For Kalamazoo Gazette 09-19-10
The power of words
Students update ‘Scarlet Letter’
In a 2004 NPR interview, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks cited as one of her favorite movie scenes the sequence in “The Sound of Music” as the camera pans through the mountains and clouds. That’s just before Julie Andrews sings the title song while “spinning on the side of a cliff.”
She loves that imagery, she said, because in her own work “I guess I want to capture things that cannot be put into words.”
In “In the Blood,” set to run Sept. 23-Oct. 3 in the York Arena Theatre of Western Michigan University’s Gilmore Theatre Complex, Parks makes her lead character, Hester, illiterate. With only her words to aid her, she tries to seek help for her five illegitimate children, each born with a different father. Words, too, ultimately decide her fate and the outcome of the play.
Parks “is one of, if not the, new voice in theater right now,” contends the associate professor of theater, performance, Mark Liermann, the play’s director. Her awards include a Pulitzer Prize for her 2001 play, “Topdog/Underdog,” about two con men brothers, Lincoln and Booth. “In the Blood,” first produced in New York in 1999, was nominated for a Pulitzer.
“It’s filled with beautiful writing, (though) it has some strong language. It’s not for everyone,” Liermann says.
“It is a modern-day riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.’ Thematically there is some cross-over. But in ‘Scarlet Letter’ (members of society) are not helping (Hester) because they’re trying to push her out. Here, those who are supposed to help are using her.”
It’s not all grim, though, he adds. The play is funny and “filled with light-hearted banter.” Hester’s children, for example, are named Jabber, Bully, Trouble, Beauty and Baby.
The drama calls for five of the actors to each play two parts — an adult and a child. The cast includes John Williams, Aubrey Hopkins, Chad Sutton, Chelsea Wolocko, Chelsea Waddles and Charles Sanders, with senior Carmen Molina in the lead as Hester. Elli Green is stage manager.
“They have to understand the plight of these characters, the world of the play,” Liermann says of his student performers. To prepare them for this acting challenge, rehearsals have been held eight hours a day for two and a half weeks.
“In the Blood” will force audiences to address some tough issues, the director says.
“What is society’s job when it comes to helping each other out? Everybody talks a good game about wanting to help. … We don’t always understand the importance of what that means.”
“In the Blood,” a University Theatre production, will run Sept. 23-Oct. 3 at the York Arena Theatre at the Gilmore Theatre Complex, Western Michigan University, www.wmutheatre.com, 269-387-6222. A Sept. 23 opening-night reception sponsored by Sweetwater’s Donut Mill will take place after the performance.
Who is Suzan-Lori Parks?
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her 2002 play, “Topdog/Underdog,” which also was nominated for a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award. “In the Blood” was shortlisted for a Pulitzer in 2000.
Among her other plays are “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” (1990), “365 Days/365 Plays” (2006) and “Ray Charles Live!” (2007). Her musical about Charles, “Unchain My Heart,” is set for a Broadway premiere next year.
She also wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s 1996 movie, “Girl 6,” and adapted Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” for ABC television in 2005.
Her novel, “Getting Mother’s Body,” was published by Random House in 2003.
Parks has received numerous other awards and grants, including a Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, an Obie Award, an NAACP Theatre Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
Parks credits her career to novelist James Baldwin, whom she met while she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, and “The Heidi Chronicles” playwright and 1989 Pulitzer-winner Wendy Wasserstein, also a Mount Holyoke graduate.