In 2008, Danielle Drakes founded TheHegira as a commitment to showcasing the stories of women of color. Now, after two years of mentorship at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, her theatre company makes one of its boldest brush strokes yet. Using bright red — the most vital color of all — they’ve painted Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1999 tragic play into a powerful picture of one woman’s poverty and perseverance. Under the assured direction of Raymond O. Caldwell, this ensemble show has grown into a hot burning briquette, at once fervently alive and aggressively pared down.
Six actors work hard to portray eleven characters, but it’s Drakes in the central role of Hester who anchors the play. An unemployed and broke single mother of five, Hester keeps watch over her clamorous clan under an old bridge on the outskirts of town. The welfare system was made for just such struggling souls, but a series of small personal disasters has kept Hester on the outside. “We were making ends meet,” she sighs. “But the ends got further apart.” She’s so far behind, in fact, that she’s only learned to read and write the letter A — a letter that typically promises a world of language but, for Hester, only serves to tally her shame.
By now you’ve probably realized that Parks is having a go at re-telling Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter,” although there’s not much to recognize from the book other than the protagonist’s name and, naturally, that hopeful, hateful letter. But Parks has never been one to split hairs over the science of adaptation. What seems to have gripped her, mainly, is the desperate pulse of the blood in Hester’s veins. And with five fatherless, screaming kiddies in tow — each a living reminder of a broken heart and a severed relation — it’s no wonder she sees red.
From beginning to end, her life is streaked with it (thanks in part to the lighting by Eric Jordan Wells and the costuming by Jacqueline Levine, which both emphasize the palette nicely). Hester’s life is pooling with reservoirs of pain that she constantly steels herself to ignore, but ultimately it’s no use. Given that Parks is borrowing convention at least as much from classical Greek tragedy as she is from Hawthorne, the terrible, pitiful end of the story is fated from the outset.
Drakes churns her anger into love and back again, making strong stuff out of an especially difficult role. As her oldest son Jabber, Baye Harrell is especially captivating. The others bring versatility as well, in their roles as children and in their alternate characters: Rafael Cuesta’s keen-eyed portrayal of the deceitful Reverend D, Nicole Brewer’s confident turn as a welfare worker with a few glaring conflicts of interest, S. Lewis Feemster’s subtly screwy take on a rogue medical examiner, and Lynette Rathnam’s admirably inelegant chameleon act as a bedraggled prostitute. The invested efforts of the whole cast gracefully capture our imaginations without overshadowing each other.
In characterization, and for the most part in design, Caldwell holds us. In style, it can get a little foggy. Parks has the gift of being able to grow poetry out of even the saddest soil, which means actors in her plays are often handed lines of strict meter and rhythm-driven proclamations, even within scenes still rooted in the laws of realism. The stylistic implications of her writing aren’t always seized on here — some annunciatory lines translate live to lethargic entrances, and the propulsive absurdity of some speeches grow slack from the actorly effort to endow them with a more everyday logic. The pace grows slack in the second half especially, which makes us miss those early ensemble moments of tight control and unflinching delivery — most memorably a spot-on piece of danced storytelling to the tune of Kanye West at the top of the show.
But Caldwell, who also serves as Associate Producer for TheHegira, has a good eye for stage pictures and a strong sense of honesty through the course of what, fortunately, amount to more than just melodrama. Virtually nothing goes right for Hester, and she makes plenty of mistakes along the way, but this team metes out the sorrowful tale with a generous sense of play and even, at times, joyful irreverence. For one lonely mother, its a tragic tale. For us, as her witnesses, it’s also a chance to journey a stage deeper into our conversations about charity and loss — and about the uncertain course of blood-flow through major cities like ours, which manages to keep only certain hearts beating.
In the Blood
by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell
Produced by theHegira
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Celia Wren . Washington Post