(from left) Kiayla Ryann, Max Thomas, Casey Chapman, Jyreika Guest, Richard Costes, Emilie Modaff |Photo by Austin Oie
by Sheri Flanders
Originally premiering in New York in 1999, In the Blood is one of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ earlier works, without as much polish or sophistication as newer plays such as Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, which premiered in 2014 in New York, and played at The Goodman last fall. The youth of this sprawling play is evident, as characters that are both realistic and metaphorical manifest as caricature and bits of social commentary speaking to other bits of commentary. The dialogue is often heavy-handed and clunky, and many on-the-nose points are obtusely hammered home. It is often not easy or enjoyable to watch.
Based on The Scarlet Letter, In the Blood is a painful tragedy, and what makes it notable is less its style than its subject matter. Parks’s meditation on the vilification of poor Black motherhood and the unfortunate conditional humanity practiced by our society is material that deserves more stage time.
Jyreika Guest is captivating as Hester, the poor, illiterate mother of five children by five different fathers. She brings a quiet dignity to a stereotype that is usually afforded none; a black woman parenting on the verge of exhaustion and anger, her violent mood swings still leavened with love. Watching the story unfold, one sees how cruel the myth of pulling one up by one’s bootstraps is when aimed at someone with absolutely nothing.
Adult actors playing children on stage is always a dicey proposition, yet when some of those same actors play their own fathers later, it creates a powerful statement. Casey Chapman, Richard Costes, Emilie Modaff, Kiayla Ryann and Max Thomas toggle between the uncomfortable reality of the type of children that many would look down upon; uneducated and unruly – and the type of people that look down upon them.
Parks’ play takes on everything — an angry, molten hot emotional vomit regarding all that Black women have had to navigate over the centuries. Casey Chapman plays the Doctor in one emotionally devastating scene that echoes the chilling American history of medical malpractice and sexual exploitation of vulnerable African-American women, and the drive towards sterilization — taking away the one thing that Hester truly owns. Fight and Intimacy Director Gaby Labotka helps to delicately navigate this brutal moment; and the production should be commended for valuing this position. One also wonders if the parallels between this moment and the African-American experience on the slave-blocks are lost on much of the audience without additional context, and instead absorbed as gratuitous violence.
Kiayla Ryann is heartbreaking as the specter of Black respectability politics; the hand that pulls up the ladder behind her after she’s a safe distance away from the cesspool; a desperate attempt to embrace class signifiers to distance her from the reputation of the Jezebel stereotype that polices Black sexuality. Emille Modaff is bawdy and rambunctious as the white counterpoint to Hester; able to more fully embrace her sexuality, yet still a lost victim of sexism, poverty and the brutality of men.
Max Thomas brings a disarming kindness to Chili, a deadbeat dad dangling false hope always out of reach. And Richard Costes does double-duty as Reverend, not only a good-for-nothing father, but also as the voice from the pulpit, a two-bit huckster, delivering the vicious judgment of religion. Thanks to the troubling history of Christianity and slavery in America, good fortune has been inexorably tied to morality, and poverty to sin and sloth. There are no heroes in this story and no salvation.
Everyone gaslights Hester in the most patronizing way, doing minuscule “good deeds” that nourish them emotionally or financially, yet that have no real lasting impact on her situation. The most powerful part of In the Blood is the excavation of the disgusting ways that do-gooders ask poor people to prove that they “are trying to help themselves” like asking a dog to do tricks for treats; revealing that pets are often treated better. Our soulless conditional generosity is our mortal sin.
Having said that, selling moral superiority to white audiences is becoming passé. The monologues are preachy and somewhat predictable, and the exploitation scenes are stomach-churning. A play cannot change the world, so ultimately In the Blood is a testament to Hester’s tragic life; a heartbreaking lament for the forgotten. If her begging for just enough to survive is too much for society to give; the least we can do is bear witness to her existence. Throughout the play she futilely carries a police nightstick as pointless protection against the insidious danger that cannot be bludgeoned – apathy.In the Blood is highly voyeuristic; director Chika Ike has placed the audience on both sides of the stage, forcing them not only to watch the play, but also each other. Like most social justice works, the weight of the impact will depend on who you are. Points of laughter for some are moments of abject horror for others. At the end of the performance, as the nearly exclusively white, middle-upper class audience left the theater wearing Canada Goose coats and Birkenstocks, after watching two hours of the brutal and explicit exploitation and pain of a dirt-poor black woman, it is ironically announced that Red Tape’s mission is to offer free arts access to all patrons. Fate is real and society controls its hand.