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Fucking A

By New York City
S. Epatha Merkerson in Fucking A(Photo: © Michal Daniel)
S. Epatha Merkerson in Fucking A
(Photo: © Michal Daniel)
This year's Suzan-Lori Parks play, Fucking A, makes last year's Suzan-Lori Parks play, Topdog/Underdog, look like a Pulitzer Prize winner. No, wait a minute; Topdog/Underdog actually did win last year's Pulitzer, thereby earning an honor that has not been a particularly reliable indicator of dramaturgical excellence over the years.

Though the earlier piece -- in which brothers Lincoln and Booth test each other's authority with destructive results -- is something of an extended, post-modern burlesque sketch, it also contains some beautifully wrought, genuinely scarifying sequences. Not as much can be claimed for Fucking A, which the playwright has been readying for some years and which she has pursued because the title, as she has commented more than once, strikes her as inordinately strong. Parks is right about that: In its profane reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, the title is inspired. It instantly indicates a contemporary take on the plight of women -- specifically, black women -- in a repressive society. Were Pulitzer Prizes given for titles, she might deserve one again this year. (N.B.: Many news outlets are refusing to use the full title of the play, giving excuses about family reading.)

Parks may believe that, if she comes up with an evocative title, she will inevitably come up with equally evocative and potent play to go with it. But Fucking A doesn't fill the bill. In spinning on Hawthorne's classic novel as she also did in the far superior In the Blood (1999), Parks has written a by-the-numbers tragedy. It's as if she had hied herself over to CompUSA, purchased some Bertolt Brecht software, installed it on her computer, and then followed the formula assiduously. Don't be fooled: Though Parks often discusses her interest in Greek myths, Jacobean revenge plays and Hawthorne, she is equally under the sway of Brecht. Along with the blatant allusions to The Scarlet Letter throughout In the Blood, there are just as many oblique references to Mother Courage and Her Children.

Well, here they come again in Fucking A, wherein an abortionist (the origin of the "A" in this context) named Hester and a handful of her friends and enemies go about their compromised business dealings, interrupting themselves to sing Brecht/Weill-like songs. Condemned forever to soil her apron with the blood of aborted fetuses in the same way that Mother Courage is condemned to pull her symbolic cart, Hester -- S. Epatha Merkerson in a warm, wounded performance -- accepts her assignment only because the meager income she gains from it will eventually allow her to buy her convict son's freedom. (The cry "Freedom ain't free" is repeated throughout the dialogue and is also reiterated as "Freedom is not free" in large, reverse-order letters above the appropriately simple and understated set designed by Mark Wendland.) Hester calls the lad "Boy Smith" but he has acquired the prison sobriquet "Monster"; the role is played by Mos Def, who proves here that his performance in Topdog/Underdog was no fluke. It turns out that Monster was incarcerated years before when a young girl, now the unnamed country's First Lady (Michole Briana White), tattled on him for stealing. The barren First Lady suffers while her husband, the Mayor (an overacting Bobby Cannavale), dallies with Hester's best buddy, the sexy and honest-as-hell Canary Mary (Daphne Rubin-Vega, delightfully street-smart as always).

Aside from the scarlet "A" that Hester wears on her left breast and which is visible through a cut-out in the shapeless smock that Ilona Somogyi has designed, she also bears and bares on her left forearm a scar that resulted when she bit herself just after biting a similar mark into her son's arm, realizing as he was taken from her that the circular mark might be the only way for her to identify him in the future. Against the advice of a butcher (Peter Gerety) who has a soft spot in his heart for her, Hester plots revenge on the suddenly pregnant First Lady. What she can't know, as she enlists Canary Mary's assistance, is that the object of her revenge has been consorting with an escaped criminal who bears a curious scar on his forearm. Needless to say, the consequences of the furious Hester's actions are dire.

Merkerson with Mos Def in Fucking A(Photo: © Michael Daniel)
Merkerson with Mos Def in Fucking A
(Photo: © Michael Daniel)
They are also entirely expected. The tragedies on which the prolific Parks has modeled her plays are about inevitability; Parks's variations are about predictability, and that's not the same thing. As she introduces Hester washing blood from her hands and shows her learning about painless knife strokes from the butcher, she signals everything that will transpire. When the audience is ahead of the dramatist, it's always a problem. (In Topdog/Underdog, Parks committed a similar faux pas by naming the two characters Lincoln and Booth and bringing a gun on stage.)

Maybe it's immaterial to the author that she gives so many clues to the outcome of the play because she believes that other facets of her art are more significant. If so, she errs. Nothing that happens in Fucking A is surprising. Despite Parks's having created a couple of characters (Hester and the perky Canary Mary) that embody attractive aspects of humanity, and despite her conjuring some nicely ironic dialogue exchanges, departing audience members will have no more insights concerning man's inhumanity to man and woman than they had upon entering the theater. Hester, who loses her son not once but twice in the course of the play, stands for all women whose essentially decent sons are lost to them because of social imperatives. Theirs is a circumstance that undeniably warrants attention; but Parks, who sets her drama in "a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere," has failed to create a heartbreaking indictment of unjust conditions. For that reason, the copious spillage of stage blood in Fucking A isn't as horrifying as she intends.

Nor has Parks, as lyricist and composer, crafted effective songs to aid her as she goes about her work. Sung by the full-throated Merkerson, Rubin-Vega, Mos Def, and other members of the hard working cast and played -- under Tim Weil's musical direction--by what are billed as the "Fucking A Musicians," these oom-pah-pah ditties have titles like "The Song of the Working Woman" and "A Meat Man is a Good Man to Marry." They aren't so much rough-hewn and biting as crude and toothless.

Director Michael Grief keeps things moving under Kenneth Posner's correctly harsh lighting but meets with only intermittent success where the actors are concerned. Yet the back-clad stagehands have been immaculately drilled in quick set changes, and they truly deserve the bow they take. As for the play: "A" for intention, "C+" for accomplishment.


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