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In the Blood

My life's my own fault. I know that. But the world don't help, Maam -- Hester
The world's not here to help us. The world is simply here. We must help ourselves -- The Welfare Lady
I'm looking for someone
to lose my looks with
-- "The Wedding Song"
It's about the world that's "simply here. " It's about the eternal yearning for love. It's about those who adapt and those who fall between the cracks. It's about all of this as filtered through Suzan-Lori Parks' particular authorial vision of black and white stereotypes.

The central character of In the Blood is a modern day Hester Prynne played with great passion by Charlayne Woodard. Her letter A is not sewn to her dress but scratched out on the cement ground and walls of the makeshift home under a bridge where she struggles to make a life for her five illegitimate children. In that world Hawthorne's epithet Adulteress becomes Slut. The letter A is a metaphor for how far -- or rather how little -- she's progressed in her struggle and Hawthorne's scarlet thread is transmuted into a puddle of blood.

While In the Blood has its comic moments, what it's definitely not about is light entertainment. Ms. Parks' raw reimagining of "The Scarlet Letter" takes us into the subterranean existence of one homeless woman, her children and the people whose own weaknesses prompt them to prey on hers. It is an unremittingly dark and hopeless tale and yet, it achieves moments of poetry in its picture of a living hell. These poetic moments come through a series of soliloquies which Ms. Parks calls confessions. The confessors are Hester and the various people who have failed to heed her desperate cry for a "leg up: "

  • The doctor (Bruce MacVittie), who carries his road-side practice on his back like a hawker with a sandwich board, explains his sense of helplessness with a refrain of "What can one do?" -- ending his recitation of impotent pity with a confession of how he joined the men who have helped to turn Hester into "a boulder rolling down the side of the mountain . . . gathering no moss."

  • The Welfare worker (Gail Grate) who uses Hester to bolster her precarious hold on her middle class status and marriage declaring "I walk the line/between us and them/between our kind and their kind. . ."

  • Amanda Gringa (Deirdre O'Connell), the prostitute with a taste for capitalistic enterprise explains: "I had me some delicious schemes to get her out of that hole she calls home" but though she cajoled Hester to put on a sexual peep show for profit with her, she's still faced with the fact that a "woman like Hester driving her life all over the road
    most often chooses to walk the straight and narrow."

  • The reverend (Reggie Montgomery) who is the father of Hester's last child but now wants her out of his face so he can get on with his thriving new ministry. Like the social worker, he uses his social empowerment destructively. His riff is "Suffering is an enormous turn on../ She had four kids and came to me asking me what to do/ She had a look in her eyes that invites liasons/Eyes that say red spandex."

  • Chilli (Rob Campbell), Hester's first lover, who wants to recapture his dream of their love affair but reject"s what she has become mournfully declares "She was my first/ We was young./ Times change "&
  • Finally, there's Hester's own soul wrenching admission that her "treasures" were all mistakes and her angry turnaround "I never sholda haddem!/ No: I shoulda hada hundred/I sholda had a hundred-thousand/ a whole army full I shoulda!"

David Esbjornson has given this grim slice of life in the dead end lane of illiteracy and homelessness an appropriately dark staging. The dismal setting is captured with depressing accuracy by Narelle Sissoons set and Jane Cox's lighting. Charlayne Woodard embodies Hester's hunger and despair and the other five members of the cast tackle the difficult task of playing her children as well as the adult characters. This double casting works surprisingly well -- especially in the case of Bruce MacVittie who plays the aptly named middle son, Trouble, as well as the bureaucracy pressured doctor and Gael Grate who portrays the desperate-to-be-good eldest daughter and the insensitive social worker. Reggie Montgomery is cleverly cast as the baby and the Reverend who fathers him, though his baby stints add a somewhat jarring clownish element.

With the theater reconfigured so that the 99 seats straddle the stage, creating the sense of looking out of one's window and onto the street. Each section of seats is only five rows deep so you are as close to the actors as you often are to the homeless you pass in the streets of New York. But Hester and her children defy you to look past them and demand to be heard. It doesn't make for easy listening, and one can only hope that stories such as this will one day be as outdated as Hester Prynne's public branding with her letter A.

by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by David Esbjornson
Starring: Charlayne Woodard; with Rob Campbell, Gail Grate, Bruce MacVittie, Reggie Montgomery and Deirdre O'Connell.
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Lighting Design: Jane Cox
Costume Design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy Sound Design: Don DiNicola.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission
Public Theater/Shiva, 425 Lafayette St. (Astor Place/4th St), 239-6200
Performances from 11/02/99-12/05/99; opening 11/22/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/18/99 performance
The Broadway Theatre Archive


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