For students forced in high school to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, this seminal novel about the restrictive confines of puritanical American society ultimately constitutes their least favorite assignment on the curriculum. Despite the salacious nature of a story that revolves around infidelity, Hawthorne’s archaically flowery language and snail-like pace usually bores even the most sex-obsessed, hormone-addled adolescents.
Perhaps, then, education institutions should also assign in tandem The Red Letter Plays, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ dual-takes on this classic tale, both of which are currently being given essential revivals at the Signature Theatre. Originally produced around the turn of the century, In the Blood and Fucking A take hold of Hawthorne’s timeless themes and force the audience to reckon with their lasting impact on American culture. If Hawthorne masked the base-desires of his yarn with literary elegance, Parks utilizes her inimitable lyrical style to tackle the dark underbelly of America head on, her signature.
Nowadays (at least in more and more parts of the country), Hester Prynne’s mortal sin of birthing a child out of wedlock feels almost quaint in its commonality, and her subsequent excommunication from her religious community bears insufficient surface similarities with contemporary existence. In fact, all of Hester’s inner wrestling with her dubious spiritual state in the eyes of God, which comprises a good portion of the novel, feels too removed from today’s increasingly secular world to engage on a substantive level.
At least, that’s what Americans would like to believe. Though Parks retains a few of the characters’ names (Hester remains Hester, Reverend Dimmesdale becomes Reverend D., and Roger Chillingworth turns into Chilli here) and their uber-general roles for In the Blood, she completely transforms their lives and environment to pointedly comment on life right past the lip of the stage. Hester is now a single black mother of five with five-different baby daddies, all now absent. This picture of a commonly-considered dysfunctional family easily replaces the A that Hester once-brandished to label her as a social pariah.
Americans may no longer ostracize their own explicitly based on religious principles, but the lingering influence of our Puritanical roots instantly casts Parks’ Hester as an outcast. Every facet of her being challenges our widely-held yet limited conception of morality. To justify any judgement of her situation, people will often cite the hardships a lone mother will face trying to raise kids alone in such a cruel world. But Parks turns those tables around, theatrically pondering how so much of society is designed to alienate and keep down individuals in Hester’s position. Her life may be abnormal, but why is such unconventionality deemed to be wrong? Because it behooves those in power to let norms dictate what’s right?
The fact that Parks explored respectability politics years before the term entered the zeitgeist is a testament to the prescience of her genius. Brilliant minds like hers understand that the key to the future resides in the past, one that spans all the way back to the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the original Hester Prynne.
Perhaps that’s why In the Blood takes place in a literal dump, vividly brought to stinking life in Louisa Thompson’s scenic design. Though Americans like to believe that the trash of their history is out of sight and thus out of mind, its lineage provides the very bedrock of society. In the same way that the garbage of the set acts as the foundation of the production, Hawthorne’s story of Hester Prynne’s unjust treatment at the hands of ignoramuses serves as a reminder of America’s original sin. If we so easily allowed irrational faith to determine our worldviews back then – thereby damning those who didn’t conform to such a ludicrously black-and-white perspective – who’s to say that we’re not committing the same faults today?
Leave it to the invaluable likes of Suzan-Lori Parks, with a hat-tip to Hawthorne, to dynamically school us on our shortcomings.