Letter-Perfect Drama

Director Jo Bonney reteams with iconoclastic playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to revive “Fucking A,” one half of The Red Letter Plays.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Costanzo

New plays are hard enough to get produced, so to put an expletive smack-dab in the title would seem crazy—or, at the very least, a marketing challenge. But that’s what the fearless Suzan-Lori Parks did back in 2000, when she premiered her gruesome Brechtian fable, Fucking A.

Inspired loosely (very loosely) by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter, this play features songs and stretches of dialogue delivered in a made-up language Parks calls simply “Talk.” Here, “A” stands for abortionist, not adultery, and Hester Smith, the respected and despised back-alley practitioner, concocts a plan to buy her son’s freedom from jail. If that sounds like it may be topical again, take note: Fucking A is back and running in rep with Parks’s In the Blood at the Signature Theatre Company. (In the Blood also centers on a character named Hester with a wayward son.)

Director Jo Bonney; photo courtesy of Gregory Costanzo

Among American playwrights, Parks is one of a kind, bending and smashing theatrical forms for more than three decades. In works with head-spinning names like Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989) and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1989–92), she maps a weird midnight territory of history, linguistics, and racism, creating worlds at once gruesome, hilarious, and surreal. Parks’s 2001 sibling rivalry drama Topdog/Underdog won a Pulitzer Prize, marking her as the first African-American woman to receive the honor. A playwright who (mostly) avoids naturalism or easy moralizing, her unique aesthetic invites comparisons as diverse as James Baldwin, Kara Walker, and David Lynch.

Not just any director can handle such dense, encrypted text; that’s where Jo Bonney comes in. Bonney is reteaming with Parks after their triumphant 2014 Public Theater production of Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3. How does Bonney get into Parks’s absurdist, code-switching mind-set? “I never treat Suzan-Lori’s plays as if they exist in a fantasy world,” Bonney says. “I personally think we’re a crazy species: essentially ludicrous, painfully delusional, vulnerable, and beautifully passionate—capable of great kindness and viciousness.”

The director notes that while Fucking A first appeared 17 years ago, its dystopian universe is highly relevant. Bonney ticks off the key elements: “A populist leader, a dysfunctional prison system incarcerating the poor, and abortion as a government-sanctioned service that still brings up vehement dissension.” Sounds like F-bombs aren’t the only thing this show explodes.

The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street (between Dyer and Tenth Avenues), Midtown
August 22–October 1

We give this day on the town an A+.