Photo by Ruben DarioSuzan-Lori Parks is the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama, a couple of Obies and a MacArthur Genius grant, and is one very hot commodity on the alt.-theater scene. She writes about the seamy and the strung-out, the marginalized and oppressed—about infanticide, threesomes and Live! Lesbian! Sex! As the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, Parks perhaps has seen much. But does her work truly merit the acclaim? Not if you're building the case on a single production of In the Blood.
Parks' play concerns a homeless, illiterate single mother of five who is desperate to escape systematic dehumanization by the powers set up to discipline and reform or rescue her kind—doctors, welfare workers, the clergy. It certainly sounds like a white-knuckler. And while this production, helmed by Laura Marchant for the Loud*R*Mouth Theatre Company, is a brave step for the company (which is reportedly calling it quits after this show), it doesn't do enough with the material to make us walk out thinking Parks is that brilliant.
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This production seems oddly uncomfortable with its own subject matter. Because most of the edgy stuff—the infanticide, threesomes, live lesbian sex shows—is merely talked about, it's hard to really see how far Hester La Negrita (RaShelle Stocker) will go to support the five children she loves so much. Of course, they're the same five children who are driving her down to begin with. And just as Hester is victimized by her five children, whom she must protect and defend, she is victimized by the five grown character/archetypes that the actors playing her children become.
There are exemplary performances, especially Vonsye, the one-named actor playing the Welfare Lady, and Kevin Nichols' Reverend D. But only Emily Duval, as Amiga Gringa, an entrepreneurial prostitute, really seems to enjoy the tawdry tale she relates. It's ironic but true: the ensemble offers individual stand-out performances that rarely come together in the Hester-vs.-the-world way that Parks' play seems to demand.
Delving into the seamier undercurrents of Parks' play, and revealing why she truly is a woman alone, is important for more than voyeuristic reasons; without truly understanding Hester's situation—how desperate she is and what she'll truly do to survive—it's hard to care. And without that connection with Hester, a story that should anger, shock and horrify feels like just another sad-sap story in the Register's Ladies pages. It delivers neither the emotional freight of watching a woman act out in desperate fury nor the symbolic freight of Parks' play, which is an obvious indictment of the social and political bureaucracies designed to serve America's Hester La Negritas, but that sustain themselves by keeping people like Hester right where they're at.
In the Blood at Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 987-0053. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Aug. 9. $15.