pretend to drive/ and she would say she felt the wind in her face.''
And finally there is Hester, moving toward tragedy, shadowed by ''a big dark thing. Blocking the sun out. Like the hand of fate.''
This potent and terrible sense of being closed in with the characters is heightened by the fact that, apart from Ms. Woodard, each actor plays both a child and an adult. The director, David Esbjornson, has made them into a real ensemble, though I think he could encourage them to bring out more of the humor -- stark and dissonant, but humor nevertheless -- in the text. This is especially true of Reggie Montgomery's performance. When it comes to characters who like to season corruption with wit, Mr. Montgomery is a master; but at the moment his Rev. D is in the grip of too many melodramatic flourishes.
Gail Grate is especially good as both the needy daughter and the repressive Welfare Lady, while Rob Campbell gives Jabber real sweetness and Chilli a languid, playful menace. The stage, with just the bare necessities, could easily be a street just blocks away from the theater; the lighting, clothing, sound (subways, harsh rhythmic music) intensify without showing off. (Kudos to Narelle Sissons, Elizabeth Hope Clancy, Jane Cox, Don DiNicola).
You will leave ''In the Blood'' feeling pity and terror. And because it is a work of art, you will leave thrilled, even comforted by its mastery.
IN THE BLOOD
By Suzan-Lori Parks; directed by David Esbjornson; sets by Narelle Sissons; costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting by Jane Cox; sound and original music by Don DiNicola; production dramaturg, John Dias; production stage manager, Kristen Harris; senior director, external affairs, Margaret M. Lioi; associate producer, Wiley Hausam; artistic associate, Brian Kulick; associate producer, Bonnie Metzgar; general manager, Michael Hurst. Presented by the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, George C. Wolfe, producer; Rosemarie Tichler, artistic producer; Mark Litvin, managing director. At the Shiva Theater, in the Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Lower East Side.
WITH: Charlayne Woodard (Hester, La Negrita), Rob Campbell (Jabber and Chilli), Reggie Montgomery (Baby and the Rev. D), Gail Grate (Bully and The Welfare Lady), Bruce MacVittie (Trouble and The Doctor) and Deirdre O'Connell (Beauty and The Amiga Gringa).