Shame and scandal

Suzan-Lori Parks pens a radical retelling of “The Scarlet Letter”

by Greg Corradini

What do you do with a black, female, experimental playwright?

Produce her work.

This weekend, Frank Theatre will stage Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Fucking A,” one of two pieces Parks wrote spoofing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s puritan novel “The Scarlet Letter.”

“Fucking A” focuses on Hester, a black woman who society shuns because her son steals from the rich family in town. The letter “A” is branded on her chest as punishment and to signify her lowly job as an abortion surgeon.

For those unfamiliar with Parks’ work, “Fucking A” is a suitable introduction to her tragicomic politics of race. It is also a rude awakening to the gender and class issues she loves to tinker with.

Parks is the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in drama. Some people, therefore, might feel it’s her responsibility to forge positive representations of black people in the media.

But Parks’ dog-eat-dog plays have the radical ability to refuse a single focus.

Wendy Knox, the Frank’s artistic director, said that Parks’ gender and experimentation are just as important as her race when considering her work.

“It’s interesting, she is a black writer, but there are other issues that seem to be equally important to her,” Knox said.

Take, for example, the rigid patriarchy that dominates the world of the play’s female protagonist, Hester.

When Hester talks about her job or the other female characters talk about anything pertaining to female sexuality, Parks has them babble in a secret, forbidden language.

Knox said Parks’ ability to use one little image or idea as a spark to ignite other ideas is what makes her work so fascinating.

“She manages to evoke and echo a history of lynching and slavery (in the play),” Knox said. “You can pick up on those things if you want to and if not, then you can pick up other things.”

But in Parks’ plays it is hard not to pick up on the way she brazenly reincorporates racial stereotypes into her dramatic structure.

In her acclaimed “Topdog/Underdog,” the two black brothers at the center of the play often revert to minstrel antics for comic relief. In the end, their testosterone-fueled rivalry erupts into thuggish violence and leaves one of them dead.

In “Fucking A,” Parks’ black characters flounder in a similar world of hopeless tragedy. To see her son, Hester must buy portions of his freedom from the town’s “Freedom Fund.” Once called Boy Smith for his sweet ways, Hester’s son escapes from jail nicknamed Monster for his brutality.

When one considers these oppressive contexts, it is hard to imagine a redeeming virtue that might save her black characters from misrepresentation in the eyes of the audience.

Yet Parks also hides her intentions completely.

She never designates racial specifications for the characters in “Fucking A,” a move that makes her play seem all the more controversial.

If it is hard to pinpoint where Parks strikes a balance in her work, it is because the plays defy a simple classification and must be viewed as all-encompassing.

“A lot of the plays that the Frank Theatre does are not about a happy resolution,” Knox said. “It is more important for me to put something onstage that provokes thought.”