The Puritans who settled New England still haunt America’s soul. In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a lineal descendant of Puritans (one of his ancestors had presided at the Salem witch trials), packed all the moral and social conflicts of Puritan life — with its unyielding emphasis on guilt, sin, and repentance — into the taut matrix of his great novel, The Scarlet Letter, through which they’ve resonated in our sensibility ever since. Like the hidden guilt that gnaws away at Hawthorne’s hero until it etches a scarlet A on his dying breast, the novel’s paradigm of universal guilt and hypocritical, selectively exercised shaming eats away at our brains as we watch it recurring in our public life, in multiple variants, over and over, generation after generation.
No wonder Suzan-Lori Parks, a writer with a keen eye for the zeitgeist and an even keener instinct for the eternal, became so fixated on Hawthorne’s tale that she felt compelled to spin not one but two full-length plays from it. Not that either of Parks’s late-twentieth-century Red Letter Plays (first produced in 2000 and 2003), both currently being revived at the Signature Theatre, could in any literal sense be called an adaptation of Hawthorne’s work. Rather, the two plays — Fucking A (directed by Jo Bonney) and In the Blood (directed by Sarah Benson) — are Parks’s free fantasias, in surreally dystopian contemporary settings, that pull Hawthorne’s themes and some of his plot motifs into two differently terrifying versions of today’s world.
Like Hawthorne’s novel, each of Parks’s plays centers on a woman named Hester, a known adulteress associated with that scarlet A. But Parks’s Hesters could hardly be more different from Hawthorne’s demurely dignified Hester Prynne than they are from each other. Fucking A’s Hester Smith, played with a bitter, contained ferocity by Christine Lahti, burning-eyed and dour-mouthed, has become an abortionist by trade, shunned and reviled but apparently accepted as a social necessity for an overpopulated near-future where the Mayor (Marc Kudisch) is a kind of military despot. This Hester’s one bastard child (Brandon Victor Dixon) has fallen down the street-to-prison pipeline in childhood and never emerged; abortion is Hester’s means of simultaneously getting her revenge on society and earning money to buy his temporary release.
Hester La Negrita (Saycon Sengbloh), the heroine of the less brutal but equally painful In the Blood, matches her counterpart only in sheer strength of will. Where life has hardened Fucking A’s Hester, its unkind blows have only made La Negrita sweeter and more tender. Men find her desperate neediness not only a sexual temptation but, at its core, an equally desperate generosity. (She made love, one of her victimizers says, “like she was giving me something that was not hers/to give me but something that was mine/that I’d lent her/and she was returning it to me.”) This Hester has five children, each by a different father; Sengbloh’s remarkable performance layers a thick coating of dewy-eyed softness over the core of frenzied determination that drives Hester to search out any means of scraping up money for her kids’ food and clothing, endlessly skipping meals herself and endlessly taken advantage of by everyone around her.
The varied paternity of Hester’s five children evokes Brecht’s Mother Courage, who had three such, and indeed Brecht is the other patriarch whose image, like Hawthorne’s, looms over these two plays. Like Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin, Hester La Negrita is clearly a Kindernarr, crazy for kids. Like Shen Te in The Good Person of Szechwan, Hester Smith has to field the attentions of a prosperous neighboring tradesman — in her case an amiable butcher rather than an arrogant barber — who has a penchant for her. Fucking A is interspersed with short, quasi-Brechtian songs, while In the Blood, in which the actors playing Hester’s five children double as the play’s five other adult characters, is starkly interrupted, at intervals, by a series of “confessions” in which each of the five adults admits the guilt and failure within his or her relations with Hester. A sixth confession — really more of a breakdown, tearing the play wide open after its climactic violence — belongs to Hester.
Violence, though austerely kept to a minimum of visibility in both productions, is pervasive in the texts. Parks has envisioned a fearsomely harsh world, and the two directors showed great sense in letting her words carry that part of the work. Bonney’s staging, eerily cold and crisp, adumbrates it with offstage cries and ominous door poundings or doorbell ringings; Benson grants it prefigurative splashes when Hester’s kids periodically explode in playful brawls (choreography, Annie-B Parsons; fight direction, J. David Brimmer) that suggest the innocently glinting tip of a lethal iceberg in search of a hapless human Titanic.
And, in both plays, violence strikes crushingly. Hester Smith is brought down by a vise of interlocking tragedies with her at its center. She goes on — again like Brecht’s Mother Courage — despite having lost everything that has motivated her to go on. Hester La Negrita, in contrast, is finally pushed by the unending pressure on her to an act of destruction, and in committing it, she destroys herself. Her last thoughts are, like the plays themselves, a diptych. She regrets having ever had any children and then immediately wishes she had had thousands more: “A hundred thousand a whole army full I shoulda!… Bad mannered Bad mouthed Bad Bad Bastards!/A whole army full I shoulda!” But this fierce cry, instantly self-contradicted like its predecessor, leaves the question open. There is no solution for Hester’s life-problem within her own self; the only solution is for society as a whole to change, and alleviate the problems of Hesters everywhere. Until then, the Hester who cries for an army of bad-mouthed bastards and the Hester who spends her life surgically preventing them from being born will continue to face each other in stonily obstinate contradiction.
Paradoxically, the bleak vision that emanates from Parks’s pair of plays feels energizing, even empowering. They send you away as tragedy is supposed to do, filled not with a sense of life’s hopelessness, but with an awareness of our ability to face that hopelessness and in some degree alleviate it. The overall image that The Red Letter Plays present, with actors of multiple ethnicities living through this pitch-dark tragic experience together, constitutes a vote of confidence, an expression of hope in the face of the plays’ tangible despair. The impressive results of this unity born of diversity show what we can achieve, as a society, when we put our minds to it. The next step is to channel that unity into solving the problems that continue to haunt our history and give these plays their tragic power.