The last full Dallas production of a Suzan-Lori Parks play--not counting the workshop of her The America Play at Dallas Theater Center's first Big D Festival of the Unexpected in 1993--was Undermain Theatre's Southwest premiere of the playwright's first big splash, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.
Back in 1992, wading through all of the hullabaloo about that being the Undermain's first staging with an almost all-black cast and New York critics declaring that Parks had "preserved the role of black people in history by deconstructing their language," I wondered what the big deal was. Erring on the side of Anglo guilt, director Lisa Lee Schmidt and her cast sucked all the humor out of Parks' historical quartet involving slavery, urban poverty, and segregated armed forces in the United States. They turned what was intended to be devilish (Bruce DuBose played a white exterminator spying on a black family with a camera fixed inside a giant cockroach) into a diatribe about racism.
That is, to be sure, one preoccupation of Parks. How can she avoid it when her primary theme has always been the way history reflects and refracts the right-now us? But as her collages of ghetto slang were hissed out in spray-paint streams of angry establishment defacement, Parks was crammed into the very same description--"black female playwright"--that she claims is limiting. Her inspirations have been as much or more Greek tragedy than Ntozake Shange.
In the Blood
Undermain Theatre Basement Space, 3200 Main St. in Deep Ellum
Through February 25
Parks has, she once said, never understood writers who declare "My work can only be understood by my own kind." The Undermain seemed to be pandering a bit to "her kind" in its monochromatic staging, and now, Soul Rep is only marginally more successful with the Southwest premiere of In the Blood. Granted, Parks' 1999 play about a woman's attempts to navigate various authorities as she raises five children underneath a bridge is pitched at a low eddy of sorrow over social stigmatism. Her usual playfulness with street language and its rhythms appears only moderately here. You're hard-pressed to find much to smile about as Hester (played with palpable, long-faced grief by Rene Michael) scrambles to feed her rambunctious offspring of various paternity. (Keith Price, Dee Smith, Michael Turner, Marinca Calo-Oy, and Keenan Zeno portray both her brood and a series of adults Hester turns to, fruitlessly, for help.) Director Guinea Bennett-Price has solicited earnest but unconvincing performances from two or three actors in the cast who are too young for their roles and made little effort to locate the anarchic humor about dead-serious subjects that makes Parks so formidable.
In the Blood is the first of two nontraditional spins on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The other one is called Fucking A and deals with an abortionist in a nameless futuristic city where the poor and imprisoned speak an entirely different language called "Talk." Parks plucked the character of homeless welfare mother Hester La Negrita from that show and penned In the Blood around her. But given the playwright's obsession with sexual exploitation here and how Hester buckles under it from all directions, Fucking A is a far more appropriate title for Soul Rep's production. Men and women in various positions of power--specifically, doctor (Turner), preacher (Zeno), and welfare counselor (Smith)--feel lust, pity, and scorn for her in almost equal torrents of conflicted emotion and wind up using that power to extract physical pleasure from La Negrita. Actually, In the Blood resembles Parks' other scripts less than it does her original screenplay for Spike Lee's movie Girl 6, in which an aspiring actress turned phone-sex operator uses and is used by myriad individuals, from constant callers to employers. But that script was almost all about making you laugh and strove for an aura of sexiness that La Negrita's grim plight doesn't bother to stir.
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In fact, the sexual abuse of Hester by all the social, medical, and spiritual gatekeepers she encounters veers from absurdity to literary laziness and back again. Rather than having Smith play a bisexual white-suited "welfare lady" who lures Hester into a ménage à trois with her husband and then discards her, how about examining her motives as another cog in a self-perpetuating bureaucracy that has too often forced its recipients into dependency? Let's look at the condescending attitudes of a public health-care system that would rather tie a woman's tubes than teach her about contraceptives and skip watching Turner as the doctor grope Hester on the examining table. In the Blood wants to raise hard questions about how race and gender inform public policy toward the individual, but there are few coherent connections to be made in this show's miasma of misplaced carnal power plays.