Imagine a dark, new world, sometime in the future, where all of our make-nice rules of behavior have gone to hell. This is a place where more people are in jail than on the streets, where idiot bounty hunters roam the woods like rejects from Deliverance, hunting down escapees only to gleefully eviscerate any poor bastard who's unlucky enough to get caught. In this world, scribes write letters for the illiterate; women have tumbled down the social hierarchy and must survive under the cruel thumbs of the men who rule; and the mayor and his progeny have been elected for a "hundred thousand years."
Such is the future according to Suzan-Lori Parks's Fucking A, making its world premiere at DiverseWorks (see "Kicking A," by Lee Williams, February 24). Developed with a Rockefeller grant for Infernal Bridegroom Productions, Parks's play takes up where Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter left off. Hester now lives in a brave new world that's as ghoulish as any puritan fire-and-brimstone preacher ever imagined.
Hester's "A" now stands for "abortionist," an occupation she has adopted so that she might buy her son's freedom from prison. After all, in this world, "freedom ain't free." Says so right there on the prison wall. The trouble with Hester's efforts is that her son (Troy Schulze) keeps committing more crimes in prison. His initial three-year term, which he earned as a child for stealing food from a rich family, has ballooned to 30 years. The boy has fallen so far from grace that people now call him Monster.
But not Hester (Tamarie Cooper). In fact, she has no idea that her son is not the "angel" she believes him to be. She spends her nights aborting other people's "babies" (she calls them babies) in the back room of her shack on the edge of town, but she dreams of the day she and her own son will be reunited at last.
Such are the ironies of fate that squeak and pitch through Parks's rough-hewn though strangely fascinating script. This horrifying funhouse of a play -- which plods along a little too slowly, in part because of Parks's enervated direction -- is filled with grotesque oddities, wicked little tunes and moments of gothic-size melodrama.
The Mayor, played with great Napoleonic vigor by Charlie Scott, is a soulless fool who rants at his wife for her inability to produce an heir. He even barks out a little song in which he pays tribute to his own sperm, singing, "I salute the men of my little army." The women speak about sex, pregnancy, abortion and their privates in "Talk," a secret language that the men don't understand. Yet despite all this bizarre behavior, Parks manages to interject a touch of sweetness into her future world, in the form of Andy Nelson's tenderhearted Butcher, who falls in love with Hester. They dreamily hold hands and stare into each other's eyes, all while wearing the bloody aprons of their respective trades.
But at the center of these tales of the weird is Cooper's raging Hester, whose story of infected "mother love" is both harrowing and horrifying. She declares that she cannot forgive the "rich bitch" who put her child in jail until he's free and walking the streets. When that day never comes, Hester burns with Old Testament wrath. It is in these scenes that Cooper's strengths are tapped, and the entire production comes to razor-sharp focus. Cooper spits out her rage with fiery intensity, and her eyes glower with a depth of feeling that is remarkable to behold.
Mostly, though, the play is stunning for its unrelenting cynicism. For this world is ugly, dark and filled with endless suffering, punctuated only by macabre jokes and lost opportunities for love. It is the hell on earth that every puritan preacher promised.
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