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The Red Letter Plays: F**king A

Four Stars

Photo by Joan Marcus
Brandon Victor Dixon & Christine Lahti in F**king A
Brandon Victor Dixon & Christine Lahti in F**king A

Review by Donna Herman
September 12, 2017

F**king A feels more like a Brechtian drama than a riff on an iconic piece of 19th Century Romantic Literature, Hawthorne’s “The Scarlett Letter.” In fact, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks hadn’t read the novel when the idea for the title came to her in 1997 and struck her fancy. Although she did read the book before writing the play, F**king A is not a strict rehash of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s epic masterpiece. The only thing they have in common is a woman named Hester with an A on her chest.

Despite the use of Brechtian devices, Ms. Parks’ voice is all her own here. And a grim one it is. Although there are some wonderful, much needed comic moments - like Butcher’s (Raphael Nash Thompson) monologue cataloguing the impossibly lengthy, silly transgressions of his daughter – F**king A is not for the faint-hearted. Although the mind-numbingly cruel and heartless society drawn here might have seemed exaggerated in 2000 when Ms. Parks wrote the play, unfortunately it doesn’t feel that far away now. You don’t have to go as far as Myanmar and the situation with the Rohingya, just google Charlottesville, Virginia.

F**king A is set in a dystopian “now” in “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere.” Although there are no placards, projections on the wall serve to tell us where we are and to translate Ms. Parks’ made-up language TALK, which the female characters occasionally lapse into. And the “A” on Hester’s (Christine Lahti) chest does not denote her as an adulterer, it stands for Abortionist. Even though she is not a doctor, her job has been forced on her by the state, and her status has been branded into her skin and she is mandated to reveal it at all times. Although it is 30 years old, it weeps and stinks anew whenever a new patient comes to her door. In an irony only a playwright could love, Hester’s choice when her son was imprisoned at age 5 for stealing meat to eat, was to join him in jail or become an abortionist and earn money for his release.

Ms. Parks amps up the Brechtian feel with original songs she has written both music and lyrics for like “The Working Woman’s Song” that Hester and Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), her best friend and a prostitute sing: “It’s not that we love / What we do / But we do it.” Or “The Hunter’s Creed” sung by three bloodthirsty bounty hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner & Ruibo Qian): “There used to be plenty of jobs to work / But then the factories tanked. / I used to live in a lovely house, / Had to give it back to the bank. / My lucky ship was coming in / But then, of course, it sank. / So, we hunt / We hunt / But we do / Not / Eat what we catch.”

With the exception of Hester Smith and Canary Mary, all the other characters in F**king A are known by their titles, not names. Another common Brechtian device. There is The Mayor (Marc Kudisch), the ruler of the town who married the rich First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley) for her father’s money. He is having an affair with Canary Mary and since The First Lady can’t seem to get pregnant, they are planning to bump her off in such a way as to not throw suspicion on him so he can inherit her money. There’s Hester’s son, who she calls Boy, but who has morphed into Monster (Brandon Victor Dixon) in jail.

The cast, led by Christine Lahti as Hester, is exceptional. They work exceedingly well as an ensemble and individually, and most of them also double as musicians. I don’t know why they aren’t credited with their musical contributions in the playbill – to me it’s an unforgiveable omission. Many of them are playing multiple roles and several instruments, notably Ruibo Qian who plays three small roles quite well and the violin and the guitar beautifully.

(Donna Herman)

What the popular press said...

"Although director Jo Bonney struggles to establish a cohesive tone, Fucking A’s alternations between pain and entertainment are never boring. Like Hester’s bloodily branded A, the play leaves an indelible mark."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York

External links to full reviews from popular press...

Time Out

Production Details
Venue: The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center
Genre: Drama
Previewed: 22 Aug 2017
Opened: 11 Sep 2017
Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Jo Bonney

Synopsis: The Red Letter Plays, produced together for the first time, explode our ideas of love, society, sex, and power with wit and fearlessness. In these modern remixes of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter, Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks conjures two distinct interpretations of Hester, Western literature's most famous adulteress.
In F**king A, Hester Smith, the revered and reviled local abortionist, hatches a plan to buy her jailed son's freedom—and nothing will deter Hester from her quest. In this wild-eyed blend of story and song, Hester's branded letter A becomes a provocative emblem of vengeance, violence, and sacrifice.

Cast: J. Cameron Barnett, Brandon Victor Dixon, Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudisch, Christine Lahti, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley and Raphael Nash Thompson
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