It is a wretched truth that no African-American woman won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama until Suzan-Lori Parks in 2002. And it’s also utterly deplorable that her brilliant 1999 tragedy In The Blood (shortlisted for the Pulitzer) is as painfully necessary and relevant today as it was when it was first performed.
But this is the world in which we live. And thankfully, The Kalamazoo Black Arts and Cultural Center’s Face Off Theatre has opened its third season with a powerful production of this vital piece of theater as part of the 2017 Black Arts Festival.
In the Blood is a brilliant and poetic adaption of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American 19th century novel The Scarlet Letter into a classically-structured tragic play set in a contemporary American inner city. There is nothing Hester La Negrita, a homeless, young, illiterate African-American mother won’t do for her five “bastard” children, to whom she refers as her “five treasures,” except give up the names of their fathers to the system. She does whatever she can “to get a leg up,” though the hand of fate, symbolized in the play by a solar eclipse, blocks out the light toward which she strives.
Her story is told in two acts and nine scenes with a chronological narrative of Hester’s life with her children, who range in age from infancy to 13, interrupted by monologue confessions from key players in her demise, from two of the children’s fathers to a welfare worker, to a friend, to a doctor, all of whom have used and abused her for sex.
The actors who play the children also portray these confessors — as well as the public who despise and metaphorically — if not literally — crucify her. The actors are planted in the audience and frame the play with their outbursts of condemnation: “The nerve!” “Bad news — burden to society.” “Bad news in her blood . . . plain as day.” “Something’s got to be done.” “I’ll be damned if she’s going to live off me!”
Indeed, damned are we all. Each of us is implicated, if only as bystanders, in the systematic abuses made plain as day. And planting actors in the audience is but one of many smart, bold choices Director Tanisha Pyron makes to draw the symbolism as well as humor from the script so that the audience feels the weight and truth of the circumstances we witness on stage viscerally.
The cast, nearly all of whom are Western Michigan University Theatre students or graduates, is universally excellent. Jordan Mosely is utterly convincing as Hester. She blames no one but herself for her predicament and yet when she says “I don’t think the world likes women much,” it rings terribly true. With deeply expressive eyes, she conveys the complexity of Hester’s beauty, desire, naivety, loving sweetness, frustration, and rage — as well as all she must bear in holding the projections of others who hate her for her hunger, her poverty, her beauty, and her dignity against all odds. She is tremendous in this rich and devastating role.
The remaining five actors are equally astounding, and each impressively plays dual roles: Justin Montgomery as the eldest “slow” favored child, Jabber, as well as Jabber’s father Chilli; Avery Kenyatta as the baby as well as the baby’s father, Reverend, beautifully capturing a glorious song-like impassioned preaching style of speech as well as the sinful and destructive hypocrite for whom “suffering is an enormous turn on”; Marisa Rodriguez as the innocent youngest girl, Beauty, and lying, cheating “friend” Amiga; Cameron Nickola as 10-year-old Trouble, whose name says it all, and the manipulative pill-popping physician who carries and uses a mechanic’s creeper on which to slide beneath Hester’s skirt to give her a gynecological examination, further objectifying her; and perhaps most notably, Marissa Harrington as a wildly physically and vocally dynamic Bully, the precocious and truculent oldest daughter, as well as a deeply reflective and insightful (though not necessarily sympathetic) welfare worker.
Along with these powerful performances, Cedric Russell’s fairly simple yet deeply symbolic set and Chris Riley’s dramatic lights, make this harsh critique of capitalism, misogyny, Christian hypocrisy, the welfare state, and systemic racism truly vibrant.
This wonderful, meaningful, artful theatre is a wake up call. Again, nearly 20 years after it was first produced. Kudos to Face Off Theatre for bringing to light such powerful work. We need it now more than ever.