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Fucking A

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 11, 2017

Christine Lahti
Photo by Joan Marcus

Suzan-Lori Parks' dystopian play Fucking A, a work from 2000 opening tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center, takes its inspiration from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter but draws from many different sources to tell its tale of a woman trapped in a tightly repressive society in a mythic place and time. In style, it is rather like Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, but it also weaves a tale of revenge worthy of a Jacobean drama or even Sweeney Todd.

The "A" of the title stands not for "Adulterer" but for "Abortionist." The letter has been branded into the flesh just above her breast of its wearer, here named Hester like Hawthorne's protagonist. By law the "A" must be visible at all times, a mark of shame but perhaps also useful as an advertisement for the services that provide her only means of getting by.

When we first encounter Hester (Christine Lahti), she is wearing a blood-covered apron. It has been a busy day, but even now, at midnight, she knows she will be seeing more customers as the night wears on. "Their troubles, yr livelihood," she says to herself as she cleans up, weary but accepting of her lot in life. Hester has but one goal for herself, to collect enough money to buy freedom for her son Boy (Brandon Victor Dixon), who has been locked away in prison for decades after being caught stealing a bit of meat as a child.

Week after weary week, she reports to the Freedom Fund office to add her payment. But no matter how much she puts in, the more it seems she has to come up with. Still it is the only hope she can cling to, until even that is taken away when she is told that Boy, now redubbed "Monster," died in prison some time ago. With nothing to live for, Hester determines to take her revenge on the person who turned in her son in the first place, the Mayor's wealthy wife, First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley).

The plot turns on the fact that First Lady is finally expecting a child after years of trying. It is the only way she can get her self-important, dynasty-aspiring husband (Marc Kudisch) to stay with her. That the child she is carrying isn't his is not terribly important in her worldview, not in comparison to maintaining her place at the top.

As it turns out, Boy/Monster did not die in prison, but escaped. There is, however, a band of vicious Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, and Ruibo Qian) at his heels. They intend to torture and eviscerate him once they catch him. And in this society, there is no doubt they will catch him. Ultimately, the various plot threads come together. Hester gets her revenge, but she must pay a heavy price in doing so.

The play unfolds with the inevitably of a Greek myth, with a low-key style of performance that would seem to be intentional on the part of director Jo Bonney. It is the kind of distancing effect that Brecht was partial to, forcing us to think about the big issues without allowing us to get pulled into the particulars of character or plot. Whatever emotional connection we feel is the result of what we bring to the table ourselves. As a consequence, and after so much set-up, the act of revenge is rather anti-climactic. There is no catharsis for Hester or for us. Even as she triumphs, nothing has really changed. Instead, we leave her getting ready to answer the bell for her next customer.

The tone of weary resignation is mitigated somewhat by the inclusion of two other characters: Hester's friend, the mayor's mistress Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango); and Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), who woos Hester in a surprisingly sweet scene in which they are wearing matching blood-stained aprons. The playwright herself has also written several Brecht-like songs that the cast members perform over the course of the evening by way of running commentary. A final creative touch comes with the occasional use of a separate language, an argot that is the exclusive domain of the women, which they use for discussing things of a sexual nature (we are helpfully provided with simultaneous projected translations).

Fucking A is one of two plays Parks wrote around the same time, the other being In the Blood. Both are riffs on Hawthorne's novel, and both are being presented under the umbrella title, The Red Letter Plays. In the Blood opens in a few days, and the pair will then run simultaneously in separate theaters at the Signature Center.

Fucking A
Through October 1
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: