Among the multitude of sessions and speakers last Thursday, Claiming Williams Day saw the opening of the Cap and Bells production In the Blood by Suzan Lori Parks. The sold-out show ran three times, once on Thursday and twice on Sunday. The play was emotional, uncomfortable and impressive, and it succeeded in bringing to light a wide range of challenging topics.
Parks’ two shows In the Blood and Fucking A make up the “red letter plays,” a series of plays based on the 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Written in 1999, In the Blood offers a glimpse into the life of Hester, a homeless black woman living under a bridge with her five “bastard” children, all of whom have different fathers who are absent from their children’s, though not Hester’s, lives.
The production opens with the word “slut” written in chalk in the middle of Hester’s residence, which consists of a patch of concrete underneath two tarps and a drain pipe. After Hester’s oldest son erases the derogatory word, Hester scrawls the letter “A,” the only letter she knows how to write, in chalk. The “A” remains written on stage throughout the entire show, alluding to the “A” the townspeople force Hester Prynne to wear as a mark of shame for adultery in The Scarlet Letter.
The play alternates between scenes of Hester interacting with her children and with the various adults in her life. Hester’s relationship with her children, archetypally named Jabber, Trouble, Bully, Beauty and Baby, simultaneously reveals her two sides: a mother who loves and sacrifices for her kids, and a homeless woman who struggles both mentally and physically to care for them. In one moment, Hester plays tag and skips meals to feed them. In the next, she has a mental breakdown and hits them.
The actors who play Hester’s children double as two of Hester’s ex-boyfriends, her doctor, her welfare representative and her fellow homeless friend. After Hester’s interaction with each character, they deliver a confession regarding an exploitative sexual encounter with her. Hester’s relationships with the various adult figures in her life paint her as a woman who has been wronged and abused time and time again.
Director Terah Ehigiator ’18 chose the play because of its tough subject matter. “It deals with so many large themes pertinent to Claiming Williams that are rarely seen or talked about at Williams,” he said. The play raises a variety of pressing topics, including consent, race, poverty, trauma, domestic violence and forced sterilization.
However, Ehigiator recognized the challenge of directing a play starring a mother. “There were lots of experiences that I couldn’t speak to,” he said.
Mazie Alexander ’21, who starred as Hester, agreed. “I’d never thought about it from that person’s perspective,” she said.
Onyeka Obi ’21, who played both Hester’s daughter Bully and the welfare representative, described the production as “cathartic” and admired how the play avoided “fetishizing black women’s trauma.” It was both her and Alexander’s first scripted theater production at the College. “There are not a lot of black women involved in theater on this campus,” Obi said. She is excited and grateful for productions such as In the Blood, which are catalysts for that change.
Although it was multiple cast members’ first production and Ehigiator’s first time directing, and the cast and crew only began working on the show one month ago, the performances ran smoothly.
The show ends with a violent scene between Hester and her eldest son, in which the word “slut” resurfaces. Water flows through the pipe above onto the stage, and a fluorescent red cross flashes overhead after Hester delivers her final confessional monologue. The dramatic and tragic ending builds on the religious imagery present throughout the play and is reminiscent of The Scarlet Letter. In the Blood applies The Scarlet Letter’s theme of “slut-shaming” to a modern, urban setting, leveraging its themes for the issues of our day and age.