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The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 


The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood

Cast of In the Blood.  (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 

Motherhood reigns in the "here and now" at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre Company, with Suzan Lori Parks' two explorations of Hester, the lead character in Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, The Scarlet Letter.  Written 20 years ago, F***ing A and In the Blood are now presented on neighboring stages as The Red Letter Plays.                                                 

Both plays, set in an indiscriminate time and place, step forward as glaringly contemporary, ringing as true as the huddled homeless on the corner.  The Hesters in both plays are unwed mothers, scrambling to survive in a world of intolerance, poverty, and class inequality. 

At the Griffin Theater, In the Blood features a remarkable portrayal by Saycon Sengbloh (Eclipsed) as Hester La Negrita, mother of five children, all with different fathers of difference races.  Unlike Hawthorne's Hester whose skin was branded with the letter "A," Hester La Negrita is branded by society as a "SLUT," who carries adultery "in the blood."  She can neither read nor write, has no job and her children run wild over the intriguing staging by Louisa Thompson, a garbage-strewn underpass in the shadow of a bridge. 

Suggestions containing broad hints of judgments come to Hester from all sides.  Her friend, Amiga Gringa (Ana Reeder) suggests selling some of her children just as Amiga does.  Frank Wood, a hard-working community doctor, urges her to have her tubes tied and Jocelyn Bioh, a meticulously dressed, supercilious Welfare Lady plays her cruel upper hand to diminish Hester.

Russell G. Jones as Reverend D sanctimoniously proposes finding the children's fathers and have them step in to help her.  (It is evident that the Reverend D may well be one of those fathers himself.)  A father who does appear is the excellent Michael Braun as Chilli, Hester's first love and father of her eldest child, Jabber, a sensitive but slow teen.  Chili offers hope to Hester and Jabber, but upon seeing her four other children, Chilli's commitment slams shut and she is left alone again.  In this moment of raging disappointment, Hestor shows she can turn with brutality on the children she calls “my treasures, my joys.” 

All these actors double effectively in roles as Hester's children, aged 2 to 14.

While Parks' points of view veer into occasionally lengthy discourses, director Sarah Benson understands the importance of the play and its place in the world.  She highlights the nuances of warmth and violence in Sengbloh's performance, blending vulnerability and determination. 

Hester's life is centered on Louisa Thompson's design of a sharp slope where the children scramble up and slide back down without quite reaching the top.  in a distressing moment, Hester doggedly tries to scale the slope but slides back before reaching the top where she might escape the desperation of poverty.  Yi Zhao's lighting design and sounds by Matt Tierney add drama to the portrait of poverty.  Montana Levi Blanco designs class distinction with her costumes for the rag-clad Hester, her children in street discards and the Welfare Lady wearing pink heels, protected from the garbage by plastic baggies.

The staging of In the Blood is alive with metaphoric images and Parks, with Benson's direction, illuminates the universal judgments waged by those who have against those who don't. 

The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood
Griffin Theater
The Pershing Square Signature Theater
480 - West 42 Street, NYC
Previews: Aug. 29, 2017.  Opening: Sept. 17, 2017. Closing: Oct. 15, 2017
Running time: 2 hours. No intermission.
Cast: Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder, Saycon Sengbloh and Frank Wood
Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Sarah Benson

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
September 2017

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