Suzan-Lori Parks is amazing to me. The original mind and heart of this dramatist who writes like no other has been celebrated more than once in this column. But this is the thing: We cannot predict the stories she’ll tell us or even how she’ll tell them. Perhaps she herself doesn’t know-until, that is, she sits down to write, and demons visit her to be set free along with astonishing things.
At 39, the now-celebrated Pulitzer Prize–winning Ms. Parks is still a dramatist in fertile development, and so she shall be at 69. In that respect, she has one important thing in common with Caryl Churchill: Her plays mutate and change with every throw of the dice. How different last season’s urban comi-tragedy of brotherhood, Topdog/Underdog , seems from her current drama at the Public Theater, the blood-soaked, near-Jacobean Fucking A. Yet in her gut curiosity and playfulness-and Ms. Parks is one of the very few writers who play with plays-all her extraordinary stories link in the essentials of her nightmare universe.
Her early breakthrough drama, The America Play -whose search for black history in an America that has lost its moorings caused us to grieve-made reference to stories too horrible to mention. In its darkly comic way, in outbursts of song and invented language, Fucking A tells such unmentionable stories. It riffs on The Scarlet Letter , whose theme Ms. Parks first used in her last play, In the Blood -the story of a homeless mother of five who’s a branded adulteress lost in the wasteland. It’s as if the dramatist is still haunted by In the Blood , as if it’s unfinished business.
The heroine named Hester in the new drama is branded this time with an A for “abortionist”-but the time and place are utterly different, the canvas more ambitiously risky. We’re thrust into a displaced time and place where gold coins are currency, a drunk scribe writes wobbly letters, and locals sometimes speak in a secret, salty patois thoughtfully translated for us on surtitles above the action.
The vitality of Ms. Parks’ dialogue is well-known, but her invented language named “Talk” is a surprising bonus. It’s an earthy, muscular and very funny private language about private parts. The cast-directed by Michael Greif, with S. Epatha Merkerson, Mos Def and Daphne Rubin-Vega-speaks the native patois with pleasing naturalness. Hence, “abortion” is unselfconsciously referred to as “Die Abahnazip .” Or, as the barren character named First Lady puts it chattily, “Meh kazo-say greengrass ee-sunny skies. ” (“My vagina is nice and pleasant.”) But plain-speaking Hesterdemurs: “Suptahnekkie frokrisp chung-chung!” (“You and your slack, dried-up prissy pussy!”) “Noonka bleec tryohla die. Noonka!” (“No one would be caught dead inside such a stupid twat!”)
Well, that’s telling her. Noonka bleec nah. No one would disagree, I’m sure. You see? It’s catchy. It’s clap-clap ! The vivid patois is used sparingly and mostly for laughs. The songs are a more serious departure and consciously Kurt Weill–ian. Ms. Parks has previously only dabbled in composing music, and she delights us with the ease and ambition of her songs. She’s playing at Brecht (but not always).
The nod to Threepenny Opera is undisguised. The emblematic names of her characters evoke Brecht, too-the call girl, Canary Mary; the jailed son, Monster; as well as Freedom Fund Lady, Butcher, Scribe, Jailbait and First Hunter. Hester is a Mother Courage scavenging on the battlefield. But the joy of Suzan-Lori Parks is that she takes her influences on the wing-scanning theatrical sources from Morality Plays to the Greeks, the Jacobeans to Brecht-and makes them her own.
While Mr. Greif’s production of Fucking A is Brechtian, Ms. Parks’ inner dreamscape remains unmistakably hers. She isn’t a didactic socialist like Brecht; she’s more a shaman who conjures up spirits and certain, recurring bad dreams whose message needn’t be spelled out. A song might be a bitterly ironic footnote, like “Hunter’s Creed,” with its scary lyric from thugs who hunt down humans, but at least don’t eat them. They torture ’em instead. Another song can turn unexpectedly sentimental: Canary Mary’s ballad “Gilded Cage.” Or tongue-twisting: the Butcher’s witty “A Meat Man Is a Good Man to Marry,” with its irresistibly romantic proposal, “Make me your ball and chain / We’ll dine on fried brain.”
One of the outstanding numbers is no joke, however. That’s the devastating lament of Mos Def’s Monster, entitled “The Making of a Monster,” and its anguished, lilting refrain:
You’d think it’d be hard
To make something horrid
You’d think it would take
So much work to create
The Devil Incarnate
The uncluttered episodic narrative-19 short scenes-amounts to a revenger’s tragedy not for the squeamish. Hester hasn’t seen her son for 20 years. Monster, as he becomes known, was jailed as a child for stealing food from the daughter of a wealthy family. Hester scrubbed floors for them. When her son was taken away, she bit into his arm so hard he would be scarred for life. She puts her mark on him and scars herself the same way. United by wounds, they will always recognize each other in the future, come what may.
Hester, now an abortionist, works to pay for the release of the boy, whose memory she worships. But the release date keeps changing with each crime he commits in prison, murder among them. Hester’s one friend is the call girl, Canary Mary, mistress to the Mayor she longs to marry. (She hasn’t a prayer of marrying the Mayor.) The spoilt brat who sent Hester’s son to jail has become the Mayor’s wife-the only woman in the place who can’t get knocked up. And for some inexplicable, touching reason, the friendly local butcher falls in love with Hester. In a delicate courtship maneuver, he teaches her how to slaughter pigs. “Word is I’m a catch,” he says in this romance between blood-soaked aprons.
Or as the sages put it, “Always look on the bright side of life.” But if Ms. Parks’ ghoulish side were all there is to Fucking A , we wouldn’t feel that we were witnesses to a living nightmare where the destiny of outcasts becomes horribly complete, and life itself is snuffed out with ceremonial candles. In the end, in the inevitable, fatal scheme of unmentionable things, we’re sent away reeling.
Michael Greif’s accomplished work with Ms. Parks’ demanding material is often first-rate. For one remarkable contribution, the director and his designers have made Ms. Parks’ imagined kingdom of the lost tangibly real. He’s also got some exceptional performances from the ensemble, though I thought the scenes with the tinpot dictator of a Mayor too broad, a lapse into near-cartoon. But Peter Gerety’s Butcher is a marvel of the meat cleaver, as if he’s stepped out of an August Sander vintage photograph. Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Canary Mary is just perfect. Mos Def makes a scintillating contribution in his short, dangerous scenes. And S. Epatha Merkerson is a monumental Hester-the essence and spirit of a mother’s eternal stoicism and testament to Ms. Parks’ tragedy of the damned.