This time around, Suzan-Lori Parks gets an A. Not for Adultery, like Hester Prynne’s, and not, I admit regretfully, for Achievement, sufficiently flawed here to rate a B or B plus. But Fucking A has Ambition of a high order, tackled by Parks with an exhilaration that can’t help but do the theater some good. Between economic scrimping and the low-horizoned pursuit of chic, our stage has been brought low. Now, thanks to political upheaval and a bitter dose of recession, it’s starting to raise itself and reclaim some of its lost ground. Parks isn’t the only harbinger: Imagine what you’d have said a decade ago if you’d been told that Shanley and Gurney would morph into commentators on the Mideast crisis. Art mustn’t ape reality, but has to marry it; it can’t live in isolation.
Parks’s new play is a second spin-off, considerably different from the first, of her fascination with The Scarlet Letter. Its predecessor, the underrated In the Blood, is my favorite work of hers to date; this one, more crudely shaped but more venturesome, runs it a close second. The two scripts have parallels rather than similarities. In the Blood‘s Hester is a contemporary homeless woman in an allegorical urban wasteland, surrounded by symbolic figures suggestive of a medieval morality play; keeping her brood together and cooperating with the rules of the system just sufficiently to get by are the parameters that sustain her. The Hester of Fucking A lives in a Third Worldish, vaguely tropical small country, where the local mayor is a kind of military dictator, important transactions are paid for in gold coins, and discussion of intimate female matters is conducted in a patois invented by the playwright, with explanatory supertitles.
This Hester is devoted to her son, Boy, whom she has not seen since he was sent to jail as a child; he was caught stealing food by the daughter of the rich family for whom Hester scrubbed floors. While Hester struggles to raise money to purchase Boy’s release, through a dubious government program called the Freedom Fund, his sentence inexorably lengthens because of crimes committed in prison, raising his price and keeping Hester in perpetual arrears. To make ends meet, she has become that outcast but legally sanctioned phenomenon, an abortionist; the “fucking A” branded on her flesh is the mark of her profession. Meantime, the “rich girl” who sent Hester’s son to prison has become the Mayor’s barren wife; his mistress, Hester’s best friend Canary Mary, keeps her supplied with details of the First Lady’s infertility. Canary dreams of marrying the Mayor; the neighborly Butcher wants to marry Hester, finding among other attractions a certain kinship in their professions.
Parks’s treatment of this material, free-swinging in diction and epic in breadth, is always direct as narrative. The Steinian, meditative accretions of repeated phrases central to her earliest works have taught her the weight and twistability of words, but there is no longer any self-consciousness in the flow of her dialogue, no static reiteration of visual icons as a substitute for action; the play is told as a play. And unlike Topdog/Underdog, it is its own play; there’s no awkward sense of Parks dropping one kind of play halfway through, to take up another. The apparent goal is to reach tragic heights, Greek or Shakespearean; the visible model is Brecht. Hester’s nonstop drive to earn money for her son evokes both Mother Courage and Grusha; the Butcher is a clear stand-in for Shen Te’s undesired suitor, Shu Fu. The clincher is the set of tiny songs, music and lyrics by Parks, scattered through the evening; Tim Weil’s arrangements sound like desperate efforts to add a second L to his last name.
All writers borrow. The important question is how well they use their borrowings. Parks does pretty handsomely; one doesn’t mind much of the Brecht resonance because the present-day images with which she collages it give the work a fresh sense, as if Brecht had somehow been reading tomorrow’s papers. The songs are a flaw because they add nothing to this process. Parks hasn’t either mastered Brecht’s way of using songs to enlarge the dramatic context or found an alternative use of her own for them; her dialogue is more musical. Michael Greif’s cast, only about half of which is adequate to the material, has been unhelpfully directed to punch everything one-dimensionally toward the audience, but Parks is on a roll here: Both the language and the action keep plunging ahead, revealing new facets as the story unfolds. At least three of the scenes, including the one of the wasted picnic, are likely to become acting-class standards.
Parks’s greatest hindrance is the flaw in her central tragedy. From the start, we know that Hester’s profession and her son’s future must collide in some nasty way at the climax; we also know that how this occurs will be the mark of the playwright’s moral stature and clarity of perception. I won’t spoil what is, on its lower level, an effective and gripping piece of melodrama; its insufficiency is palpable chiefly because the play aspires so grandly and promises so much. The events are made to happen unthinkingly, by coincidence, in a way that makes the hardheaded and practical Hester we’ve seen look careless and gullible. And this big lapse’s ramifications stretch backward to make other parts of the play seem questionable: Hester’s son is undone by the unwitting joint action of his mother and his love; women in this play are purposeful but entirely destructive, while men are chiefly useless, coarse buffoons. Then, too, apart from a few comments about its distasteful usefulness, Hester’s profession is never scrutinized. Military dictatorships don’t usually sanction abortion: Surplus babies mean cheap labor, a constant distraction for the poor, and a steady supply of cannon fodder when needed. A step further back, and we see that, though the atmosphere of Parks’s nowhere land is wonderfully created, its social and political setup—the first thing Brecht would have investigated—barely rates a mention. One great virtue of In the Blood was to show us exactly how that play’s Hester related to the powers in charge, to what degree she believed in them and why. Fucking A‘s life-battered Hester, in contrast, is unpersuasive as a creature of faith; the life Parks grants her doesn’t convince us she or her neighbors would take the government’s word for anything.
The weaknesses stand out sharply because Parks coins gold on the credit side of her ledger. In addition to her high aims and the frequent magic of her dialogue, her assets include four gleaming, 24-karat performances. Susan Blommaert’s cold incisiveness, as the bureaucrat handling Hester’s case, can lower the room temperature with a look. Mos Def embodies an escaped convict with an ease and a gestural daring to match Parks’s own. Daphne Rubin-Vega mixes giddy, burbling comedy with bitter earthiness to make Canary Mary a complete new person. Last and most gloriously, there’s S. Epatha Merkerson, whose softest murmur has more tragic intensity than some actors’ screams. Merkerson works from an inner center silent and white-hot, like a burning glass; you need only study the elegantly sculpted lines of her face to feel the heat.
Parks’s shortcomings are apparent because, aiming for tragedy, she had the wisdom to reveal her vulnerability. With David Ives, the reverse applies: Striving to write a full-evening comedy, he has fallen victim to the defensive impulse to make it funny. As a result, he’s filled Polish Joke with skits to the point where you hardly notice the play he’s trying to write. As staged by John Rando, with a quartet of able comedians gleefully headed by Nancy Opel and Walter Bobbie, the skits are often extremely funny indeed. The Irish skit, which runs on a little too long for me, is most people’s favorite; as a Smith & Dale fan, I prefer the doctor sketch. But what I’d really prefer most would be the play Ives apparently intended to write, on the American dilemma of ethnicity versus assimilation, which is centered on his fifth character, a Polish American who doesn’t want to be a Polish joke. Not only interesting in himself, this character is played by Malcolm Gets with touching sincerity and grace, as a human being living a nightmare rather than a straight man in sketch comedy. This is unfair; either Ives should build a play around the character or Rando should show the actor how to walk this way. (If he could walk that way, he wouldn’t need the talcum powder.)
Instead, Ives’s hero proceeds from sketch to sketch, the punchline of his joke life being that he marries the only utterly unhumorous person in the play and settles down with her in Poland. Which may be a handy way to wind things up, but says little about how Ives feels we should live in this nation of immigrants. Like Parks, Ives lets his inner preoccupations usurp, rather than interact with, external reality. But where Parks has at least pushed the outer doors open, Ives farcically slams them shut.