Abortion Rites

S. Epatha Merkerson as Hester in Fucking A: embracing the difficulty of the world
photo: Michal Daniel

The theater directory in The New York Times will tell you that the name of the newest Suzan-Lori Parks drama, Fucking A, "cannot be printed." But for Parks that name was a kind of beacon. "If it hadn't been for the title," she says, "I never would have finished the play. The title was like a vision."

It came to her in a joke. Parks was on a lake paddling a canoe with a friend when "I kind of yelled it out: 'I'm going to write a riff on The Scarlet Letter called Fucking A.' We laughed. But then we got back to shore, and I had this image, Fucking A, burned into my mind. I couldn't get rid of it."

The play that dare not speak its name opened last week at the Public Theater. It's her first since Topdog/Underdog, which not only migrated to Broadway last year but made Parks the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Topdog also floated into her head on the wings of a joke, as in " 'I'm going to write a play about two brothers. Lincoln and Booth. Ba-dum-bum.' I said it to a friend like 'haw haw' but then I was like, 'Oh, shit.' So I went home and wrote." Out came the story of a three-card monte player named Booth, and his brother, who plays Lincoln in whiteface at a sideshow where customers pretend to assassinate him. "So these jokes that I tell myself are little springs from the subconscious. Boing. Coming out like little geysers. And I've learned to listen to them."

Parks compares her process to "wandering with my arms outstretched in the desert." She began Fucking A with no story, no issues, and no characters to go with her flaming creature of a title. She had never even read Hawthorne's novel until after that day on the lake, but Hester Prynne, adulteress, haunts the American subconscious like the whiteness of the whale. Parks found Fucking A difficult to write, akin to "passing a stone." In 1998, she thought she'd done it with In the Blood, the tragic story of a homeless welfare mother named Hester La Negrita. She decided that the image of Fucking A had been a mirage. Then Hester the abortionist showed up, and Parks used her usual method. She followed the character.

Funny where something so intuitive can lead—right into a harsh, misogynistic dystopia, a near future reminiscent of a Road Warrior movie, where everything is eerily familiar yet quasi-medieval in its brutality. Hester Smith doesn't wear an "A" on her dress. It's been branded onto her skin and, by law, must be visible at all times. So she has a hole in her dress above her breast. This "A" feels like something we aren't supposed to see. Hester calls herself an "Aborter," sometimes even a "Babykiller." "She sees that it's good and bad, and bad and good," says Parks, "and in her moments of self-victimization, she uses that word. I think that's embracing the difficulty of the world." Certainly in this particular world abortionists are lumped in with prostitutes as purveyors of "disrespectable but most necessary services." This also appears to be a world without doctors or hospitals, the world as one big "back alley."

Hester's life centers on her hope to purchase freedom for her son, Boy Smith, who was incarcerated at the age of five for stealing food. But Hester has a tragic flaw. She wants revenge for the injustice done to Boy, and it blinds her. She can't even see who he's become after 20 years in prison, though she bit his arm hard enough to mark him for life, so she could recognize him later. Parks points out that the ancient Greek word for tragic flaw, hamartia, also translates as "missing the mark."

In these bloody, rights-slashing times, Fucking A looks like the world we could become, but Parks says, "I think we're there now. We're so driven by the desire to avenge the wrongs we've suffered that we're blinded."

Fucking A does seem weirdly applicable to life in Bushtopia, though it was completed by the end of 1999. Hester pays into a Freedom Fund, for example, to get Boy out of jail. But this is the same "freedom" found in our "freedom fries"—only there to illustrate that we aren't free (to have, say, an unpopular opinion).

Abortion, meanwhile, inches ever closer to the old back alley. A few days before Fucking A opened, the Senate voted to outlaw so-called partial-birth abortions. Then, two days after the play opened, James Kopp (a/k/a Atomic Dog) was found guilty of murdering Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo. Atomic Dog, as he was known among anti-abortion extremists, could easily be a Parks character. He claimed that he wanted only to wound the gynecologist; he used bullets with full-metal jackets, obliterating two inches of Slepian's spine.

But Fucking A is not really about abortion. It's about choice. Hester's choice. It's also about the consequences of sex for women. This gets us to the theme of hypocrisy, as united in Hester Smith's "stinking weeping" A.

The Scarlet Letter, of course, is America's ur-story of hypocrisy. (Hawthorne's Hester wears an adulterer's "A" while the father of her baby, Reverend Dimmesdale, acts the righteous prig and conceals his identity until just before his death.) Just so, those who hate abortion push for laws that actually make the procedure inevitable. Like no sex education, no condoms.

The word abortion is actually never used in the play (though aborter and abortionist are). All the women in Fucking A occasionally speak a language called Talk, translated for the audience on LED screens. Parks calls it "a language of privacy and privates." While men can learn Talk, most of them don't bother. Women use it to discuss their periods, sexual insults, and Die Abah-nazip—abortion.

Fucking A is about what violence does to people, the way it coarsens every relationship. In the one tender scene, a courtship scene between Hester and the Butcher, he demonstrates how to cut a throat painlessly.

Hester and Boy are played by S. Epatha Merkerson and Mos Def, who happen to be African Americans, but a workshop production in Houston had an all-white cast. Parks has always used historical references, though, and Fucking A resonates with the violence of America's racial history. When Boy escapes from prison, he's renamed Monster, like the young black men who become "wolf packs." There are many monsters in this play, but he's the only one so designated by name. Those chasing him move with the cruel moral certainty of the slave hunter or the lynch mob. They hope to inflict torture and discuss potential souvenirs: his feet, his balls, his head. At a climactic moment, he sings a song called "The Making of a Monster": "You'd think it'd be hard/To make something horrid/It's easy . . . "

Parks says she never thinks about what her plays mean until they're done. Talking to people about Monster's song during the opening-night party, she says, "I came to the realization: That is the play, the wellspring and the pool of this play."

Related Article:
Michael Feingold's review of Fucking A

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