THE RED LETTER PLAYS: FUCKING A (Signature Theatre)

If In the Blood – the other half of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Scarlet Letter-reduxes The Red Letter Plays, currently receiving sterling revivals courtesy of the Signature Theatre – targets modern-day judgements rooted in lingering puritanical influences on American society, Fucking A delves into contemporary taboos that conform to the United States’ long puritanical lineage.

As the Playbill’s censorship of the title to F**king A suggests, some believe that a word as harmless in itself as “fucking” – which is here just seven letters on a page – should STILL, in 2017, be concealed, as if the sanctimonious purity of innocent readers will be tainted by such superficial impurity.

This concept is manifested in the actual body of the play through a language of gibberish dubbed “Talk,” which is exclusively reserved for women when discussing female issues that the close-minded men in power may find, yes, impurely icky. Conversations about abortions and periods must be obscured to the masses, whereas violence and even rape are perfectly acceptable in public. In fact, hunting humans has become a totally tolerated profession, whereas the A for abortionist Hester Prynne – here renamed Smith, emphasizing her Everywoman nature – is banished as an outcast for her deadly vocation.

In these ways, the world of Fucking A is a surreal version of our own, where society’s taboos are uncovered from their insidious place brushed under the rug and brought to life.  Back in the day, male Puritans shamed women like Hester who enjoyed extramarital sex, while the conquering men massacred Native Americans to make way for their moral homes that surely could not abide by Hester’s FAR WORSE behavior. Today, the United States, largely controlled by dudes, continues this confounding balancing act between accepting violence while shunning sex.

Director Jo Bonney actualizes these taboos in her staging. Raping, pillaging, and murdering are enacted before the audience’s eyes, while passionate lovemaking is performed offstage. Every scene of the play chronicles how the lives of Park’s characters are dictated by these taboos that they must navigate.

The characters’ plights are of course a reflection of our own, and Parks always keeps in mind how taboos infect so many facets of human existence, including her art. Acting as a thematic corollary to the aforementioned “Talk,” characters often break into song when confronting intimately personal subjects, as is customary in musicals. It’s a sad fact that humanity needed to create an art form to house their heightened emotions, as if it would be inappropriate for everyday expression to deal with such ideas. Why do we feel the urge to rely on “Talk” and singing when addressing universal desires bubbling just underneath our unassuming surfaces? Wouldn’t it be great if such masks weren’t necessary?

Perhaps that’s why Suzan-Lori Parks utilizes her own style of language in her plays; she understands that common parlance hides too much, and was designed by the powerful to give voice to their worldview, without much regard for other ways of being. How can we change our outlooks when the very words we use are a part of that old perception?

Parks’ answer is simple: Change the way we communicate. Her plays have often been criticized for being too challenging; these transcendent revivals of In the Blood and Fucking A are by no means conventionally enjoyable. But if art can be a key to developing a new world order, then it should present to audiences radically-different conceptions of reality that cannot be easily categorized.  Is Fucking A a musical or a play with music? That’s entirely subjective (my personal opinion: Any show that features characters repeatedly singing on stage is a musical), as it should be. How reality is captured and thus perpetuated should never be clearly defined, at least for artists who’d like to alter the perspectives of their audiences.

Parks’ endlessly complex dramatic landscapes demand to be wrestled with and subsequently chewed over, which is why the opportunity to spend an entire day inside her awesome mind with The Red Letter Plays will go down as one of my most cherished theatrical experiences of the season.

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