17 October 2017

The Red Letter Plays: 'Fucking A'



The second play in the Signature Theatre Company’s Red Letter Plays tandem productions was Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A, which began previews under the direction of Jo Bonney (see my reports on By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, 27 May 2011, and The Mound Builders, 27 March 2013) in the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the company’s variable-space house, on 22 August 2017 and opened on 11 September.  Extended a week from its original closing date of 1 October, it had its last performance on 8 October; my friend Kirk (who went to In the Blood with me, too) and I saw it at the 7:30 performance on Wednesday evening, 4 October (after having been canceled out for 13 September due to an undefined “actor emergency”).  The Red Letter Plays were Parks’s final productions in her 2016-17 Residency One at STC; she will be followed in that slot for the 2017-18 season by Stephen Adly Guirgis.  (Guirgis will be presenting three plays at STC, starting with Jesus Hopped the 'A’ Train, which I’ll be seeing on 27 October; a report on that production will follow soon after.)

Fucking A premièred at the DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston, Texas, for Infernal Bridgegroom Productions on 24 February 2000; directed by Parks.  It was presented Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, opening on 25 February 2003; directed by Michael Greif.  The Signature’s staging is the first New York revival since the Public’s production.  (It’s also the first time the two Red Letter Plays, which were written separately, have been staged in tandem.  For a brief description of Parks’s account of how she came to write the two plays, see my report on In the Blood, posted on 12 October.  There’s also a profile of the playwright in my report on The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World on 1 December 2016.) 

Like Parks’s In the Blood, which was composed and staged first, Fucking A is a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.  (As I said in my ITB report, it isn’t necessary to have read The Scarlet Letter to follow Fucking A.  You can look the novel up for yourself,  so for now, I’ll just say that it’s set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s where Hester Prynne, married to a man believed lost at sea, gives birth to a daughter whose father she refuses to name.  Cast out of the community, she’s forced to wear a red letter A for “Adulteress” embroidered on the bodice of her dress.)   Neither play is an adaptation of or sequel to Hawthorne’s novel; like its sister play, Fucking A, a tragedy with songs for which Parks wrote the music and lyrics (played in lofts  overlooking either side of the stage by cast members doubling as musicians directed by Todd Almond), uses elements of the novel to explore and examine modern-day issues Parks considers important to contemporary society: poverty, class structure, marginalization, systemic prejudice against women, motherhood, fatherhood, among others.

Set in an unspecified time and place, “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere,” Fucking A takes place in a dystopian world where towns are fiefdoms ruled by autocratic mayors.  Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) is an outcast living on the margins of her town’s society.  She bears the letter A branded into the skin above her left breast.  Unlike Hawthorne’s Hester, though, Parks’s isn’t being punished for adultery; her A is for “Abortionist.”  The brand bleeds afresh every time a customer comes, but her status is ambiguous: reviled in public for her trade, in private she’s sought out and employed by the same people who shun her.  The brand, which must by law always be visible, serves as both an indictment and an advertisement, bringing customers to her. 

As Fucking A opens, Hester is talking to her friend Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango) about the son Hester hasn’t seen for 20 years.  Boy Smith was sent to prison as a child for stealing a piece of meat from the wealthy family where Hester scrubbed floors, and Hester was forced to become an abortionist or join him behind bars.  The “little Rich Girl” who fingered Boy is now the wife of the despotic Mayor (Marc Kudisch), who runs the town like a tin-pot dictator. 

Hester tells Canary (who, incidentally, wears a bright yellow dress—which Ben Brantley of the New York Times called “curve-hugging,” and, man, is it ever!) that she writes to her son in prison and had been saving her fees to buy Boy’s freedom, but in the meantime, she’s paying installments into the Freedom Fund toward a “reunion picnic” with him.  (Some of Hester and Canary’s conversation, as well as other dialogue throughout the play, is in a language called TALK which only the women of the town speak—used principally when they talk about sex or women’s private parts.  The English translation of these passages is projected on the back wall of the set.  The projections are designed by Rocco Disant.)  The two women’s banter includes their calling each other “Whore” and “Babykiller.”  Hester and Canary sing the “Working Womans Song.”

Canary in turn reveals that she’s become the Mayor’s mistress and that the First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley) can’t give her husband “an heir or heiress.”  The Mayor’s planning to “bump  off” his wife and Canary thinks he’ll marry her.  Hester, who (like Hester, La Negrita in In the Blood) is illiterate, asks Canary to read her last letter from Boy and Canary gives her a gold coin she’s gotten from the Mayor.

Hester goes to the Freedom Fund to make another payment towards her reunion with her son.  The Freedom Fund Lady (Marlene Ginader), a figure certainly inspired by Kafka who keeps the payment records, tells Hester that Boy’s “picnic price” has doubled because he’s “committed a few crimes” since her last payment.  Later, Canary walks through a park “in the middle of nowhere,” where she meets an escaped convict from “up north,” Monster (Donovan Mitchell).  She notices a scar on his arm he says is “from a long time ago.”  After a few moments, she goes on her way.

In a tavern, three Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Peter Roman, Ginader), fresh off a successful capture of an escaped prisoner (from whose mutilated body they’ve kept souvenirs: his feet, a finger), lament that they won’t have a shot at catching the “famous convict” Monster for the bounty since he escaped “up north.”  They sing “The Hunters Creed.”  Hester comes in looking for Scribe (Kudisch) so he can write a new letter to her son.  She meets Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), who protects her from the abusive Hunters.  Following a confrontation with her husband and then encountering Hester on the street, a distraught First Lady meets Monster in the park.  They exchange some kind words and he remarks on the same scar Canary had noticed.  At the end of their conversation, the First Lady asks if she can kiss Monster.  He agrees, and they kiss.

Late at night in Hester’s house, she finds Butcher sitting in her front room; they’re both wearing bloody aprons from their respective jobs.  They talk about their children and we learn that Butcher, too, has a child, a daughter, in prison.  Hester learns that Butcher has been leaving fresh meat at her door and he confesses that he’s attracted to her.  He teaches her how to slaughter a pig by slitting its throat so that “it never hurts.”  The next morning, Hester comes in from her back room to find that Monster’s broken into her home and he threatens her and robs her of all her money except a gold coin she has hidden in her boot.  While he’s holding her, Monster sees the scar on her arm that matches his, but he doesn’t react.

Hester’s finally paid the Freedom Fund enough for her to have her reunion picnic with her son.  As she waits in the prison yard, she lays out the picnic spread and the guard brings out a prisoner called Jailbait (Roman), who Hester assumes is Boy.  She embraces him and tries to get him to show her his arm; earlier, Hester had told Bucher that when Boy was arrested, she bit him to leave a mark on her son and then bit herself to make an identical mark.  Jailbait’s more interested in the food, however, than he is in her, and Hester realizes he’s not her son.  Jailbait claims he killed her son in prison;  Hester stares at him in shock.  Jailbait finishes eating and assaults Hester sexually and rapes her; too stunned to resist, Hester lets him do what he wants.  She sings “My Vengeance.”

The First Lady has become pregnant by Monster and at first decides to abort the child, but changes her mind at the last minute and chooses to pass it off as the Mayor’s.  Hester’s at Butcher’s shop when the Mayor comes in for an order and announces that he and the First Lady are expecting a child.  Hester hatches a plan for revenge against the First Lady for putting Boy in prison so long ago and enlists Butcher and Canary to help her kidnap the First Lady and abort the baby so that the First Lady can echo the pain that she caused Hester all those years ago.  The next night, Canary and Butcher bring a drugged First Lady to Hester’s house, where Hester aborts the baby, not knowing that it’s her own grandchild. 

After Butcher and Canary leave, Monster runs into the house, trying to escape the Hunters.  Hester has begun to piece together the evidence and realizes that Monster is actually her son, but has trouble accepting that he’s no longer the “angel” she believed he was.  He sings “The Making of a Monster.”  The barking of the Hunters’ dogs gets louder and Monster tells Hester that when they catch him, they’ll torture him to a gruesome death.  He begs Hester to kill him; though at first she resists, she finally slits his throat like Butcher showed her.  The Hunters enter and although they are disappointed to find that Monster’s already dead, they drag his body away because there’s “plenty of fun still to be had.”  Hester sits alone in her house for a moment, reprising “Working Womans Song.”  Soon Hester’s back doorbell begins to ring insistently, but she ignores it and gets her abortion tools and goes into the other room to continue her work.  Even after all she’s suffered, life simply goes on for Hester as it has for 20 years.

(A few words about casting in Fucking A and the STC staging:  In In the Blood, Parks specifies the race of three of the characters, including Hester, La Negrita, leaving the rest open to the directors’ choices.  In Fucking A, the dramatist puts no restrictions on the racial make-up of the ensemble.  At Signature, for instance, Hester Smith is white, Canary is African American, and the First Lady is white; at the Public Theater in 2003, Hester was African American [S. Epatha Merkerson], Canary was Latina [Daphne Rubin Vega], and the First Lady was African American [Michole Briana White].  In Signature’s revival, Christine Lahti’s “son” is African American while the prisoner she thinks is her son, Jailbait, is Caucasian; in 2003, both men were black [Mos Def and Chandler Parker, respectively].  There’s nothing in the text to contradict any combination of actors’ backgrounds.

(In addition, when the production at STC was extended past 1 October, three members of the original cast left the show and their roles were recast.  Ruibo Qian, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Ben Horner were replaced by, respectively, Marlene Ginader, Donovan Mitchell, and Peter Roman.  Early press coverage of the production, including most reviews, will feature the first trio of actors.)

Signature’s Fucking A, which is composed in 19 scenes in two “parts” with an intermission after scene 12 and runs two hours and 15 minutes, is performed on a unit set (designed by Rachel Hauck and lit moodily by Jeff Croiter) that serves as all the play’s locales.  It’s a generally realistic two-story architectural wall with doors, staircases, and landings, but generalized so that it doesn’t represent any place in particular.  It could also be from nearly any period from the Renaissance (say, Hester Prynne’s 17th century) to today.  This confirms that Parks means us to be displaced in time and space—neither the program nor the published text makes any mention of the setting, not even in the vague terms of “Here” and “Now” as in In the Blood.  (There are several mentions of characters going to Europe, so the locale is probably not on that continent—but anywhere else is possible.)  Only Emilio Sosa’s costumes give us an occasional hint about the time; most could be of any period as well, but the First Lady’s scarlet dress and Canary’s yellow one are definitely contemporary.  Those costumes are also the only splashes of color in the otherwise bleak landscape of Hester’s homeland.  The set is painted a dull, institutional green—“puke green,” we  used to call it: the color of school hallways and hospital corridors in the ’50s.

Drawn from the same source  of inspiration, In the Blood and Fucking A couldn’t be more different.  Still, there are similarities, marks of Parks’s art and dramaturgy.  Like ITB, Fucking A is a contemporary tragedy, ending with a horrific act which Parks has rendered completely understandable, if no less shocking, by her storytelling.  I’ve noted above some of the topics Parks explores in the Red Letter Plays, but in the end, Fucking A is about the gap between the classes more than the races, which has been more familiar territory for Parks in the past.  In the Blood can be seen as the struggle of a poor black woman to survive and take care of her family in the face of systemic discrimination, but Fucking A depicts a struggle in a world controlled by those with power and wealth for those who have none to subsist.

Furthermore, both plays’ plots are astonishing in their unpredictability—one of Parks’s most noteworthy gifts is her boundless, and perhaps restless, imagination—while the plays remain absolutely logical.  As one writer has it, “We cannot predict the stories she’ll tell us or even how she’ll tell them”—but once the playwright spins her tale, I nod and think, ‘Well, it couldn’t happen any other way.’ 

Parks has also employed some distancing techniques as in In the Blood.  The race- and gender-blind casting (one of the Hunters is a woman and one of Hester’s waiting clients is played by a man) could be seen as a Brechtian application, though it’s no longer so striking as it once was on New York stages, but the Kurt Weill-like songs dropped into scenes that are largely naturalistic in style are definitely dissociative.  When the characters stop to sing, all other action ceases.  The ambiguity of the time and place, the character labels instead of names—Butcher, Freedom Fund Lady, Scribe—and the secret language of the women and the projection of the translations are other Brechtian touches.  Despite their theoretical origins, though, Parks makes her dramaturgical techniques entirely her own.

All that said, I found Fucking A less appealing as a theatrical experience than In the Blood. (I don’t want to say “enjoyable,” because neither play is intended to be an evening’s entertainment—despite considerable humor.)  It’s not that Fucking A wasn’t engrossing or intellectually stimulating—it was—but I found it much more set-up—constructed—than In the Blood, at least in the way the two plays were presented at Signature.  I didn’t see either play in its first New York production, so this response may be due to the two STC directors’ concepts—though I don’t think that’s so.  Both plays have been described as fables, but it may be that Fucking A is just enough more fable-like than ITB and therefore too much removed from my experience—too distanced, perhaps.  (I’ve read the dystopian novels of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka and been engrossed by them, but the films adapted from them have never been as engaging.  I confess, I didn’t see the recent stage version of 1984 that ran on Broadway this summer and fall, so I don’t know how well it was translated into performance.  I have seen Sidney Kingsley’s stage adaption of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and I recall that worked for me, but that was in the early 1960s and I was a teenager, which may account for its affect on me at the time.)  Whatever the reason, I found Fucking A considerably chillier than In the Blood.

One explanation for that may be my response to Christine Lahti as an actress.  I’ve always found her cold and hard (if you want to check me out, look back at my blog report on Adam Rapp’s Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, posted on 6 November 2011).  As Hester Smith, she was the warmest, most sympathetic, and most relatable I’ve ever seen her on stage or on screen.  (This is also the first time I’ve seen her play a character outside the upper-middle social class.  Maybe that’s part of the explanation: get her out of her acting comfort zone, and she gets real.)  Lahti, however, is still her own Verfremdung Effekt.  I can imagine her being excellent in several true Brecht roles, such as Mother Courage or Jenny in The Threepenny Opera.  (Several reviews of the 2003 Public Theater production remarked on the warm and human qualities of S. Epatha Merkerson’s Hester; from her other work, I imagine she’d have been more empathetic—but that’s admittedly only in my mind’s eye.)

The other members of the ensemble were excellent, with stand-out turns by Joaquina Kalukango as Canary Mary and Raphael Nash Thompson as Butcher.  Kalukango played Canary as confident and unabashed—even when she acknowledges, “I am a whore”—and at the same time, sensible and charming, even breezy.  Her rendition of “Gilded Cage,” a ballad lamenting the loss of freedom, was wise and clear-eyed.  Thompson was easily the most ingratiating personality on the Linney stage, making Butcher not just a nice man (somewhat bizarrely when he teaches Hester how to slit a throat painlessly, though Thompson handles this almost sweetly), but a devoted protector and guardian.  He, too, revealed much in his solo, the tongue-twisting “A Meat Man Is a Good Man to Marry,” a proposal of marriage from a committed carnivore—but Thompson actually makes it sound endearing.  In her one scene as Freedom Fund Lady, Marlene Ginader (who also played one of the Hunters and one of Hester’s clients)  cut a disconcerting figure in Fucking A, a chatty, friendly personality that disguises a Kafkaesque soul.  Freedom Fund Lady has the mind of Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbinder (from Catch 22) with the instincts of Dracula, and Ginader played her so coolly it sent a chill up my spine.

Based on 30 published reviews, Show-Score computed an average rating of 72 for Fucking A.  The highest-scoring review was a 92 for Reviews Off Broadway backed up by three 90’s (including New York magazine and Stage Buddy) and the lowest scores were two 40’s earned by Edge New York and Broadway Blog followed by three 45’s (The Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap, Lighting & Sound America); the breakdown was 66% positive notices, 17% mixed, and 17% negative.  My survey includes 18 reviews from the print and cyber media; some of the notices are the same ones I covered In the Blood because the reviewers wrote omnibus reviews of The Red Letter Plays.

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness asserted that Fucking A “tries to turn the story of a beleaguered small-town abortionist . . . into a universal parable of sexism and racism.”  He added that “Parks artfully exposes the hypocrisy of those who denounce Hester as a ‘baby killer’ one minute, then anxiously knock on her door the next.”  The second Red Letter Play, however, “becomes overstuffed as prostitution, lynching, mass incarceration and Homer’s Odyssey are all thrown into the mix,” complained the FT reviewer.  “Moreover,” he continued, “under Jo Bonney’s direction, the stylised dialogue, broadly sketched characters, and off-key musical interludes feel like Bertolt Brecht-by-numbers.”  While he praised Christine Lahti for Hester’s “sour wit and brittle dignity,” McGuinness posited that “Fucking A has a lot of points to make, but they’re a little too blunt.”

Matt Windman of am New York described Fucking A as “an explosive combination of gory 17th-century revenge tragedy, ‘Sweeney Todd,’ cabaret performance, confrontational direct address and class warfare.”  (Kirk and I both also glommed onto Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as soon as the performance was over.)  Jo Bonney’s direction “gives the production an electrifying edge,” added Windman, “with the broad performances of the supporting players (including Marc Kudisch as the local mayor) played against the protagonists’ grim circumstances.”  Overall, the amNY reviewer affirmed, each of the Red Letter Play productions “is an outstanding staging of a bold, difficult and provocative work.  When viewed together, ‘The Red Letter Plays’ proves to be one of the most interesting and rewarding theater events of the fall.”  Barbara Schuler’s “Bottom Line” on Long Island’s Newsday read: “Suzan-Lori Parks delivers powerful riffs on ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”  In this second of two “powerful pieces,” Lahti played Hester “with a potent mix of strength and vulnerability.” 

In the Times, calling the Signature production of Fucking A “compelling revival” and a “vibrantly reincarnated work,” Brantley affirmed that the “forthright, comfortably uncomfortable” opening scene demonstrated that “those involved . . . know what they’re doing.”  The Timesman asserted that Fucking A “is a dark, didactic entertainment deliberately in the mode of Bertolt Brecht,” whom he affirmed is “difficult for American theater artists to get right.”  (Brantley quipped that this was “probably the best American production I’ve seen of a Brecht play that wasn’t written by Brecht.”)  He continued, “It would be all too easy for any interpreters of [Fucking A] to be overwhelmed by the play’s disparate influences and intellectual self-consciousness,” but the STC revival, which the review-writer described as “as harrowing as it is witty,” “is light on its feet—quick, sharp and perfectly paradoxical.”  The production “has the look of a noir fairy tale. It is steeped, visually and verbally, in Brothers Grimmsian images of slaughter and torture” and the “cast brings humanizing shades of pain, greed and longing to symbolic figures, without ever tearing the play’s somber folk-tale fabric.”  Brantley singled out Lahti for her “fierce portrait of ravaging maternal obsession” as Hester.  The Times reviewer summed up his assessment with:

Ms. Parks is best known for her dense, expressionistic studies of black lives trapped in the nightmare of American history.  [Fucking A], with its color- and gender-blind casting, is untethered by topical sociology.  But those looking for parallels to an angry contemporary world divided between rich and poor won’t have to strain.

The New Yorker’s Hilton Als characterized the play as a “story of romance-as-blight” in which there are “[s]o many frustrated dreams” even though “love or the dream of love won’t let anyone go.”  He praised Lahti for the way she “was able to use her body to show how Hester Smith’s slow manner was born out of necessity: her gruesome instruments are heavy in more ways than one, as is her letter ‘A.’”  The New Yorker reviewer’s further remarks concerned both plays and I summarized them in my report on In the Blood (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2017/10/the-red-letter-plays-in-blood.html). 

Sara Holdren, noting that Fucking A “is closer kin to Brecht than to Hawthorne,” wrote for Vulture/New York magazine that the play is “a fiery, raw-throated shout in the face of hypocrisy, privilege, and injustice.”  It’s “an explicit . . . examination of the class struggle and its brutalities,” Holdren declared, “eschewing the colloquial and familiar for a mode of theatricality that calls attention to its own artifice.  It’s a heightened, dangerous world—and a gut-wrenching one.”  The dramatist “revels in stark, often crass language that cuts across the fourth wall,” she asserted.  “Her characters speak directly to us and, when impassioned, break into ragged bursts of song providing commentary on their actions and social positions.”  Holdren observed:

It takes the ear a moment to adjust at the play’s beginning, but Bonney and her actors handle the blunt, clipped rhythms of the text with confidence.  They don’t overplay the style, nor do they try to force it into naturalism.  They trust that we as an audience will listen and will learn the language.  And we do.

Holdren lauded Lahti for portraying Hester “with fearsome monomania and frighteningly dead eyes” and complimented Kalukango for a Canary who “is rich-voiced and winning, a striking contrast to the flinty, brooding Hester.”  In conclusion, she proclaimed:

Fucking A is a rare play in our contemporary landscape.  It reaches across genres and performance styles—musical, Jacobean revenge play, Brechtian epic theater—drawing on the gifts of a multitalented ensemble to touch something frighteningly prescient about a world twisted by inequity and disenfranchisement, a world in which resentment and hatred can bloom into a cancer.  The fiery Russian poet and playwright Mayakovsky, in defiance of Hamlet’s famous dictum to “hold a mirror up to nature,” once wrote: “The theatre is not a reflecting mirror, but a magnifying glass”—it can enlarge and, held at the right angle, it can burn.  In the hands of Jo Bonney and company, Fucking A both amplifies specific brutal aspects of the society it observes and leaves a smoldering mark.

In Time Out New York, Raven Snook affirmed that the “expressionistic and politically charged exploration of class, family and violence, studded with jarring bursts of humor and song” that is Fucking A “owes more to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera than to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel.”  The woman from TONY, cautioned theatergoers that director Bonney “struggles to establish a cohesive tone,” but reports that “Fucking A’s alternations between pain and entertainment are never boring.”  Snook concluded: “Like Hester’s bloodily branded A, the play leaves an indelible mark.”  Marilyn Stasio  of Variety deemed that Bonney “runs with the play’s sense of menace” and Lahti’s “fiercely drawn Hester is a survivor, but so consumed with equally balanced passions of love and hate you can’t tear your eyes away from her.”

Frank Scheck, in one of Show-Score’s low-rated notices, stated bluntly in his “Bottom Line” in the Hollywood Reporter: “F—ing no.”  (In case some readers hadn’t noticed, many publications, including the New York Times, TheaterMania, and Variety, among others, won’t print the vulgar participle that forms half of Parks’s title.  It’s somewhat amusing how the editors and publishers twist themselves into pretzels to come up with an alternative—amusing, that is, until you try to find the coverage in a search engine or database!)  Noting that the “elements of Jacobean revenge tragedy and the plays of Bertolt Brecht” Parks inserted in Fucking A “should be enough to create an engaging theatrical experience,“ Scheck felt however that the play “never manages to transcend its derivative, ersatz feel.”  He complained that “the work comes across like the thesis playwriting project of a zealous grad student.”  Though the production is “suitably visceral,” the HR reviewer contended, “It may occasionally succeed in its goal of shocking the audience, but for long stretches this play just never comes to theatrical life.”  The playwright, asserted Scheck, “occasionally delivers here the sort of virtuosic writing that rouses our attention[, . . . b]ut F—ing A becomes bogged down in borrowed stylistic devices.”  The reviewer continued that though “the play traffics in important, urgent themes, its affectations prove its undoing.”  Director Bonney “infuses the proceedings with intense theatricality,” while the actors “tear into their schematic roles with energy and conviction,” said Scheck, praising Lahti as “the standout with her fiercely commanding turn.” 

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart called the STC production of Parks’s Hawthorne riff “a powerful revival” of a play that “asks if we've really progressed beyond the cruel puritan society of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony.”  Director Bonney “elicits a believable hunger from the cast” and Stewart reported that Lahti played Hester “with a motherly combination of vulnerability and ferocity.”  Carol Rocamora of Theater Pizzazz characterized the Red Letter Plays as “wildly original” and “provocative,” and labels Fucking A “compelling.”  Parks’s play, “with its rich characters and gripping plot,” presented Rocamora with a number of Brechtian references which she saw as aspects of the playwright’s “bold and fearless inventiveness.”  The Theater Pizzazz writer affirmed, “Under Jo Bonney’s masterful direction, the play is gripping and darkly entertaining despite its traumatic content” and she pronounced Lahti’s Hester “superb.” 

Joel Benjamin had quite a bit to say on TheaterScene.net about Parks’s writing and the Red Letter Plays as a pair, which I reported in my ITB write-up and won’t repeat here.  Of Fucking A, Benjamin said that Bonney “turns it into a blood and guts oversized verismo opera in which passions and revenge drive the plot.”  (According to The American Heritage Dictionary, verismo is “an artistic movement of the late 19th century, originating in Italy and influential especially in grand opera, marked by the use of common, everyday themes often treated in a melodramatic manner.”  I had to look it up, too.)  On Broadway World, Michael Dale called the play “sardonically abstract” and Bonney’s production “chilling.”  Lahti played Hester “with determined grit,” Kalukango is “wryly humored” as Canary, and Kudisch‘s Mayor is “grandly hammy.”  Rocamora particularly relished the “lengthy, crazily off-beat” speech of Butcher in which he lists all his daughters crimes, delivered “beautifully” by Thompson.

Fucking A is a dystopian fable,” declared Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp.  Though “relentlessly downbeat and bloody as any Greek tragedy,” STC’s Fucking A “has been given a production that works well on all levels.”  The CU review-writer reported that Bonney directed “with a sense for the rhythm to keeps it flowing” and the “cast, top to bottom, is up to giving fresh, meaningful life to” the play.  Like other reviewers, Sommer singled out Lahti as “gut-stirring” and Kalukango for “a lovely, bouncy performance.” In the lowest-scored review (40), Samuel L. Leiter bluntly proclaimed on The Broadway Blog:

Barely any of the show works and, while the play and production, energetically directed by Jo Bonney, have their fervent admirers, I found Fucking A’s two hours and fifteen minutes hard to sit through: pretension, illogicality, artificiality, exaggeration, and banality will do that to you. 

Leiter complained that “the goal of creating a ‘this is theatre, not life’ atmosphere succeeds only in underlining the dialogue’s affectation” and he contended, “A feminist subtext is ticking beneath the surface but the play’s embellishments prevent it from exploding.”  In addition, the BB reviewer charged that “the score is as dully ersatz as the writing and contributes little to the narrative or thematic continuity.”  He called the plot “clumsy,” the characters “stereotypical,” and accused he actors of “overacting.”  The Broadway Blogger protested (“for literal-minded people like me”) Bonney’s alogical interracial casting (particularly Hester’s confusing the white Jailbait for her black son).   “Colorblind casting is commendable,” Leiter acknowledged; “in this case, it’s a distraction.”  His “big regret,” though, was “that Christine Lahti, unattractively bewigged, made up, and costumed . . . in Mother Courage-like basic drab, retains an aura of speech and sophistication that suggests she’s playacting rather than fitting seamlessly into Hester’s more life-battered skin.”  Leiter concluded, “Without a Hester to believe in, there’s no way one can grasp just what Parks wants to say about class, gender, sex, and motherhood, much less believe she’s said it in Fucking A.”

On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller reported that STC’s Fucking A “unfolds with the inevitab[ility] of a Greek myth, with a low-key style of performance that would seem to be intentional on the part of director Jo Bonney.”  Miller complained that for this reason, “and after so much set-up, the act of revenge is rather anti-climactic.  There is no catharsis for Hester or for us.”  Kathryn Kelly warned us on Stage Buddy, “If you are convinced society has progressed beyond Nathaniel Hawthorne’s vision in The Scarlet Letter, Suzan-Lori Parks has an offering to prove otherwise.”  Of course, she was referring to Fucking A, “a staggering work of expert storytelling and captivating performances brought to life by Jo Bonney’s direction.”  The cast is “exemplary,” most “seamlessly” playing several roles as well as performing the music.  Kelly pointed out, “The journey to knowledge is difficult and ends in a heartbreaking climax, comparable to the most searing of Greek tragedies, but the lessons are necessary.”  She ended by urging, “Don’t miss this experience.”

The top-scorer among Show-Score’s review assembly was Scott Mitchell’s notice on Reviews Off Broadway (92).  In it, he insisted that Fucking A “honors Nathanial Hawthorne’s work” and that Bonney “gets great performances from the cast, and the pacing of this piece works beautifully.”  Mitchell felt that Lahti “does a remarkable turn bring[ing] Hester Smith to life.”  (On Show-Score’s website, the quotation for this entry didn’t match the ROB website, so I went in search of the source.  It turns out, Mitchell also uses Facebook to post some of his opinions, and the single paragraph on Fucking A is a little more specific: “Christine Lahti and Brandon Victor Dixon [replaced at the performance I saw by Donovan Mitchell] stand out in an excellent cast in ‘F**king A’, a searing play based on the themes found in ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”)


12 October 2017

The Red Letter Plays: 'In the Blood'


Suzan-Lori Parks’s Residency One tenure has extended from its start in the 2016-17 season at the Signature Theatre Company (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, reported on 1 December 2016, and Venus, 7 Jun 2017) into the company’s 2017-18 season, which just got underway.  Parks’s final entry in her residency (she will be followed by Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose first Signature production will be Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, which I’m booked to see on 27 October with a report to follow) is comprised of two plays drawn from the same source material, though they were composed separately and are vastly different in nearly all respects. 

Under the umbrella title of “The Red Letter Plays,” STC’s presenting In the Blood and Fucking A, both inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter.  (If you’ve never read The Scarlet Letter, which isn’t necessary to respond to Parks’s riffs, I’ll let you look it up on your own.  For now, it’ll suffice to say that in the novel, set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s, Hester Prynne, married to a man believed lost at sea, has a daughter whose father she refuses to name.  She’s cast out of the community and forced to wear a red letter A for “Adulteress” embroidered on the bodice of her dress.)  Both plays, which have never been produced together before, have as their lead character a woman named Hester who lives on the margins of society.  (This is also the first time that the Signature Theatre Company has presented two plays by the same writer simultaneously.)  Together, In the Blood (not to be confused with the 2014 action-adventure film of that title from Anchor Bay Films) and Fucking A speak about motherhood, fatherhood, and family; class, the injustice of the social system, and the struggle to survive against a stacked deck.  Both plays, too, are modern-day tragedies that depict a devastating story and end with a wrenching and disturbing final action.

I’ve seen a number of Parks plays now, and though both of these two are quite different from what I’ve become accustomed to (and, as I’ll remark in my next report, Fucking A is even more distinctive), there are still clear marks of her dramaturgy evident here, especially her use of language which, as always, is unique, startling, and exciting.   In addition, I was astonished at the breadth and depth of the playwright’s imagination, as I have been at every Parks play I’ve seen.  If the truth be told, I can’t begin to understand how this artist conceives of the ideas she uses to make her plays.

The STC production of In the Blood, directed by Sarah Benson (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s OBIE-winning An Octoroon at the Soho Repertory Theatre in 2014 and the Theatre for a New Audience in 2015), began previews in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the small proscenium house at the company’s Pershing Square Signature Center, on 29 August 2017 and opened on 17 September; the revival will close on 15 October (after a week’s extension from 8 October) and my friend Kirk Woodward and I saw it at the 7:30 performance on 19 September.  The play, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, premièred under the direction of David Esbjornson at the Joseph Papp Public Theater on 22 November 1999 (with Charlayne Woodard as Hester) and was subsequently presented at the Edison Theater in Los Angeles in July 2003 and the Schaeberle Studio Theatre at New York City’s Pace University in the fall of 2004.  Both plays are published in The Red Letter Plays from the Theatre Communications Group (2001):

Parks explains in a program note that the birth of the Red Letter Plays came around 1997 when she was canoeing with a friend, and they were singing songs and making conversation.  Parks remembers saying, “I’m going to write a riff on The Scarlet Letter and I’m going to call it Fucking A!”  She thought it was a funny idea—but she’d never read Hawthorne’s novel.  So the playwright read the book and began writing.  She wrote a draft of a play about Hester and when she finished, she realized that it wasn’t working.  She wrote several more drafts, “trying to find the story.” 

Parks described the riff she was trying to do on Scarlet Letter as “a contrafact, if you know jazz.  You take the chords [of an already-existing composition] and you write your own melody.”  Still, it “wasn’t coming together.”  She wrote more drafts.  She sat at her computer and deleted everything but the title, Fucking A.  Then she says she “heard this voice saying, ‘I’ll tell you the story of your play.’”  

The voice continued: “‘A woman with five children by five different lovers, that’s your play, and the children and the adults in the play are played by the same adult actors.’  And I was like, ‘that doesn’t sound like Fucking A.’  And the voice, a woman’s, was like, ‘No, it’s not.  It’s called In the Blood.’”

After that, Parks recounts, she found it very easy to write Fucking A.  

It was as if they were twins in the womb of my consciousness, twins in my mind.  And one couldn’t get out because they were entangled together.  So when In the Blood came out easily, then Fucking A was very easy to write.  They’re sisters, these two plays.  Both asking that question that I seem to keep asking in my work: “Who are you to me?”  And out of that questioning, hopefully, will come an understanding.

(There is a brief biographical profile of Parks in my report on The Death of the Last Black Man, as well as a discussion of the importance of jazz to her work.)

The play’s performed at Signature as a two-hour one-act of nine scenes (plus a Prologue), though In the Blood’s published text indicates an intermission after Scene 4.  The unmarried Hester, La Negrita (Saycon Sengbloh), has five children of varying races—Jabber (Michael Braun), Hester’s oldest son, aged 13; Bully (Jocelyn Bioh), her oldest daughter, 12; Trouble (Frank Wood), her middle son, 10; Beauty (Ana Reeder), her youngest daughter, 7; and Baby (Russell G. Jones), her youngest son, 2—each from a different father, none of whom acknowledges his relationship with Hester, much less his paternity of any of Hester’s children.  

The destitute family of six make their home under a bridge, where Jabber tries to teach his mother to read and write as she goes hungry so that her children can eat.  Hester’s illiterate—she gets Jabber to read things for her, including the pejorative graffiti scrawled on the bridge abutment—and so far, she’s mastered the letter A, which she chalks shakily on the same bridge structure—an unmistakable allusion to Hester Prynne and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  Her friend Amiga Gringa (Reeder), a poor white neighbor who visits the family often, offers useless help; Amiga tells Hester her “first love,” Chilli (Braun), Jabber’s father, is back in town and is looking for her.  Amiga, a kind of street hustler who’ll do anything to get “a leg up,” suggest, too, that one of the fathers of Hester’s children might offer her some help.  As the children come home, they disappear under the set floor (between the floor of the set and the stage proper), which represents the shelter of their home, and while Amiga and Hester are talking, the Doctor (Wood), a road-side physician to the street people, passes through wearing his self-advertising sandwich board.  

Others who are part of Hester’s world of the streets are the Welfare Lady (Bioh), a representative of the state who’s married with children and living a prosperous, comfortable life, and Reverend D. (Jones), a neighborhood street preacher (and former alcoholic street-dweller himself) who’s on the verge of having his own church.  Reverend D. (a reference to the character Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne’s lover in The Scarlet Letter) is two-year-old Baby’s father, though he’s never acknowledged it, and we learn as each member of Hester’s little community has a scene with her and a “Confession” (which Ben Brantley of the New York Times aptly called “monologues of self-justification”) that they’ve all engaged in some kind of sexual relationship with her: the Doctor, Amiga Gringa, and the Welfare Lady, who, with her husband, had a one-time three-way with Hester. 

(Hester’s designation, La Negrita, is a polysemous locution.  It literally means ‘little black girl’ and can be no more than descriptive.  Apparently, it’s usually applied as a term of affection or endearment among Latin Americans, depending somewhat on nationality, but it can be derogative in some contexts.  The word negrita also has a second meaning of ‘bold,’ in reference to typeface, and that sense of bravery or strength carries over as well.  [Obviously from this characterization, Hester’s played by an African-American actress; other characters need not be any particular race or ethnicity except Welfare, who’s also a black woman, and Amiga Gringa, who’s Caucasian.]  The actors playing the children are all adults.  Parks calls for these five actors each to portray two characters—Hester is the only character who’s not double-cast—one child and one adult.  They also make up the chorus who appear at the beginning and end of the play to torment Hester.

(During the performance, I began thinking that each of Hester’s children are played by the same actors who play their fathers—with Bully played by Bioh, who’s also Welfare, whose husband is presumably Bully’s father.  We know from the text about Chilli/Jabber and the Reverend D./Baby.  But then, who’s Beauty’s father?  She’s played by Reeder, who portrays Amiga Gringa—who had a fling with Hester, too, but couldn’t have sired a child.  Of course, I could just be wrong—or is this something we’re just not supposed catch?  I kind of like the symmetry—except that it may just be imaginary.  The 5/5 cast of characters is certainly an issue of practical playwriting; but the assignment of the doubling, if it falls the way I thought—with whatever explanation arises for Beauty/Amiga Gringa—could be thematically significant, at least subliminally.  [The published script and the on-line casting breakdown in Back Stage specify this pairing, but have nothing more to say on the matter of paternity.])

Amiga’s news about Chilli (the name refers to Roger Chillingworth, the name Hester Prynne’s husband takes when he, like Chilli—who’s also taken a new name—reappears) seems to promise help, and when he arrives, he plays their song (“The Looking Song,” written by Parks) on a tape recorder and offers her marriage.  But when Hester’s four other children start coming home, he quickly withdraws the proposal and abandons her once again.  Indeed, everyone who purports to offer Hester help is really just betraying her and using her for their own gratification and selfish needs: Amiga, who’s essentially been stealing from her all along anyway, suggests Hester perform a sex show she’ll call Chocolate and Vanilla with her; Welfare has a job for Hester—sewing piecework—and suggests that Hester have a hysterectomy—a “spay,” Welfare calls it, like for a stray dog—and threatens to have her children taken away so she’ll “never see them again”; the Doctor also wants to remove Hester’s “womanly parts” (his eye chart—which Hester can’t read—spells out “SPAY”) and examines her like a mechanic checking under a car, sliding between her legs and beneath her dress on a dolly.  Finally, Reverend D. refuses to take any responsibility for Hester or Baby, stringing her along with empty promises and finally telling her not to come around any more. 

At the beginning of the play, vandals had graffiti’d “SLUT” on the supports of the bridge, but Jabber had told his mother he couldn’t read the words.  At the end of the play, Jabber admits he had refused to read the word for her because “It was a bad word”—the word that for Hester, La Negrita is what “Adulteress” is for Hester Prynne: a label of outsiderness.  Once having said the word, however, Jabber keeps repeating it until Hester strikes out in a rage and beats her son to death.  In the blood of her son, she scrawls the letter A on the ground before the bars of a prison cell come down and enclose her.  The voices of the community chorus show no sympathy for Hester, concluding the brutal drama with no hint of mercy. 

In the Blood, the first of the two Red Letter Plays, is considered to be the demarcation between Parks’s thoroughly poeticized and anti-realistic scripts like The Death of the Last Black Man (1990) and Venus (1996) and a move toward Realism, or at least a sort of Brechtian Realism.  The play still has many distancing characteristics, including choral scenes, the spoken-aria-like Confessions, poetic use of language, scene labels (for the Confessions), music and song, and others—not the least of which is the casting of adult actors to play little children.  As you’ve seen, except for Hester and Chilli, none of the characters has an actual name; Reverend D. comes closest, but the rest only have descriptive labels.  In fact, three of them, the Doctor, Welfare, and Reverend D. are clearly representatives of the societal structures that neglect and oppress Hester and those like her: the medical establishment, the state, and religion.  Not even Hester’s children have real names; they’re almost allegorical. 

In addition, Louisa Thompson’s scenic design is in line with the playwright’s description of the setting as “spare,  to reflect the poverty of the world of the play.”  It’s only vaguely realistic, suggesting an actual bridge abutment without reproducing one.  Aside from this suggestion, Thompson’s set is more an environment for the actors to work in than a visual image to orient the audience.  One naturalistic touch is the big, yellow chute that brings garbage and construction debris down from above at intervals—some of which refuse become the children’s playthings.  The floor of the set, constructed above the stage floor, is severely raked and the rear “wall” is sloped like a giant slide—down which the children slide from a catwalk above, representing the street level.  That slope is a metaphor for the plight of Hester and her family, though: the children can slide down it, but there’s no way to climb up the wall (as Sengbloh observes in an interview); it’s absolutely Sisyphean—like Hester’s life.

This calls  for some non-naturalistic physical performance, directed by Elizabeth Streb.  (Other physical performance elements were in the charge of choreographer Annie-B Parson and fight director J. David Brimmer.)  The stark lighting design of Yi Zhao and the sound designer of Matt Tierney blends with this scheme as well, with moody and slightly noirish effect.

Hester has been rejected by the system with no possibility for redemption because she’s poor, black, and homeless.  Her fate is in her blood, society had concluded.  But beyond race and even social status, by connecting each child to a father and painting that father (or his surrogate, as in the case of Welfare) in defining colors, Parks asks what is “in the blood”?  What is innate and what is imposed by societal forces (that is, prejudices and assumptions)?  Because Parks has universalized the saga by drawing on a classic piece of literature, setting the play “Here” and “Now,” giving most of the characters descriptions and labels rather than names, and casting them from all races and genders, the message is that this fate applies to all in Hester’s situation not just one person called Hester, La Negrita.  In the Blood is a class-action indictment.

As Hester, Saycon Sengbloh manages to make a woman who doesn’t seem to be able to control her own life, much less her destiny, sympathetic, even down to the awful act she perpetrates in the end.  Sengbloh exhibits a certain resilience in the face of her destitution, but her Hester believes the lies she tells herself.  She’s almost Candide, but with a dash more cynicism: the world she inhabits isn’t the best of all possible worlds, but she’s doing the best she possibly can in it.  Neither Sengbloh nor Parks condescends to Hester: she’s no saint or pitiable, misunderstood soul.  She’s a survivor who’ll do (and does) unapologetically whatever’s necessary to keep herself and her children going—and that’s what the actress plays..

The five members of the ensemble are all excellent, making distinct personalities for both their adult and child characters, each one a different individual.  The adults are already cold and selfish, each in his or her own way, and the children are beginning to show the signs of where they could be going, as Bioh’s 12-year-old Bully sleeps with her hands clenched into little fists and the 10-year-old Trouble of Wood has stolen a cop’s truncheon (with which his mother later beats Jabber to death).  But these actors really play three roles since they’re also the Greek chorus that represents the community that judges Hester and finds her unworthy.  These five are the five-fingered hand that Hester sees blocking out the sun, the dark shadow she says is the hand of fate—Hester’s fate.

On the basis of 23 published reviews, Show-Score calculated an average rating of 79 for Signature’s In the Blood.  The tally of positive notices was 91%, with the highest scores two 90’s (including Broadway World) and eight 85’s (among them, the New York Times and New York magazine/Vulture), 5% mixed reviews, and 4% negative, represented by a single notice with a score of 40 (scribicide).  My review survey will include 16 notices.  (A number of reviewers covered both play in one notice, as if the Red Letter Plays were being presented as a two-play rep.  This makes it hard to summarize those reviews as they pertain specifically to each play—but I’ll give it a try.)

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness described Parks’s play as “as bleak and unredeeming as Hawthorne’s novel” but added that its “bursts of theatrical energy ensure that In the Blood’s social critique never feels heavy-handed.”  In the Blood “remains topical” and “never flirts with sentimentality.”  Sengbloh, said McGuinness, plays Hester “with consummate understatement” and “the hypocritical bromides of evangelical Christianity prove a rich source of satire thanks to Russell G. Jones’s pompous yet insecure” Reverend D.  Director Benson, the FT reviewer declared, “creates a winningly anarchic atmosphere full of offbeat comic touches.”

Barbara Schuler of Long Island’s Newsday stated in her “Bottom Line” that “Parks delivers powerful riffs on ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”  Schuler’s review was an omnibus notice covering both Red Letter Plays, so her assessment of In the Blood consisted of the judgment that Hester is “played with a driving force by” Sengbloh and the description that a “better life seems momentarily within her grasp, and when that hope is dashed, there’s unspeakable tragedy.”  Of both plays, which she labels “powerful pieces,” the Newsday review-writer observed that “they’re about mothers, and the choices—sometimes excruciatingly terrible choices—they must make to protect their children from all that life throws at them.  Any mother will relate.” 

Matt Windman wrote in am New York that both In the Blood and Fucking A “are packed with ominous tones, intense emotions, freewheeling theatricality, social criticism and an inevitable sense of tragedy.”  In the Blood “is the more serious and sensitive of the two plays,” however. “In spite of some slow patches,” caviled Windman, naming the Confessions specifically, Benson’s staging “has a scorching brutality, which grows in intensity as the play heads to its violent climax.”  Both Signature productions, the amNY reviewer asserted, are “outstanding staging[s] of a bold, difficult and provocative work.  When viewed together, ‘The Red Letter Plays’ proves to be one of the most interesting and rewarding theater events of the fall.”

In the Times, Brantley declared, “Tragedy stalks Hester La Negrita . . . as relentlessly as it does the doomed queens of Euripides and Racine.”  Calling the play a “genre-mutating” drama, Brantley labeled the Signature mounting a “first-rate revival” staged “with finely measured restraint and a dangerously relaxing sense of humor” with Hester enacted with “exquisitely clouded radiance” by Sengbloh.  The Timesman asserted that “this enduringly fresh work” plays “craftily . . . with theatrical traditions and the expectations that come with them.”  The performances are “both subtly stylized and naturalistic enough for us to identify the characters as people we know,” said Brantley, and though it “may sound like agitprop,” the director “reins in the hectoring and melodrama.”  (The Times reviewer had one complaint: he doubted that “the sexual element in two of the monologues is either necessary or convincing.”) 

Hilton Als of the New Yorker, characterizing the two plays as “masterpieces of the form,” asserted that Parks “shows how pain wears on [both Hesters], but also how they outwit life—which is to say a life that is dominated by male-generated puritanism.”  Als observed that he didn’t see the original New York productions of these plays, but he had read them and “ was amazed . . . by Parks’s gift for theatrical synthesis” in the way she melds her diverse influences and makes the combination her own.  (Als names Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Samuel Beckett, and William Shakespeare.)  He posited, however:

There’s a great gulf in the mind between reading a play and seeing it, and I wonder if the disappointment I felt at both shows had to do with how I’d first imagined these essential works—and how far short of that these productions fell.  Perhaps the greatness of Parks’s language shut the directors out, before they even got started.  There isn’t a lot of air in her scripts, and I can see how an actor could feel cowed by them. 

The New Yorker reviewer found that “Parks’s complicated view of motherhood—is it fulfillment or destruction, biology or destiny, liberation or prison, or all these things?—isn’t played out enough.” 

For Vulture/New York magazine, Sara Holdren dubbed the Signature revival of In the Blood a “powerful production” and declared that “we never forget that we are grappling with the particular horrors of the here and now, facing down the specific breed of resentment and contempt this society reserves for women of color.”  In the play, and its companion piece (which I’ll cover next week), Holdren asserted that “Parks rages incisively, articulately, and sometimes even humorously against the capitalist machine that grinds these women down.”  Director Benson and the “skillful design team have brought the harsh texture and soundscape” of the city streets onto the stage as the “intelligent and versatile actors are by turns exuberant, touching, and even a little menacing.”  Sengbloh’s performance is “both innocent and frightening—and finally, devastating” as she “brings a cheerful, loving determination to Hester that makes . . . her story all the more heart-wrenching.”  The plays “may be almost 20 years old,” observed the woman from New York, “but make no mistake, the productions currently playing at Signature are proof that these stories belong to our world, right now, today.”  She warned, “They’re not easy to watch, but they’re vital, scrappy, angry, witty, articulate.”  Holdren acknowledged, however: “If this sounds grim, trust me, there’s humor here as well. . . .  Parks is canny—she knows that laughter opens up the ribs so that later you can slip the knife in.” 

In the Blood “seizes you from the get-go,” wrote Raven Snook in Time Out New York, with “a simmering Saycon Sengbloh.”  The play, Snook observed, is “even more relevant” today than it was in 1999, and “[i]ts urgency is heightened by director Sarah Benson’s relentless pace . . . and the ensemble cast’s unfettered performances.”  The TONY review-writer’s conclusion?  “Parks’s scathing indictment of how society treats impoverished women gets your pulse pumping even as it breaks your heart.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio reported that Sengbloh “gives a remarkable performance as Hester.” 

Elyse Sommer dubbed the Red Letter Plays “terrific productions” with Hester “played with great passion” by Sengbloh.  Labeling the play “very raw,” Sommer cautioned, “While In the Blood has its comic moments, what it’s definitely not about is light entertainment.”  The CU reviewer added that In the Blood is “an unremittingly dark and hopeless tale and yet, there's something poetically gut-wrenching” in its telling.  Sommer concluded that “while Hester’s story remains downbeat,” In the Blood “is a stirring, highly recommended theatrical experience.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller called Signature’s In the Blood “stunning” and reported that it “grabs you by the throat from the moment it begins and does not let up.”  The play, “brilliantly helmed” by Benson, “hits all of the marks and absolutely makes the case for why the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parks is considered to be one of our great contemporary playwrights.” 

Brian Scott Lipton of Theater Pizzazz labeled Benson’s In the Blood at STC “first-rate” with an “extraordinary” Sengbloh who “never shies away from the play’s most difficult moments.”  On scribicide, Aaron Botwick (in the lowest-rated review on Show-Score) begrudged that the production “looks great,” with its “exquisite set,” but “the emotional wallop in the text never materializes onstage.”  Botwick pointed out that “Parks is working in the tradition of Brecht, which has a tendency toward flat execution.”  The scribicide review-writer feels “that eliciting empathy from the audience highlights and focuses metatheatrical alienation rather than distracting from it: cold derives its meaning from heat, distance from closeness.”  He asserted that “we only see Hester from very far away, we only hear her in monotone.  When the curtain falls, she is covered in the blood of her favorite child.  I felt nothing,” he complained.

Michael Dale, noting that In the Blood is “more sensitive” than its sister play, pronounced in Broadway World that it “receives a solid remounting” at STC.  In the Blood “takes on the style of Greek tragedy,” reported Dale, “though, especially in director Sarah Benson’s production, reality is raised to near-absurdist proportions.”  Sengbloh’s performance is “heart-tugging,” and the BWW reviewer asserted, “With America's current leaders looking to severely limit the government assistance made available to people like Hester, IN THE BLOOD has sadly lost none of it's relevance.”  Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania dubbed the production a ”searing revival” under the “steady direction” of Benson, guiding an “excellent” cast.  Sengbloh plays Hester “with a steely determination that immediately makes us root for her.”  In the end, Stewart remarked, “You may find In the Blood dystopian, but is it really so far off?”

On TheaterScene.net, Joel Benjamin proclaimed that, no matter how you feel about Parks’s  work, the Red Letter Plays “certainly deserve attention.” Benjamin, however, found himself “conflicted about these plays.”  Parks, he acknowledged:

is brilliant at generating fire with the source of the heat difficult to pinpoint.  It’s her talent to write dramas which sizzle, constructed in her strange vernacular, yet somehow leave too many questions unanswered, the better to prove her one-sided stories.

In both the Red Letter Plays, Benjamin complained, Parks avoids “revealing or analyzing the two Hesters’ inner lives which is Parks’ major weakness as a playwright.”  Though he found In the Blood’s Hester “played heroically and passionately” by Sengbloh, The TheaterScene review-writer had qualms.  “Colorful language?” he asked. “Yes.  Memorable characters?  Check.  Motivation?  Not so much.”  Nevertheless, Benjamin concluded, Benson “turns In the Blood into a chamber opera” and watching Sengbloh “resourcefully taking every blow and not fall apart is excitingly satisfying.”  Stanford Friedman, dubbing the play a “captivating revival” on New York Theater Guide, found “moments of playfulness that feel like 1960’s improvisational theater, sexually frank monologues that would be at home in the 1980s, a clear feminist political agenda . . . and, conversely, a touch of musical comedy.”  And, Friedman added, “There is also a healthy dose of absurdity.”  He called Hester “a slowly ticking time bomb,” played by Sengbloh in a “finely measured performance.” 

07 October 2017

"In Conversation: Lynn Nottage & Paula Vogel"

by Tari Stratton

[This interview with playwrights Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel, who both made long-awaited Broadway débuts this past season (Sweat at Studio 54, 26 March-25 June 2017, and Indecent at the Cort Theatre, 18 April-6 August 2017, respectively), was originally published in the May/June issue of The Dramatist (Vol. 19, No. 5.5), the publication of the Dramatists Guild of America, the stage writers’ professional association.  (Kirk Woodward, who’s a member of DGA, brought the interview to my attention.)  The two dramatists have known each other for several decades as Vogel was Nottage’s playwriting professor and mentor at Brown University in the 1980s.  “In Conversation: Lynn Nottage & Paula Vogel” is a “DPS Profile,” a project of the Dramatists Play Service script publisher.]

TARI STRATTON: My first question for you is a little selfish: are you as mad as I am that it’s taken so long to get you two on Broadway? It ticks me off. Obviously, I’m so happy it’s happening now, but hello. That’s probably rude, sorry.

PAULA VOGEL: Well, you know, I’m looking at the experience as being fun and funny, because the truth of the matter is to sustain ourselves-for how long? How many decades? You can’t think about Broadway. You have to get up every morning and be thankful for the artists you’re working with. You have to be happy that you write the next first draft. You have to be happy that the artists you love are working with you and going forward as well.

And if we stop and think about Broadway, what we’re going to feel is exclusion and bitterness. There is, I think, nothing worse than feeling bitter to extinguish the creative spark.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I was going to say something similar: we can’t let bitterness be our guiding light because, otherwise, we’ll accomplish nothing. And so, like Paula, I don’t spend my days thinking about Broadway as the end game.

Of course, throughout the season I will go to Broadway and experience little fits of frustration and anger, but on a day-to-day basis, I’m really focused on my work: trying to generate interesting plays, trying to reach an audience that I want to engage with.

A lot of times [that audience] is not necessarily the audience that’s on Broadway. But now that I’m there . . . [Laughter] . . . I’m sort of giddy and excited tobe making art on a larger scale. Today, sitting in Studio 54 rehearsing the play and looking at the number of seats, Iwas thinking about the rich history of that space-it was a television studio, then a very infamous nightclub, and now it has been reclaimed as a theatre. I just felt there’s so much life that has moved through that theatre, and I feel proud to to be part of that history.

PAULA VOGEL: That’s right.

LYNN NOTTAGE: And that was really exciting to me.

PAULA VOGEL: I don’t know about you, Lynn, [but] for me the significant moment was getting the Pulitzer. [Vogel was a Pulitzer Prize-winner in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive.] It was significant, but not in the way that people think. I mean, I think it made the people who love me happy. They were always proud, and they always loved me. The thing that the Pulitzer made a little easier to do was go into the next faculty meeting and say, “We have to raise money for fellowships for emerging playwrights.” I mean, what I think it gave me – I don’t know if this is true – was the ability to have people think a little more, “Well, maybe she knows what she’s talking about.”

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think this is true of Broadway, and I also think it’s true of getting a prize like the Pulitzer. [Nottage won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Ruined, which also won the 2009 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the 2009 Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, the 2009 OBIE Award for Best New American Play, the 2009 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the 2010 Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, and the 2009 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play. She won a second Pulitzer in 2017 for Sweat] It gives you a certain level of visibility, because, as female artists, we’re often grappling with our relative invisibility, though we’re writing at the same level as our male counterparts but, somehow, we’re not seen and valued in the same way. And I think the Pulitzer Prize allowed me to step out of the shadows and into a little bit of the light. Suddenly, my phone began ringing in ways that it hadn’t rung before. I was invited to sit on panels. I was invited to speak at universities. And subsequently, theaters were much more interested in producing my plays. So, Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize translated into exposure and access to new stages, it amplified my voice.

PAULA VOGEL: Absolutely. But I would – and it sounds really corny – I would say that being able to be in a joyful process is actually more important, because I then want to keep writing.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that we’re really fortunate that we’re entering Broadway at a key moment, because we’re entering it with trusted collaborators.

PAULA VOGEL: Yes.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I’m working with [stage director] Kate Whoriskey, who has been my collaborator for many years.

PAULA VOGEL: That’s been phenomenal.

LYNN NOTTAGE: And it’s really important that we’re taking this journey together. And I think it’s true of you and [director] Rebecca [Taichman, Tony-winner for Indecent].

PAULA VOGEL: Seven-year process, yeah.

LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s relatively scary to enter into a commercial space for the first time, but I feel supported because I’m entering it with someone who I trust absolutely.

PAULA VOGEL: Same for me. I don’t know what people expect when they go to Broadway the first time. I don’t know that I have any expectations. I do know that I’m happy when the rehearsal begins. I’m happy when I see my cast members. I love that we all came together and that we’re all going together. And who knows what it means?

LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s true. And I also think there’s this daunting moment when you take your first step over the threshold into this big, famous space and think, “Oh, my God. How am I going to fill it?” And then you immediately get to work. You begin rehearsing, and you think, “Oh, I know how to do this. I’ve been doing this for the last 25 years, and I’m really prepared to do it.”

You realize it’s not any different than putting on theater in any space from community theatre to an off-Broadway theatre to a regional theatre. It’s just a larger stage. And I feel like we have been preparing for this for many years. So, in some ways, I don’t think it’s as daunting and scary as it would be if I were a younger playwright. I feel as though I’m arriving at the exact moment I’m prepared to meet the challenge.

PAULA VOGEL: You know, I can’t remember who told me this, like 35, 40 years ago, but a woman in our field said to me, “You always get prizes when you no longer need them.”

LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s true.

PAULA VOGEL: It really is true, which is like, you know, this is nice or as we say, Dayenu. This would be enough. [The word is Hebrew, commonly heard at Passover when a thousand-year-old song with that title is often sung as part of the Seder. The word means, as Vogel says, ‘it would have been enough’ and refers to the gratitude of the Jewish people to God for all the gifts He gave them, like delivering them from slavery, providing manna in the desert, and giving them the Torah, any one of which would have been enough.] This is nice. But I’m not risking my entire life on this one roll of the dice. It’s nice that I got it. And it’s funny that it feels like a combination bat mitzvah and wedding . . . in that it’s really the first time. It’s, like, how can you say to everybody that you’ve loved over 60 years, “Come and see me at the Vineyard.” I mean, you can’t fit those people in the Vineyard Theater [Off-Broadway company in Manhattan’s Flatiron District where Indecent had its New York City début in May-June 2016: searing capacity: 132; Studio 54 seats 1,006 and the Cort seats 1,082.]. So, for the first time, we could actually be in the same space.

LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s true. You can have everyone.

PAULA VOGEL: Yeah.

LYNN NOTTAGE: But my family’s very small, so the Vineyard Theater’s actually very perfect.[Laughs] I honestly don’t have that many people.[Laughs]

PAULA VOGEL: My family’s dead, but we say family in that other way.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Yes. It’s the extended family.

PAULA VOGEL: Yes.

LYNN NOTTAGE: You are right. It’s about the gifts that arrive at the most unexpected moments and when you don’t necessarily need them. But, I do feel that on some unconscious level, there’s a part of me that needed to take this step.

PAULA VOGEL: Yes.

LYNN NOTTAGE: And I can’t speak to why, because I’ve spent so much of my life saying it wasn’t important. But now that I’m there, I feel like it’s somehow filling some little hole [laughs] that always existed in my playwriting journey.

PAULA VOGEL: I might look at it a different way as someone who—it’s a strange thing—screamed more when [hearing] that you won the Pulitzer than I did for myself. I got much more pleasure out of it. And I feel that the theatre needs to take this step of having Lynn Nottage on Broadway because, otherwise, Broadway is not worth the price of the ticket.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, you know, it’s funny, because I feel the same way—I think about my journey in theater and who I believe belongs on that main stage, and it is astonishing to me that Paula Vogel has not been there. It feels as though you’ve been there. [Laughs]

PAULA VOGEL: Do people do that to you? They assume that you’ve been on Broadway?

LYNN NOTTAGE: How I Learned to Drive was a Broadway play in my mind. It occupies a large space. Without it [moving] uptown, in my mind it still occupies that space in terms of its importance. [Vogel’s Off-Broadway hit, How I Learned to Drive, premièred at the Century Center for the Performing Arts near New York City’s Union Square on 6 May 1997 and ran for 400 performances.  It won the 1996-97 New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play, the 1997 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the 1997 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play, the OBIE Award for playwriting for Vogel, the 1997 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, the 1997 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, and the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The play was revived Off-Broadway in 2012 by the Second Stage Theatre, directed by Whoriskey.]

PAULA VOGEL: Right, likewise. And I’m sure people must come to you and go, “Lynn Nottage, the Broadway playwright,” in introducing you all the time, right? “Pulitzer Prize, professor at Columbia, Broadway playwright . . .”

LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah. It’s an assumption.

PAULA VOGEL: I mean, you are in the canon.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I don’t think I’m there yet.

PAULA VOGEL: Well, let me redefine canon, because I think that that’s what this moment is doing: redefining what canon means. And I would say that, for me, as a teacher, and I’m sure this is true for you, canon is the writers who excite and influence emerging playwrights to write.

LYNN NOTTAGE: And it evolves.   

PAULA VOGEL: Yes, that’s what it does.

LYNN NOTTAGE: It really does evolve, because I think –

PAULA VOGEL: And you’re in the canon.

LYNN NOTTAGE: – you probably had this experience teaching, is that every eight years, I would say, the canon rotates. And there’s a whole other set of writers who excite young people. And I feel like sometimes I have to play catch-up, because I’m still back there holding onto the saints of my past, and there are new saints replacing them. It’s true. It’s dynamic.

PAULA VOGEL: Right. And at some point, I think I decided that because I was doing that, it’s not that I don’t want to catch up. I’m hungry. But I decided that the thing I can do is I can give young, emerging writers the writers that no one talks about anymore. I want to make sure that [playwright] Irene Fornes stays in the canon. I want to make sure that Funnyhouse of a Negro [play by Adrienne Kennedy (on which I reported in “Signature Plays” on 3 June 2016)] is read frequently. It’s those plays that –

LYNN NOTTAGE: That have to remain in circulation.

PAULA VOGEL: Exactly. Like Jane Bowles, In the Summer House.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, it’s remembering the ancestors and sort of continuing to pour that libation and not let them be forgotten.

PAULA VOGEL: I love that. It is remembering the ancestors.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that as women, it’s really important for us to do that.

PAULA VOGEL: It absolutely is.

TARI STRATTON: You two are amazing. May I throw you another question? Both of you have taken real people, but then sort of fictionalized them, you know, or taken real circumstances but then have created characters out of the circumstances. I was just interested in hearing more about that part of the process.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Sure. You know, what I think we’re doing is somewhat different in that I began my process by interviewing a lot of folks in Reading, Pennsylvania [where Sweat is set], which is a city that caught my attention. It was the poorest city in America in 2011, and I really was very interested in the way in which poverty was reshaping the American narrative. And I found myself gravitating to that space and wanting to interview as many people as possible. I had a need to understand.

I was not specifically looking for someone to write about, but looking for people who represented what I felt was happening to folks who lived in these post-industrial cities throughout the country. And so that’s where I began. My characters are really composites of many people, as opposed to being based on individuals, which I think is slightly different.

PAULA VOGEL: Right. It’s interesting, because when you describe that process, the last play that I worked on, I was making composites, particularly of women veterans. [Vogel is probably referring to Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, Wilma Theatre, Philadelphia, 2014.] So that thing that you’re doing, I think, with Sweat, of trying to make composites, I think I’m in a different stance here in that I’m trying to resurrect the dead. And I do think that is a different process. I had to let go of worrying that they weren’t alive and able to defend themselves – do you know what I mean? And that I wouldn’t ever know them, because I would never meet them.

LYNN NOTTAGE: They weren’t going to knock on your door and say, “Shame on you, Paula Vogel. That’s not what I said.”

PAULA VOGEL: That’s right, exactly. It was – like, I’ll never forget I went to the first reading of [Anna Deavere Smith’s] Fires in the Mirror. And standing in line was everyone she performed.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Oh, interesting.

PAULA VOGEL: And it was such an amazing experience to hear the Jewish leader turning to the African American leader saying, “Oh, I thought she performed you much better than she did me.” [Laughter] And there was this harmony in the line, and I can imagine in Sweat, that all of these people –

LYNN NOTTAGE: We had the interesting experience after we closed at the Public [Theater in New York City, where Sweat débuted in New York City in 2016 after premièring at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015], of bringing Sweat to Reading, PA for a command performance—a very stripped-down production—for about 500 people.  [A staged reading was presented at the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading on 19 December 2016.] The actors were incredibly nervous. They knew that they weren’t necessarily portraying individuals who would be out there in the audience, but portraying individuals that the folks in the audience might recognize on a deeper level.

PAULA VOGEL: How was the response?

LYNN NOTTAGE: It was an overwhelming response. I think that the actors were so giddy when it finished and so stimulated by the questions and the responses, that it reinvigorated this next stage of production, because they knew that this play was supported by people in Reading and that it is truthful to the experience.

On some level, they thought they had been performing a fiction. Now they understand that they’re performing something other than fiction, which is different. And it was fun. And then afterwards, they all went to the bar that it was based on and stayed out much too late. [Laughter]

PAULA VOGEL: See, that’s wonderful. I’m getting more of a kind of piecemeal response, running into people, having people see the show who are survivors, who come forward and say, “My mother lived in Lodz,” or, “My grandmother was sent to the camp,” or—and this was terrifying—on three different occasions, Sholem Asch’s family has come to see it.– [Indecent is based on the controversial 1907 Yiddish drama God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, 1880-1957.]

LYNN NOTTAGE: I just was going to ask whether he had children and family that . . .

PAULA VOGEL: He has a granddaughter, who came to see it from London, and a great-grandson. We’ve had every remaining member come.

LYNN NOTTAGE: But they must be so thankful that you’ve resurrected this play. There’ll be a whole generation of people who will go and pick up God of Vengeance, because they saw your play.

PAULA VOGEL: Well, that’s what we want. Right. We want it to be taught.

LYNN NOTTAGE: And read. I think it is product placement. My first impulse after seeing the production, was, “I’ve seen that text, but I’ve never read it, and I feel like I have to sit down and read it now.”

PAULA VOGEL: It’s great. We wanted it back in the canon. Initially, people did come [see it and say], “I’m sorry. You got him completely wrong.” But these people belong to them in a very emotional way. And the same, you know, with the Yiddish. I don’t speak Yiddish.

LYNN NOTTAGE: You know, once I was listening to my brother describe my parents, and I thought, “Who are you describing? I don’t recognize those people.” We grew up in the same house, but we both have very different recollections and different relationships. [That] is what I think gives us permission to improvise when we’re writing. We all have a different perspective and point of view that we bring to our experiences.

PAULA VOGEL: I do think there’s a basic level of love that we’re both expressing, which is these people should be on stage in the light.

LYNN NOTTAGE: In the light.

PAULA VOGEL: Visible in the light. And I guess that’s the greatest demonstration of love we can give.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that’s true. I mean, I know that audiences—New York audiences in particular— are used to seeing certain kinds of folks represented on the stage. And I think that what both of us are doing are bringing people to the stage who don’t often get to tell their stories, because the powers that be haven’t deemed them worthy. I want to open up a new conversation with audiences, offer them a view of our culture that folks don’t often see on the stage. That’s part of what excites me. I know there are going to be people who think, “We don’t want to see these people.” And I’m like, “Fine, then don’t come.” But I think it’s very, very important.

Particularly—and I’m talking about politics now—in this day and age in which we have a president who’s really invested in dividing us, and who’s also invested in pushing people back into the shadows and creating a country that is not a country I necessarily want to live in. I think that it’s incumbent upon us as artists to really push back, to resist. We talk about being produced on Broadway, well I see this moment of being on Broadway as part of my resistance. I am occupying this large space for voices that are marginalized and need to be heard.

PAULA VOGEL: Yes. The other thing that I want to bring up, which I feel is in both of our plays and in both of our concerns, I don’t know if this is true for you, but my entire life—in theater, film and, television—I’ve been watching stories where I’m looking at the set, and going, “How do these people afford to live? What do they do for work? How did they come up with all of that money? How did they afford such a nice apartment as five friends? How did they end up living near Lincoln Center?” I can’t get over it. I just stare at the clothing. I’m like, “Oh, my God. That person is wearing clothing that would cost me a month of a salary.”

LYNN NOTTAGE: Wearing, like, $1,000 boots. [Laughs]

PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. How is that possible? And I remember—particularly in the 1970s—it felt like every play off-Broadway and on Broadway was about an elegant cocktail party that happened in a wonderful Manhattan apartment. And it’s not that I begrudge people having wonderful Manhattan apartments, but I just kind of sat there. It was a reason that in my youth—I’m trying to get over this—I’ve never been able to really encompass opera. As I was working my way through college, someone took me to an opera. And I looked at the stage, and I realized in a single ten-minute segment, $40,000 flashed across that stage, which would have paid my tuition for four years back then. And I got physically ill.

LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s not a good thing –

PAULA VOGEL: It’s not a good thing.

LYNN NOTTAGE: – to go to an opera and become ill.

PAULA VOGEL: Right, exactly, and be paying attention to that instead of . . . So, I struggled to get through it. But we’re in an interesting time right now, where we are presenting these plays [and] how much money does it take to do a Broadway production? Where is that coming from? Because right now, I feel like Sweat is making me pay attention to what is the cost and price of money. And that’s a different question when you [ask] what is the price of money for the people in this bar. That’s a very different question.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, my characters have a different relationship to money than some of the people that you see portrayed on stage in Manhattan, All of the plays are about survival on some level, but in many plays it’s about emotional survival. But in Sweat, it is also about the fundamental survival. It’s like, “Will we be able to feed ourselves in two weeks if we lose our jobs?”

PAULA VOGEL: Right. And in Indecent, it’s how many bodies do we have to get into the room, right? Ten bodies, twelve bodies, how many bodies can you squeeze into that space? Yeah, exactly.

LYNN NOTTAGE: But Indecent also is very much about censorship. What can be seen on the stage? You know, you look at the history of that play [God of Vengeance] and how something so simple and pure can be deemed dangerous–

PAULA VOGEL: Yes, that’s true.

LYNN NOTTAGE: – and how we, as artists, have to be really careful in this day and age, because these moments can return. We always say, “It can’t happen,” but it can happen.

PAULA VOGEL: Right. It absolutely can happen.

LYNN NOTTAGE: It can happen, and it can happen very quickly, as we’re seeing that the revolution – and when I use the word revolution, I’m not talking about a sort of a certain kind of rebellion, but a shifting of the sensibility and –

PAULA VOGEL: The turning.

LYNN NOTTAGE: – the turning of –

PAULA VOGEL: The turning of the wheel.

LYNN NOTTAGE: – a wheel, which is what is happening right now. And, unfortunately, it’s turning backward. So we have to be careful, and we have to protect the word.

PAULA VOGEL: Yeah, absolutely. It’s terrifying.

LYNN NOTTAGE: It is terrifying. You know, that list of what the president wants to cut out—National Endowment of Arts, National Endowment of Humanities, squeezing the EPA and squeezing out the state department and a lot of the programs that are really about servicing the poor and about enlightenment and what I feel represents the best of what America has to offer. It is who we are and these are the gifts that we can give, and you squeeze that out, and it’s like, then, who do we become?

PAULA VOGEL: The ability to have a long life is going to be something that only the ruling classes have.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah, only the very wealthy.

PAULA VOGEL: That’s right. You know, all of the stories that we have of our parents and grandparents, where people died early and young—crushed at work, caught in the machinery, whatever—all of those regulations are being undone right now.

LYNN NOTTAGE: They’re going to be slowly stripped away, and you’ll see workers dying again. We’ll see women struggling to get abortions in back alleys. All the things that we take for granted will disappear, which is why we have to write.

PAULA VOGEL: Right. It’s an ironic thing: right at the moment that we’re finally reaching visibility, the field is endangered and it’s also the moment where it’s most important to write for theatre. Kind of funny.

LYNN NOTTAGE: It is kind of funny. And I think maybe that’s why we’re on Broadway now. Maybe it’s finally prepared to receive certain voices, because they’re necessary . . .

PAULA VOGEL: Yes.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Which is the optimistic view. [Laughs]

PAULA VOGEL: It’s also interesting. I think the past several decades, I’ve been feeling a kind of benign optimism that time was on our side, that demographically, the United States was shifting.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, it was shifting.

PAULA VOGEL: And that white nationalism was going to die out.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Now it’s panic. What we’re seeing is panic. And white panic is . . . a recognition that power balance is going to tip in the other way, and folks who’ve really enjoyed the white privilege are going to have to let it go. And, you know, you’ve probably heard me describe how white privilege has been the superpower, and the kryptonite is diversity.

PAULA VOGEL: Yes. That’s absolutely right. So, you still think time is on our side?

LYNN NOTTAGE: I do think it’s on our side. I think that this is the last gasp.

PAULA VOGEL: Oh, God, please.

LYNN NOTTAGE: But I think not only time is on our side. I think numbers ultimately will be on our side.

PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. That’s what I mean. The demographic change cannot be stopped.

LYNN NOTTAGE: It can’t be stopped. And they’re trying to stop it. I mean, with a, what was it, $35 billion to build a wall to protect their whiteness? And that’s really—I mean, I wish they’d just come out and say it. Because it’s not about empowering the working class. Donald Trump really doesn’t give a shit about the working class, if you look at his hiring practices and his labor practices.

PAULA VOGEL: Yeah, terrible, terrifying time.

TARI STRATTON: It is. You know, Robert Schenkkan sat down and wrote his new play [Building the Wall, premièred at New World Stages in New York City’s Theatre District on 21 May 2017] in something like six days in response to what’s going on. [The play imagines a dystopia impacted by President Donald Trump’s border and immigration policies] Have either of you been inspired to do something like that, or you’re just so enmeshed in what’s happening with your current shows right now?

PAULA VOGEL: I feel like I am doing something.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah. I feel like I was doing it five years ago.

PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. I feel like that’s what Indecent is.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I feel like I was proactive and not reactive.

PAULA VOGEL: And, you know, the truth of the matter is it’s been in the air for some time.

LYNN NOTTAGE: For some time, yes.

PAULA VOGEL: So if we say, “Oh, my gosh. We’re shocked,” the truth of the matter is that the failing of that working class has been going on –

LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s been coming for decades.

PAULA VOGEL: The emptying towns, and the anti-immigration has been with us. It’s been stinking to high heaven for some time.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah. And This is Reading is also my response to what is happening. [This is Reading is a multi-media performance-art installation consisting of video, film and live performances inspired by themes explored in Sweat.  It was performed in and around the former Franklin Street Railroad Station in Reading in July.] I have the play, and it’s great that it’s going to Broadway. But I feel as though there is a whole demographic of people who cannot come to New York City and pay. We do have $32.00 tickets, but even a $32.00 ticket is too expensive for them after a long journey.

So, I’m trying to figure out different models and paradigms for making theatre and taking it outside of the proscenium and taking it outside of these institutions, because one of the things that I found when I was in Reading and speaking to people is that they’re very intimidated by the arts. And I thought, “Well, that should not be the case. The arts should be the thing that gives you comfort. You should feel welcome.” But they said they go into galleries—into these pristine white spaces—and to theatres, and they don’t know how to dress. They don’t know how to respond, because no one has ushered them across the threshold. Our project called This is Reading is trying to bring people into an art space who are not necessarily used to being in art spaces and then putting those people in dialogue with each other, people who are not used to talking across racial and economic lines.

I’m going to take the art to the people who really don’t have access to it. So, we’re trying to raise the money, because no one’s going to get paid. It’s free. If you give, you’re giving because you’re invested in this sort of notion of art making.

TARI STRATTON: So how about one last, nuts-and-boltsy kind of question. I just want to know if the plays have changed at all. You both had many productions, but at least from the Off-Broadway production, then when you found out you’re going to go to Broadway, to now. That’s interesting to me, because I saw both plays, and loved them.

PAULA VOGEL: We’re still finessing. There are all of these little technical crafty things in the writing, where I stood in the back and I went, “I could make that a little tighter.” We started in La Jolla, [November-December 2015] [went to] the Yale large theater [October 2015], crunched it down at The Vineyard, and now we have to bring it back out.

So we’re looking at the running time, how do we make it flow – all of that kind of stuff. You have to make it the best you possibly can until the last second that you have. For me, I think this comes down to—especially as a woman artist—I’m not going to get very many shots like this. I’m going to work to the very last moment.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I feel the same way. It’s some real tweaking, but a couple of bold shifts, rearranging of scenes, which felt a little scary, but I felt like I have to do it, because it always bothered me a little bit, and we didn’t have time to do it before. And now, this is the opportunity.

We want to squeeze some time out, and at some point, I realized I’m not going to be able to squeeze enough time out, and I just have to ask the audience to be patient. Everything can’t happen at a break-neck pace. I feel like audiences have become so impatient and restless, and you think of plays in the past in which people sat and they listened, and there were moments in which it was slow, but the slow moments were necessary to help elucidate a character and to create some of the suspense that then would pay off in the end. And so part of this process has been forgiving myself and saying, “It’s okay for this moment to take the time that it needs to take.”

PAULA VOGEL: Here’s the good news for me, and I don’t know if you’re going to agree with this, but being this age when I get the Broadway opportunity—after all of those years, I know how to get myself out of the way and listen very hard to the play. And I feel like that’s what you’re doing. Listening.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I agree with you and feel the same thing. It’s the little nagging things, which, you hear. It’s like, ugh, you know, that transition isn’t quite as smooth as I’d like, or I know that that word was always a placeholder until I found the right word, but it’s still there, because I still haven’t found the right word. Now, I’m really pressing myself to try at this moment to find the right word rather than being a little lazy, which sometimes I have been.

PAULA VOGEL: Well, I do that and I use the same word. I’ve said to people, “This is a placeholder. I’m going to come back to it.”

LYNN NOTTAGE: And sometimes you rush into production, and you don’t have time to get back to those little things because you have two weeks of rehearsal, or you have other concerns, you know.

PAULA VOGEL: That’s right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

TARI STRATTON: Do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share?

LYNN NOTTAGE: For me, it’s just always an honor and a delight to sit in a room and have this much time with Paula Vogel. I think over the years, because we’ve both been in such different spaces, we haven’t had the luxury to have this kind of conversation. So I just – I profoundly appreciate it, and I really look forward to sort of sharing this journey on Broadway with you.

PAULA VOGEL: I feel the same way and just want to say, because, you know, life flies by quickly, but I do want to say I love you, and I love your work. And your work makes me a believer every time I encounter it.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, you created this believer.

PAULA VOGEL: [Laughs]

LYNN NOTTAGE: But it’s true. I mean, Paula Vogel at one of the most important moments in my life—at that crossroads when you’re deciding who you’re going to be as an adult—pushed me in a direction. She was the first woman who I encountered who was writing plays and said, “You can do this.” And those words were so important to me at an age when I didn’t think that I could do it. To have someone say, “You can do this.” That’s everything.

PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. Well, you didn’t hear me scream when you won the Pulitzer. But you’re going to hear me scream on opening night. It gives me so much happiness.

LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, thank you.

TARI STRATTON: This was an honor for me, too, just to sit in the room and listen to you two. Thank you so much.

[Either Vogel was confused about the order of the out-of-town productions of Indecent, or she was referring to something else, like a workshop or developmental readings in La Jolla before Yale’s staging.  The record of the two companies’ formal productions seems indisputable.

[Tari Stratton is the Director of Education & Outreach at the Dramatists Guild of America.]