"Suffering is an enormous turn-on!" That line, which is said by a character in the middle of In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks, may explain everything. For those of us who find ourselves in the living nightmare of the Trump administration, as the government tries to make life more miserable for everyone but the 1 percent, that may be the answer: Suffering is an aphrodisiac for certain government leaders.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Now at Convergence-Continuum Theater, this play premiered about 20 years ago and is Parks' reimagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne as Hester La Negrita, an impoverished African-American mother of five kids from five different men. None of those dudes are there to help, but a couple of them do show up as the play progresses.
She and her brood live under a bridge (effectively rendered by scenic designer Scott Zolkowski in Con-Con's small space), where they simulate a normal family's daily dynamics — the children learn and the parent provides sustenance. Except in this case, the kids are barely able to learn anything since their mother is illiterate. In one of the many references to Hawthorne's classic, the only letter she can come close to writing is a scrawled "A."
As for food, Hester cooks up a bowl of fantasy soup and tells her children that it has everything in it including meat and pumpkin pie. It is clearly established that Hester is a deeply flawed but essentially good-hearted woman and a loving mother, but there are forces out to destroy her. Someone has written "slut" on the wall of their little den and her oldest child Jabber is the only member of the family who can read it and understand what it means.
Even though he erases the word, Hester's past can't be erased. She calls her kids her "five joys," and freely admits that they are bastards. But one can see that 13-year-old Jabber, eldest daughter Bully, youngest daughter Beauty, 10-year-old Trouble and toddler Baby are a burden as well as a pleasure. And when her prostitute friend Amiga Gringa encourages her to approach some of the baby daddies for financial help, it sends Hester off on a desperate and doomed journey.
Among the many bold strokes of imagination at work in Parks' play is the technique of having the adult actors who play the five children also play five different grown-ups in Hester's world. In addition to Amiga Gringa (played effectively by Grace Mitri, who is also Beauty), two of the adult characters are part of the community of professionals who are there, ostensibly, to assist people in Hester's tenuous position.
Fat chance. First a street Doctor (Patrick Gladish, who also plays Trouble) gives Hester a cursory medical exam, doing the world's worst pelvic inspection while she stands with her feet spread legs as he slides under her on a skateboard and peers up with a flashlight. And then later, he explains how he had sex with her because he was helpless to resist her charms.
Hester is also visited by a Welfare Lady who laments her client's situation while receiving a back rub and a hair styling from the passive and obedient single mom. Shannon Starkey makes a clear and convincing transition from 12-year-old Bully, who balls her hands up in fists when she sleeps, to this elegantly clueless welfare worker.
Playwright Parks is playing with these archetypes to make a non-too-subtle point about how this country treats women of color who have children and no fathers. These women, as condemned now as H. Prynne was by the Puritans, were suffering 20 years ago when this play was written. And things are getting even worse now.
Speaking of fathers, Hester encounters two of them. When she visits the street preacher Reverend D, she throws his good advice back in his face as she shows him a photo of his child, Baby. The remarkable performer Anthony X brings each of those characters to life, morphing from the impulsive and gurgling Baby to the smooth and shallow Rev.
But Hester's biggest dream is to reconnect with her first love, and Jabber's father, Chilli. And he does show up, sweeping her off her feet with a new white dress, an engagement ring, and a glorious dance that captures the blushing innocence of their first young love. But if you think that's the end of their story, you're entitled to one more think.
All of this is held together by an outstanding performance by Jeannine Gaskin as Hester. While she exudes maternal warmth and an appealing innocence, her rage is not far from the surface. And surface it does. Director Cory Molner brings interesting interpretations out of his actors, even when there are moments when a flat line readings or missed beats impair the flow.
In the Blood is a play that is as powerful and instructive now as it was when it opened. And that's a sad commentary on where we are now —living under that metaphorical bridge and hoping it doesn't collapse on us.