In the Blood

Next Theatre Company

With the dawning of a new century and an American populace seemingly eager to confront a newly dangerous world (or one newly revealed as dangerous), perhaps the time is right for theater to resume its pivotal cultural role. And if the roar of the popular press is to be believed, Suzan-Lori Parks–last year’s Pulitzer winner for Topdog/Underdog–is just the person to revitalize the stage. At first glance her 1999 play In the Blood, currently receiving raves at Next Theatre, would seem to fit the bill: a homeless African-American mother of five, Hester La Negrita, struggles to keep her family independent of the infantilizing welfare system. In this arena, questions of class, race, gender, and sexual autonomy should produce a titanic tale of survival–and having worked with numerous homeless clients in ten years at a legal-aid agency, I’ve heard some remarkable survival stories. But given Parks’s laughably superficial understanding of the problems she addresses, she’s merely hurrying the theater along on its seemingly inexorable march toward irrelevance.

Touted as an innovator for her semipoetic, semiepic work–apparently everyone’s forgotten Brecht–Parks simply does what the majority of successful American playwrights do: keeps things TV simple while creating a patina of complexity with a flurry of attention-grabbing theatrical devices. The opening moments of In the Blood set the tone for the ensuing two and a half hours: five actors in trench coats bark choral insults against the as-yet-unseen Hester. She’s uneducated, they snarl, she sleeps around, she has no skills, she lives off our tax dollars. They even spit in unison. Demonstrating only how intolerant and ignorant these mouthpieces are, especially under Lisa Portes’s ham-handed direction, the prologue is a simplistic harangue that makes it easy for an audience to congratulate themselves on their perceived liberal-mindedness.

Then Hester appears, holding a newborn, beaming with pride as she elevates the bundle toward the sky and says, “My treasure.” One wonders why designer Kristine Knanishu left the halo off her costume.

In two minutes the play’s moral scheme is clear: Hester is good, everyone else is really, really bad. Parks makes a limited attempt to muddy the waters in the first scene, a static demonstration of “life under the highway bridge.” The kids–portrayed with a generalized noncredible childishness by the misdirected cast–goof around. The oldest teaches Hester how to write an A, the only letter she can recognize. She tells them a story about a woman who marries five different princes and has five different children. She serves them soup from a cast-iron tureen (apparently the soup has been cooking untended offstage somewhere), starving herself so her children can eat. Once in a while she yells at them, threatening to kill them if they don’t behave–Parks’s attempt to humanize her heroine. Then Hester sends the kids to bed and shines their shoes.

Apart from the complete lack of drama–why do so many contemporary playwrights resist setting things in motion for the first 20 minutes?–this scene creates a critical credibility problem. An adult who can recognize only one letter of the alphabet would probably have an extremely low level of mental functioning. How, then, has Hester managed to survive unassisted under a bridge for over a decade while raising five children? Perhaps by the same divine providence that cooked the soup. If we’re to enter into Parks’s world, we must accept Hester as a character in a fable–a fable, a la Brecht, that allows us to see reality in a new light. The A she recognizes is, of course, the A that branded her literary forebear Hester Prynne. This new Hester even scrawls the letter in red on one of the upstage walls. As in The Scarlet Letter, Parks’s heroine is a woman scorned for her sexual agency, which runs counter to social norms. And iconic representatives of “the system” are determined to see that her morals get corrected.

Unfortunately Parks is fundamentally ignorant of the world she hopes to expose, which undercuts even a metaphoric treatment. The two figures who exert the most control over Hester are Doctor and Welfare. Doctor walks the streets wearing an enormous “doctor” sandwich board and carting an examination screen. Apparently his self-described roadside practice is meant to parody the poor health services supplied to those on welfare. But decades of assessments have shown that one of the biggest barriers poor people face in getting medical care is transportation–sending doctors out to highway underpasses would be a boon.

Doctor also says that the “higher-ups” have determined Hester must be sterilized, or “spayed” as he puts it. (The medical profession treats her like a dog–get it?) Of course 40 years ago the coerced sterilization of some women on welfare was a hidden horror, but a series of lawsuits ended that practice in the 1970s. The issue facing poor women today is not enforced sterilization but enforced contraception. In recent court cases, poor women of childbearing age have been ordered to receive a Norplant implant even when the crimes they committed had nothing to do with child rearing. And several state legislatures have considered offering cash incentives to women on welfare who would consent to Norplant implantation. To criticize the public-health system today for enforcing sterilization is like reprimanding Congress for supporting jim crow.

At least Parks’s critique of the medical establishment has a whiff of truth. Doctor is exhausted, perfunctory in his examinations of Hester and willing to dispense only the most basic care. (He also confesses in a monologue that he had sex with Hester once: the medical profession fucked her over–get it?) By contrast Parks’s portrayal of the child-welfare bureaucracy might as well have been created on another planet. Visiting Hester under the bridge, Welfare is decked out in high heels, pearls, white gloves, and diamond earrings. She expects Hester to give her a shoulder massage while reminiscing about the time she tried to teach Hester how to drink properly from a teacup. Attempting to hammer home the point that the child-welfare system has no conception of the experience of the families under its care, Parks shows instead that she has no conception of welfare field-workers, a notoriously underpaid, overburdened lot. The problem is not too much money in the system but too little.

Other incidental characters are just as broadly drawn. Reverend D, who fathered Hester’s youngest child and then disappeared, preaches about the importance of family unity. Amiga Gringa, a conniving prostitute, will sell anything she can get her hands on, even her unborn baby. Jabber is a tuxedoed goofball who fathered Hester’s eldest 13 years ago and now roams the city with a wedding dress stuffed in a picnic basket, hoping to find his former lover. When he does he proposes marriage–then realizes Hester has had children with other men and beats it. This penultimate scene is supposed to push Hester to the brink of emotional breakdown, but since Jabber is a buffoon, her encounter with him seems little more than a diversion.

Perhaps Parks’s greatest blunder is her final disposition of Hester. About halfway through the play Hester begins to see a huge, dark hand covering the sun, coming down to crush her. Nothing in the play suggests that the struggles we witness are anything but routine for Hester, yet by the end of the play she’s gone mad–and Parks has stripped all moral agency from the one character whose choices need to matter.

Portes pushes her cast to underline every obvious point in Parks’s script, resulting in a production devoid of nuance, intrigue, or ambivalence. If you don’t know where your sympathies should lie at almost every moment, you’re probably asleep. It’s particularly disconcerting to see Karen Aldridge, one of Chicago’s most sophisticated and understated actresses, fight against her natural impulses to deliver a performance of such unconvincing hyperbole.

“What can theater do for us?” Parks asks in a program note. “We can ‘tell it like it is;’ ‘tell it like it was;’ ‘tell it like it could be.’ In my plays I do all 3.” Right. In the Blood tells us nothing new about our lives, instead erecting oversize targets and knocking them down with ease. Insisting that Parks’s play is, in the words of the Tribune, “stuff that really matters” will only serve to convince clear-sighted people that contemporary theater is hopelessly out of touch. Next Theatre artistic director Jason Loewith may assert that Parks is “what’s next,” but if In the Blood is any indication, we should pray he’s wrong.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.