The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Homeless Black Mom

A few seasons ago, when I saw Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play , her extraordinary tragedy of the American Dream, I wrote that there was no dramatist like her at work in theater today. If there was a more compelling talent on either side of the Atlantic, I didn’t know of it. That’s still the case with her staggering In the Blood , her unexpected, timely riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter at the Public Theater.

Ms. Parks is a beautiful writer and her new play is an important one. She digs in ancestral burial grounds, as she likes to say–for bones, including funny bones. In The America Play , her characters literally dig feverishly for life and memory in the detritus of America’s fabled past. In the Blood –with a fantastic central performance by Charlayne Woodard as Hester La Negrita–finds waste and half-life that speaks to us so sadly of a living black history of cruelty and suffering and punishing fate in the marrow of its heroine’s bones.

Ms. Parks, the poet, makes us laugh at tragic things with her near Beckettian humor, and her humor is warm. But she leaves us in anguish just the same. We can never anticipate her. When I entered the intimate Shiva Theater at the Public, I was firstly surprised by the changed playing area. We might have been sitting in the urban streets outside. The director David Esbjornson and his set designer, Narelle Sissons, have transformed the Shiva’s stage so that the members of the audience face each other on each side of a concrete tunnel, as if studying cityscape specimens or peering into an alien place, one we’d usually avoid.

In the Blood adapts Hawthorne’s Hester by turning her into a woman on welfare with five not always smart children–Jabber, the oldest child, Baby her youngest, Bully her oldest daughter, middle son Trouble and her youngest daughter Beauty. They live under a bridge. But Ms. Parks’ New York has some things in common with Hawthorne’s Salem, including pitilessness. Hawthorne wrote of the hidden sin in Puritan hearts “that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if the truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne’s.”

The scarlet letter in Ms. Parks’ version is “A” for the first letter in the alphabet–the only one Hester La Negrita knows. The hypocrisy, or the indifferent eyes that turn quickly away, are ours. But this is the point: The play isn’t preachy, but from the heart. Piety isn’t in this dramatist’s vocabulary. Ms. Parks is saying this is how life is, listen to Hester’s story.

“My life’s my own fault. I know that. But the world don’t help, Ma’am,” the heroine says in a matter-of-fact way to the lady welfare officer who had a threesome with Hester, just the once. To oblige her husband. And Hester is beautiful, or was.

The pitilessness of power is one wormy fact of her life, for everyone uses Hester for sex, everyone abuses her one way or another. Yet, in the glorious embodiment of Ms. Woodard, this Hester might be love, a spirit, Mother Courage, so deeply does she involve and touch us. “Five children I got. Five treasures. Five joys,” she exalts, and then Hester is the human condition at its best in human conditions at their worst.

She has a glimmer of hope (but we know it is hopeless). “We gonna come out on top this month, I can feel it.” Or its apparent reverse: “It’s a leg up. Can’t start from the top.” Ms. Parks’ verbal playfulness and sly ironies are everywhere. The hookerette known as the Amiga Gringa, who sells her children at birth, captures the smug clichés of the patronizing bureaucrat when Hester takes up sewing for slave wages: “Good you’re working. Get some money in your pocket. Make a good example for the kids. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Get with the program. Take responsibility for your life. I envy you.”

The sermonizing catch-phrase of Reverend D, who fathered one of Hester’s little bastards and runs from child-support, is taken from a TV commercial. “I have fallen and I can’t get up!” he preaches, fervently in favor of salvation. “I have fallen and I can’t seem to get myself unfallen. I have slipped and I can’t seem to get myself unslipped …”

Hester’s children–the American Family!–give her life and purpose (and will sap her strength and bring her down). Among them is Bully, who sleeps with her hands clenched in fists; Trouble, the thief who somehow steals the baton from a fat cop; Jabber, the slow one, a bed-wetter, and the illegitimate son of Hester’s first love, Chilli.

Where did the daddies go, is one of the drama’s refrains. (Answer: “They went to bed.”) Chilli, with his nervous tic of always checking the time on his electroplate gold pocket watch, has come looking for Hester again to sweep her up on a white horse. “She was my first. We was young. Times change.” He remembers how they made love in a rusted Buick that hadn’t moved in years “and she would say she felt the wind in her face/ surfing her hand out the window.”

The Boy Meets Girl American Dream! In the most affecting scene in this drama of short stories and confessions, Chilli presents Hester with a wedding dress in the wasteland (together with an engagement ring with an adjustable band). The fantasy is broken. But Chilli gets to sing one of Ms. Parks’ perversely catchy country and western swing numbers, entitled “The Wedding Song”:

I’m looking for someone

to lose my hair with

looking for someone

to lose my teeth with

looking for someone

to-lie-6-feet underneath with

looking for someone

Could it be you?

Some day, Ms. Parks is going to write an extremely weird musical. Meanwhile, she has written quite a play where the lives of the lower depths are eclipsed like the sun and bad news is in the blood. The ensemble of six actors is strong and fearless (though Reggie Montgomery’s Reverend D needs more spice, less posture). Each adult plays a child–something, I usually believe, to be avoided at all cost. But they in turn have avoided all cuteness, and we are glad. I shall remember the tremendous love and waste and heartbreak of Ms. Woodard’s utterly natural performance as Hester.

All fine plays are timely, but Ms. Parks’ In the Blood could scarcely be timelier. When the play opened, Mayor Giuliani coincidentally ordered the New York streets swept of the homeless. “Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of sleeping there,” he announced (in his civilized way), and ordered the arrest of homeless people who fail to use shelters. Hester, the black homeless woman, is one of them. Yet we do not judge her, now we have come to know her.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ signal achievement is to put these people we ignore, and never know, on stage. And all flesh and blood stories, even those that make us despair, have a power to heal.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Homeless Black Mom