Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote Topdog/Underdog, Venus and Fucking A, has never been known as a shrinking violet. She's one of the most "out there" voices in theater. Singularly provocative and always thoughtful, using rich, loaded language to sear her social conscience into ours, she tackles, and revels in, what once were called "problem" plays. Her frank work is potent and shocking, forcing us to see contemporary life from new, vibrant angles. Her plays are definitely hot, if not radioactive.
In the Blood (1999), a riff on Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, is, most superficially, about the homeless; specifically, about Hester (Florence Garvey in a devastating performance). On the surface, it's a chronicle of life on the streets and how society looks away, how even the services set up to alleviate the problem only continue and abet it. But underneath, tumultuous and raging, swirl currents of pain and hopelessness and love gone terribly wrong. Hester's cries for help turn into screams.
The Back Porch Players gives Parks's expressionistic tale a startling, sterling production. From Blake Minor's effective, simple set of concrete barricades and bridge piers, Patricia Covington's grimy costumes, Riana Canetti-Rios's detailed lighting, Travis Ammons's eerie sound and original music, all under the powerful sweep of David Rainey's direction, the exemplary cast ignites this play into life. Anchored by Garvey's piercing and woeful Hester, and forcefully augmented by the ensemble cast, this is frighteningly superb theater.
In the Blood
Through September 25. The Back Porch Players, Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston St., 800-494-8497. $15-$20.
An illiterate woman buffeted by forces that care little for her welfare, health or sanity, Hester spins out of control. Her children, her "five treasures and five joys," can't help; they're as lost as she is, even though the rare glimmers of happy family life bring surreal touches of normalcy into their world. Hester "irons" and "cleans" her kids' clothes by meticulously laying them out on a convenient slab of concrete, smoothing them over and over by hand before refolding them in neat little piles. Their shoes are literally spit-shined. Love has a funny way of careening through your fingers. Nothing lasts, except pain.
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Hester's used by everyone. Her best friend on the street, prostitute Amiga (Kris Carr), though opportunistic and always scheming, is no better off. She envisions their ticket to easy street will be a sex tape between Hester and her. Wily soapbox pastor Reverend D (Richard Romeo), the baby daddy of Hester's last child, will have nothing to do with her except for quicky encounters. "Sufferin' is a tremendous turn-on," he shudders, and forces Hester down on him.
The neighborhood itinerant doctor (Brandon Balque), striving to do good but burned out and wasted, prescribes pills to ease the pain he can't cure, while Welfare Lady (Rene van Nifterik), who once arranged a "spicy" threesome for Hester, her husband and herself, continues to abuse her in the name of the common good.
Then, miraculously, Hester's first love, Chilli (Zachary Lewis), father of Jabber, appears out of nowhere looking for her. He promises marriage and a good life, draping her in a wedding dress. "It's so clean," Hester purrs. It's too good to be true. He's Hester's phantom, who brings overwhelming despair and tragedy. Hester, who has always acknowledged her own responsibility for her present state, is failed by everyone — government, religion, caregivers, friends and lovers. Now, all she has left are her pitiful ghosts, and they fail her. When she's teased by innocent son Jabber, who's unaware of the psychic damage he's inflicting, the insult is the end of her. She cracks into madness...and worse.
Yes, this is hard-to-take theater. It's gritty, disturbing and fairly awful to look upon, let alone think about later. But you will. Mixing scenes of lacerating brutality with raw, sharp-edged poetry, Parks slaps you, then kisses you wildly, while Garvey's performance smashes the hurt right in your face. You stand stunned, not knowing how to respond. This is not life, this is potent, once-in-a-blue-moon theater.