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Review: In The Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks

Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill’s artistic director is a risk taker, so we know we’re in for an anti-Christmas play. Yet In The Blood starts out as Dickensian in style as A Christmas Carol. 

Hester La Negrita (Angela Littleton) is a black woman living in poverty, with five children by five different fathers. Their digs under an urban bridge are sparse and cold but clean. Hester can barely feed her children and so goes hungry herself. Their fathers aren’t around and don’t contribute to the household, even when Hester begs them for money. She recycles aluminum cans and looks for work. When pressed, she exchanges sex for money.

How’s that for a full-on stereotype? Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks dives right in to immerse us in the reality behind the myth that poor, black mothers on Welfare are just lazy sluts. Drags it right outta the pool and into our laps. 

We see that Hester’s love for her children is true, that’s the basic fact. We see she has been abused and exploited, not just by the fathers of her children, but by the social institutions that ostensibly are placed there to help her. The Welfare Lady (Charlene Fox) and her husband buy Hester as a sex toy; then she offers Hester a ridiculous “job” at piecework with low pay and an impossible deadline. The Doctor (Alex Prince) uses her, too, and is the father of one of her children. Reverend D (Darryl Deloach), another of the fathers, is intent on building his new church with the donation money he has received. He leads Hester on with promises that he will take up a collection for her. Each of these—Church, State, Medicine—abuse her rather than help her.

Even more insidious traps lie in wait, disguised as friendship and fairy tales. Amiga Gringa (Michelle Varela) is a prostitute who is supposed to be Hester’s good friend. We find through a monologue that she, too, wants to use Hester—in a porn video that Amiga believes will make her a lot of cash. 

Throughout the play, we are aware that Chilli (Savon J. Salters), the father of Hester’s firstborn, was the love of her life. When he returns to offer her a wedding dress and a ring, she lets herself believe that her dreams will come true. When they do not, she descends into madness. The power of Littleton’s subtle, affecting performance reminded me of the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor. But Lucia was white and rich, and Hester is neither. There will be those in the audience who, because of those differences, still cannot see the similarities. This story is a great tragedy enacted every day in the United States.

It is maddening that the people most in a position to help Hester withhold their help while digging her grave deeper. Each exploitative character—Reverend D,  Chilli, the Welfare Lady, the Doctor, and Amiga Gringa—steps to the front of the stage and delivers an explanation of his/her hypocrisy. That you’ve heard it all before will only make you madder.

This capable cast plays not only the adult characters but also Hester’s children. For instance, Salters plays both Chilli and Jabber, his son. The dual roles emphasize for me the innocence of the children in light of the corrupt society that allows their despicable fathers freedom while shackling Hester to her fate. It also makes Hester’s motherly devotion to her children shine within the poor conditions in which they live.  

Set Designer Jonathan Whitney evokes a rundown cityscape outside and a small apartment inside, all on a minimal set with dramatically painted walls. Lighting design by Cody Kelien works well to isolate each scene and let us know where we are—in or out, church or street, apartment or Welfare office. It’s a tight collaboration that contributes very well to the entire theatrical experience.

Co-directors Alexandra Buresch and Linda Piper allow each vignette to exemplify the reality of Hester’s life, without frequent reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter from which its inspiration is derived. Instead, they connect with Hester’s pain and passion to live a better life. Despite her intense suffering, she is innocent, loving, and pure of heart. You’ll want to protect, defend, and rescue this woman from her lot.

Maybe In The Blood is a Christmas play after all.

—Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes