Hester Meets Hester in a Red Letter Plays Sit-Down
F**king A and In the Blood — the two pieces that make up Suzan-Lori Parks's Red Letter Plays, now running in tandem at Pershing Square Signature Center — are described by Parks as "riffs" on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Neither is set in 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts, nor do they circle romantic stories of star-crossed lovers as the narrative of Hester Prynne did. The bleak tales merely borrow The Scarlet Letter's chords of female ostracism and social injustice and strike them with an iron mallet.
The name "Hester" is one of the few elements that Parks borrowed from the original work, and Christine Lahti and Saycon Sengbloh are the women bearing the name proudly in their respective productions. In F**king A, Lahti plays Hester Smith, a local abortionist who dutifully executes her unsavory service in an effort to pay her son's way out of prison. Sengbloh, meanwhile, plays In the Blood's Hester, La Negrita — an illiterate mother of five by five different men who yearns for a source of love and stability in a world hell-bent on letting her drown.
Lahti and Sengbloh sat down to compare and contrast their unique renderings of Hester. One thing the conversation made abundantly clear: From the days of Puritanical New England, to the era of Nathaniel Hawthorne, through the 21st century — Hester, in all contexts, settles in disconcertingly well.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Had either of you read or seen these plays before joining these productions?
Saycon Sengbloh: I saw F**king A when it was at the Public Theater in 2003. I had newly moved to New York and I was a standby on Broadway in Aida. I didn't have to do the show every night and one of my friends was a stage manager on F**king A, so I was like, "I'm gonna come down there and come see your show!" It's a heavy topic, but I loved it.
As the one who now has to perform F**king A every night, what was your first impression, Christine?
Christine Lahti: I really didn't get it. I said to my agent, "I don't want to do a stylized experimental theater thing. I did all that in college; I'm done with that." She told me to read it two more times. After the third time, I said, "OK, let me meet the director." When I met with Jo Bonney, she said, "We're doing this totally real and raw. The stakes are Shakespearean. It's about class and gender, and it's so relevant for now." And I said, "OK, I'm in." At this stage in my career, I only want to do things that scare me. I've had things that make me feel safe and now I just want to be scared. This play scares the sh*t out of me — in all the best ways. I don't know how you feel…
Saycon: I'm the opposite. I've been doing scary things back to back. I don't want to be scared and this play scares me. It drives me crazy. Of course I want what I do to have meaning and to move people's lives, but…
Christine: You don't like the fear part.
Saycon: I don't like the fear part. But I feel like a lot of the theater that I've been doing has been all about that. How far can we go? This has been a great challenge in my life. I think these pieces are definitely the types of pieces that will stretch us all.
How would each of you describe your respective versions of Hester?
Christine: I would say she is a survivor. She takes it on the chin until she can't anymore, and you see in the play where that changes. She has played by the rules for so long and her rage against the injustice finally fuels her sense of vengeance. She gets woke.
Saycon: My Hester — she's full of love and she wants to be loved. She wants it so bad that she has often been victimized by that sense of wanting. She's hungry, literally and figuratively. She has five kids and she'll feed her children before she will eat, herself. When you say your Hester "takes it on the chin," I guess my Hester takes it on the chin, too. But she is eventually destroyed.
Christine: Same. I haven't read your play, but I think what our Hesters have in common is an undeniable unwavering love for their children.
Christine: That's the mother lioness thing that drives both of them. But in my case, I also really want a second chance to be a good mom. I can't help but feel responsible when my six-year-old son is ripped away from me for stealing a piece of meat. Of course you blame the injustice on the system, but woulda shoulda coulda. If I had brought him a bigger lunch that day and he wasn't hungry; if I had maybe secretly advised him, just as long as no one's looking… So this is my second chance to be a mom and finally to be able to protect him.
In F**king A, the community seems very willing to judge Hester and her son for the choices that led to their present circumstances, even though those choices are made on the foundation of an unfair system.
Christine: That's right. You made a bad choice, so you deserve to go to prison when you're six.
Saycon: People get laid a bad hand. You deal with the cards that you're dealt and you deal with them as best you can.
Saycon, your Hester is written as a woman of color. Does In the Blood specifically address race in addition to gender?
Saycon: I think gender is definitely the overwhelming issue. There is a certain nuance that happens because of race. But I found that no matter what race, when you find out a woman has more than, say, three kids, you go, "Oh my gosh!" There's just a gasp. Meanwhile, I'm in an age range where a lot of my friends are all trying to scramble to have a kid because it's that last little pocket. Women who have focused on their careers and waited and waited then have trouble. You know what I mean?
Christine: It happened to me.
Saycon: It's a double-edged sword! We get praise for focusing on our careers and then we're also judged if we aren't mothers. People will say, "You're such a great talent!" Or, "You're working so hard!" But then also, "Oh, are you never gonna have kids?" It's really tough.
What do you think these two plays say about these societal stigmas surrounding women?
Saycon: It's a fascinating thing. The subject of controlling birth is so controversial. I grew up in Atlanta. One of the things I've been a witness to is women being encouraged to get hysterectomies — women who aren't necessarily in a position where they truly needed that surgery. There's so much money that the medical system makes when they do surgeries. On one hand, there's the judgment of, "You're not married; you shouldn't have more than one child." But then there's, "But let us do this surgery because we'll make money from it."
Christine: That's why these plays are so relevant today. Women in our play, and I'm assuming yours, are so oppressed. It's kind of post-apocalyptic, like The Handmaid's Tale meets Mother Courage. I feel like the toxic masculinity that is in the White House — the need to control women's bodies and keep women down and go back to an era when white men reigned supreme — that patriarchy is hanging on by their bloody fingernails. This is their last hurrah.