Even outcasts ain't what they used to be in Suzan Lori-Parks' In the Blood, presented over the last two weekends at Duke Energy Theater. While we searched in vain for a darling little Pearl, the parallels between the Parks story line and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter were unmistakable. Both heroines are named Hester, and both have had illicit relations with a Reverend D.
The latter-day Hester doesn't live in a secluded cottage on the outskirts of Salem. No, she and her family live in urban squalor under a bridge, and the Rev D is merely the most recent of five absentee fathers who have found Hester fair and left her out in the cold. Hester Prynne, you may recall, was branded for her single indiscretion and obliged to wear the letter A over her heart. Through her sewing skill and her good deeds, Hawthorne's Hester turned her badge of shame into a badge of honor.
Our thoroughly modern Hester visibly struggles to spell the letter A. Forget about embroidering. When the Welfare Lady brings her a costly fabric to sew, Hester has even greater difficulties getting started, unable to thread a needle. So she passes the fabric along to her other frequent visitor, a shifty drug-dealing whore named Amiga Gringa, who will undoubtedly bring her at least 1/10 of what the goods are worth.
After their lackluster premiere of Cell Phone Blues back in September, On Q Productions was back on form with these babies. Each of Hester's children was half of a dual role, setting up the sort of pseudo-allegory that was always close to the core of Hawthorne's fiction. So Bryan C. Conley was not only the eldest child, Jabber, he was also his slickster dad Chilli. LeShea Stukes was Bully and The Welfare Lady, akin in meanness; Marcus Riter was Trouble and the Doctor, another wayward dad; Heather Whittington was Beauty and Amiga; and the orotund Omar El-Amin was Baby, often played on his knees, and the slightly guilt-ridden Rev D.
Stukes had the juiciest action as the bossy Welfare Lady and the ever-resentful Bully, but aside from Conley's Chilli -- a little short on glibness and vanity -- the entire cast was strong from beginning to end. Just two major flaws: the character of Hester and the repetitive structure of Parks' script.
Parks gives us precious little to like about Hester. True, she isn't nearly as bad as all her hypocritical detractors make her out to be, but she's surly to her kids, endlessly whining to the adults, obliging to the men who exploit her, and a perpetual picture of degradation, frustration, desperation, and despair. There wasn't that much Selena Scott could have done to make Hester less cumulatively tedious, but I think she and director Quentin Talley chose the wrong tack. Instead of cresting from time to time in shrill anger -- or perhaps in addition to that -- I would have preferred to see glimpses of the Hester who was so alluring to so many men and women.
A spotlight trained downstage left was also overworked as scene after scene ended with a monologue from one of Hester's tormentors lamely justifying his or her actions. Talley's device of freezing the action over and over -- and running the same damn sound sampling from Bitches Brew -- also outlived its freshness.
But even if it didn't need triple underlining, the message of In the Blood remained powerful. Clearly, Parks isn't letting religious hypocrisy off the hook in diagnosing society's ills. Albeit shrilly, Parks is calling out the full magnitude of our descent, mirrored in the number of ways her Hester can be screwed over.