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F***ing A

The smallest seed grows to a tree
A grain of sand pearls in an oyster
A small bit of hate in a heart will inflate
And that's more so much more than enough
To make you a monster.

--- from the song by the "angel son" of the "A" branded Hester of Suzan-Lori Parks' hellish "small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere."
The title that dares not fully spell its name in most propriety-conscious publications has resulted in a New York Times listing Suzan-Lori Parks third play at the Public Theater simply as . . .A, but in its proper alphabetical order. I believe that, like it or not, an author's title is an author's title -- and the above asterisked header is used simply to point to the Public Theater's own double take on this -- a poster over the entry way which uses some asterisks, per the above, while the cover of the Playbill spells it out in the scratchy graffiti style seen on windows of so many subway cars and the Public's ushers loudly direct theater goers to the Anspacher without any euphemistic shortcuts.

Audiences are likely to be more disappointed in the content than disturbed by the attention-getting title of Ms. Parks' follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize winning Topdog/Underdog. It's a story or, to be more specific, a fable, as relentlessly and predictably downbeat and bloody as any Greek tragedy.

F***ing A, like the also sorrowful but more powerful In the Blood, again has a tragic heroine inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's adulterous Hester Prynne. Unlike the modern-day adulteress of In the Blood, but in as potent a performance, this Hester (S. Epatha Merkerson) is an abortionist with the letter "A" branded into her skin according to the law of the imagined colony in an unknown country-- a cross between Dante's Inferno, and the corporation controlled, non-comic Urinetown.

The top dog figure in F***ing A's fictional no man's land is a cartoonish dictatorial Mayor (Bobby Cannavale) married to the woman (Michole Briana White) who as a child caused the long imprisonment of Hester's son (Mos Def) for a minor theft. It is to earn money to buy his freedom that Hester, formerly a scrubwoman, has agreed to take on an even lowlier job as an abortionist and its always visible insignia. As the letter "A" is stamped into Hester's flesh, so hate for the Mayor's wife and the image of her son as an "angel" are imprinted into her psyche. Neither the devotion of her friend Canary (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the Mayor's mistress hoping to replace his sterile wife, and Hester's suitor, a butcher (Peter Gerety), can keep this imprint from being her marker down the path to perdition.

Those who recall the poetic riffs throughout the encounters between the homeless Hester and the other haves and have-nots of In the Blood, will not be surprised that the playwright has given her poetical bent a musical voice. The lyrics and music of the songs she's integrated into her script are reminiscent of, if not on a par with the musical commentaries often found in the work of Bertolt Brecht (you might want to read my review of two splendid Brecht revivals: Mother Courage and Her Children . . . Good Woman of Sezuan). Thus, after discussing their jobs, the pert Canary countering Hester's comment that her flouncy new yellow dress makes her look like a whore with "I am a whore", the two women launch into "The Working Woman's Song" ("It's not that we love what we do/but we do it"). Rubin-Vega, not incidentally to what's best about this play, is as bouncy a girl in the yellow dress as the one in the long running musical Contact.

To enhance the sense of the outsider status of her female characters, Parks has also invented a language which she calls "Talk." These brief bursts of foreign-sounding gibberish about female matters don't add much to the play. However, their translation on a super title screen (which also announces each song) fits well into a production that is as branded with Michael Greif's directorial trademarks (yes, there's a catwalk!) as the front of Hester's shoulder is with her "A." Credit for the show's visual success can be attributed to Mark Wendland's set which makes excellent use of the space and Kenneth Posner's stark lighting, as well as the stellar work by the stagehands who skillfully and with minimal fuss drag set pieces on and off stage.

While Merkerson is the center of this blood-soaked tale, Mos Def is touching as the "angel" son turned monster convict. The rapper who made his acting debut in the Broadway production of Topdog/Underdog has moved several steps forward in building his reputation as an actor. In addition to the Mayor, First Lady and Butcher, the supporting cast includes a trio of monstrous bounty hunters, two women seeking abortions, a Kafkaesque prison record keeper played by one of the hunters, and a prisoner temporarily pretending to be Hester's son. The standout of the ensemble is Peter Gerety. He brings an endearing warmth to the role of the Butcher and some much needed humor with his song "A Meat Man Is a Good Man to Marry." A 5-piece band, positioned above the stage in back of big letters that spell out "Freedom is not free", a line from Rubin-Vega's solo, "Gilded Cage."

As in Topdog/Underdog, Ms. Parks' plot telescopes its inevitable end too obviously. The Butcher wielding his knife to give Hester a one-stop lesson in painless throat cutting is a clear signal that she will apply that lesson sooner or later. The business about Hester's own style of branding to insure that she and her son can recognize each other at any time is overly melodramatic as well as obvious.

Given her Pulitzer Prize, numerous pending projects and a happy marriage to a musician, Suzan-Lori Parks' own life obviously makes for a far more positive picture of the African-American experience than she has so far depicted for the characters in her plays. Perhaps, this dark play with its at least partially bright musical interruptions, will lead to a little more sunshine being allowed into her future work.

Top Dog/Underdog
In the Blood
Talking to Jupiter (part of Urban Zulu Mambo

F***ing A
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Michael Greif.
Cast: Susan Blommaert, Bobby Cannavale, Mos Def, Peter Gerety, Jojo Gonzalez, Jesse Lenat, S. Epatha Merkerson, ChandlerParker, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Michole Briana White
Set Design: Mark Wendland,
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi,
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Musicians: Conductor, piano, synthethizer and accordian/T.O. Sterrett; euphonium, trumpet, trombone/Nathan Durham; guitar, percussion/Jojo Gonzalez; guitar/Jesse Lenat; soprano saxophone/Manu Narayan
Music Direction, arrangements and orchestrations,:Tim Weil
Running time: 2 hours, includes one 15-minute intermission
Anspacher/ Public Theatere, 425 Lafayette Street;; or 212/239-6200
2/07/03-4/06/03; opening 3/16/03
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 15th matinee performance
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