Fucking A

FA feature.jpg

Suzan-Lori Parks’s plays always speak their own language, but in 2000’s Fucking A the playwright one-upped herself. The women of the play have developed their own semi-secret language called TALK that allows them to hide in plain sight among callous men. It’s as beautiful and elegant an illustration of female solidarity as any in Parks’s work, and indicative of her gift for fashioning skewed worlds that make us see our own world anew. She doesn’t so much pull back the curtain as shoot it through the back wall.

Fucking A, currently being revived at Signature Center together with Parks’s In the Blood, is an inky velvet riff on The Scarlet Letter, the 19th-century Nathaniel Hawthorne novel that’s ruined many an American teen’s sophomore year. As in the book, the heroine (Christine Lahti) is named Hester, but her red “A” has been branded into her chest by the leaders of the “small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere,” where she works as abortionist. It’s necessary but disrespectful work, which makes her a pariah and the social equal of her good friend Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), a prostitute to whom the Mayor (Marc Kudisch) has purchased exclusive rights.

Elizabeth Stanley (left) plays the mayor’s wife and Monster Brandon Victor Dixon is Monster in the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A. Top: Dixon and Christine Lahti.

Elizabeth Stanley (left) plays the mayor’s wife and Monster Brandon Victor Dixon is Monster in the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A. Top: Dixon and Christine Lahti.

The First Lady, the Mayor’s rich wife, (Elizabeth Stanley) had Hester’s son, Boy, sent to jail 30 years ago when Hester was working for her. Hester bit Boy on the arm as they were dragging him away so he would have a scar to match hers and they could find each other again. She has been working ever since to buy his liberty from the Freedom Fund, but they keep raising the price. Meanwhile, a violent man named Monster (Brandon Victor Dixon) has appeared outside of town, bearing a scar on his left arm.

With its dim view of power relations and its sympathy for society’s undesirables, the story seems straight out of Bertolt Brecht; the fat cats, penniless reprobates, and bloodthirsty criminals (on both sides of the law) could have wandered in from his and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Even the songs for which Parks wrote both music and lyrics feel like part of the Weimar cabaret tradition that gave birth to Threepenny. Though Parks the composer can’t hold a candle to Weill, Parks the playwright is Brecht’s equal as a dramatist, and usually his better. Both writers are politically-minded, but Parks’s multivalent dramaturgy has always foregrounded the voices of women and minorities. Her righteous anger and poetic yearning are no less clear than Brecht’s, yet she has never shared his interest in hectoring moralization.

That doesn’t mean her works translate naturally to the stage, though. They read like architectural poetry on the page, but can sound affected when spoken by flesh-and-blood actors. The performers most experienced in musical theater—Dixon, Kalukango, Kudisch, Stanley—have the best luck with Parks’s poetical patois. Dixon (Hamilton, Shuffle Along), in fact, is one of the best actors working today; he uses his entire body, playing multiple emotions simultaneously and making a tragic linchpin out of a small supporting role.

The Mayor (Marc Kudisch) is having an affair with Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango). Photographs by Joan Marcus.

The Mayor (Marc Kudisch) is having an affair with Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango). Photographs by Joan Marcus.

This isn’t director Jo Bonney’s first time working with Parks, but her naturalistic staging is at odds with Parks’s impressionistic text, creating often enervating stage pictures that take at its word a play much more interested in what lies underneath.

And what lies underneath is not pretty. Fucking A shows how the very large United States of America has made itself a spiritually “small country in the middle of nowhere” since before its founding by establishing itself on the back of stolen black labor, through the centuries-long slave trade and its modern incarnation, the prison-industrial complex. The Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson) tries to woo Hester by repeating the list of crimes that have landed his “rotten” daughter Lulu in jail. His extended monologue gets funnier and more outlandish the longer it goes on (some examples: “hanging upside down in a public place,” “conversations with adults which bordered on the ridiculous,” “leading unsuspecting men and women into cyberspace and leaving them there lost and without a roadmap”). It’s a killer joke, but also a stark reminder, at a time when simply taking a knee during the national anthem unleashes a flood of white (and orange) tears, of the ways that the bodies of women and African-Americans have been endlessly policed, broken, and legislated against, and a brutal condemnation toward those of us lucky enough to need a reminder.

Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A runs through Oct. 8 at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 8 p.m. on Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at 212-244-7529 or visit signaturetheatre.org.

Print Friendly and PDF