The most provocative thing about Suzan-Lori Parks's new play at the Public Theater is its title; in every other way, Fucking A is highly conventional. Relying on previously-established dramatic techniques (whether concocted previously by Parks or tried-and-true theatrical tradition), the result is a thoroughly unsurprising, yet witty and intelligently crafted show.
It's also, in every way, better than her last New York venture, 2001's Topdog/Underdog. Though attention must be paid to the fully-realized production - the ingenious direction provided by Michael Greif keeps the action moving without stop for almost two hours and the design scheme (Mark Wendland did the sets, Ilona Somogyi the costumes, and Kenneth Posner the lights) is highly unified - Parks's writing here is steadier and more comfortable; it's less incongruous with the subject matter, and prefers to dole out its arguments in teaspoons rather than dump trucks.
Her writing is also more poetic and eminently more theatrical. Suggested - like her earlier play In the Blood - by Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Fucking A is something of a modern morality tale filtered through contemporary theatrical conceits, an examination of traditional values versus traditional stagecraft. It finds lead character is Hester Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), an abortionist (forced by society to wear the letter A branded on her chest), trying to earn money to buy her son out of the prison in which she believes he has been wrongfully incarcerated.
Oh, there's a secondary story about the mayor (Bobby Cannavale), his apparently barren wife (Michole Briana White), and the prostitute he enlists (Daphne Rubin-Vega), but nothing about the story suggests its Parks's primary concern here; there's barely enough plot to fill an hour of stage time. More important to her - and, eventually, the audience - is the number of different ways she can tell it. Though allusions to previous artists and stagings are plentiful, two main (if familiar) dramatic devices set Fucking A apart.
First, the play's female characters have their own language, called Talk (generally employed when speaking about vaginas) - "Suptah nekkie frokrisp chung-chung," goes a typical passage. While this is unnecessarily pointed up dramatically every time it occurs (the lights dim and a bell chimes), it does effectively establish the cultural rift between the male and the female characters in a way that the rest of Parks's writing in English does not.
The characters are also likely to break out in song. These musical interludes, Brechtian in form (along the lines of The Threepenny Opera) but easily identifiable as Parks's own original compositions, generally illuminate the characters' feelings no worse than the dialogue does, and make sense given the overall package of the show. Even a song with a title like "A Meat Man is a Good Man to Marry," sung by Peter Gerety as Hester's would-be paramour Butcher - another profession that ends up with blood on an apron, get it? - just seems to make sense. (The songs also suggest that Parks's forthcoming basketball musical, Hoopz, is in accomplished hands.)
Merkerson is dramatic dynamite in her role, motherly, intelligent, and bursting with stage presence. Gerety's plays Butcher with nice comic understatement, while Rub-Vega is voluptuous and enrapturing as Canary Mary. Cannavale and White bring sparks of energy to their roles, and Chandler Parker as a roughened inmate has one of the show's most harrowing (and effective scenes). As an escaped convict with a secret (unguessable only to the play's characters), Mos Def is highly disappointing - how many other New York performers can have solos in songs, sung in a follow-spot, and not be the most interesting thing onstage?
But, except for Def, Fucking A is never boring. It's generally fine theatre, if never as confrontational or enlightening as it hopes to be. It is, however, almost always entertaining, a play that has found its ideal voice in production if not word. It suggests that Parks is a playwright who knows better how to present a story than how to tell one; a skill not necessarily apropos to every play she might write, but that one does Fucking A a great service, and makes it seem naturally at home in the theatre in a way many plays may not.
The Public Theater