BWW Review: Vivid Theatre Productions' IN THE BLOOD Takes Unflinching Look at Living in Poverty at Powerstories Theatre
Director Drew Eberhard's presentation of Suzan Lori-Parks "In the Blood," a modernized loose telling of "The Scarlett Letter," holds up a mirror to society and dares us to look away at the injustice and sexual abuse Hester faces from everyone she encounters.
But this is just a parable. When we shake the hands of the talented actors, leave the theatre, get into our cars, the safety of our homes, fill our bellies, destress to our Hulus and Netflixes, we can shake off that feeling of helplessness, hopelessness because it's not real.
On a graffitied set of under a bridge, beneath colored lights and "Slut" projected on the back wall, the opening of "In the Blood" unflinchingly reminds us that those living in society's shadows cannot escape. In the very recent past, when the rich and powerful descended upon our billion-dollar tourist mecca for huge sports and political events in Tampa, the homeless are meant to be invisible, were relocated, out of view.
"In the Blood" offers a gripping insight into how our society casually condescends to the poor. Does the term community only refer to those who have the resources to be part of it? Hester has little to no money and five young children to protect and raise.
The cast of five adults cleverly metamorphosizes into Hester's young children. Bathed in white light, the children offer lighthearted, (literally) bright moments in the story. Despite the lanky frame, Keith Batchelor Jr's Baby shows us a sweet smile, a believable toddler playing with cars, and his shoelaces that I kept wanting to watch. Jason Abreu, as eldest son Jabber, protects his mother from cruel words while teaching her how to spell. We feel his embarrassment, his hesitation of not wanting his mother to know what was written about her. Pigtailed Beauty, played by Sonali Balan, finds comfort in a doll, exudes a carefree innocence, despite her circumstances. Jeffrey Holmes' Trouble fits his namesake, teasing his sister, and loudly disputing a dinner choice. Trouble's sleepwalking routine is a hilarious moment in the production. Lena Morisseau, as Bully, has some of the most telling and touching scenes with her mother. In a onesie PJ, Bully barely wakes from sleep and asks her mother to unclench her fists.
In stark contrast to the levity of the children, condescension is the common thread that runs through all the characters Hester is used by - her welfare social worker (Lena), her friend Amiga Gringa (Sonali), her doctor (Jeffrey), and the two deadbeat fathers of two of her children, the Reverend (Keith), and Chilli (Jason). They treat her like she is blessed to have the five making all her decisions for her. As a condition for their assistance, Hester is expected to be perfect and be grateful for being treated with any shred of dignity. Sexual exploitation is the standard fee for accepting their help.
D'Devah Simpson is an actress that you cannot take your eyes off. From the second she steps into the colored lights, D'Devah owns the stage. Her interpretation of the illiterate Hester is nothing short of flawless. With every passing interaction, we can sense the storm brewing beneath the stoic facade. Drew's expert use of Hester briefly, wordlessly standing behind each person who abuses her, creates an impact that hits you right in the gut. Each act as if they deserve to have ownership over her body. After all, they did assist Hester. Quid pro quo.
Having fed her children and gone without, when Hester has the opportunity to fill her painful belly, she still gives her only meal to her child, revealing how selfless she will be for her children.
On a random day in her life, Hester sees a full solar eclipse that is visible to no one else. "The hand of fate with its five fingers coming down on me," she explains the vision. The statement will prove to be prophetic.
Dressed in black and a fur coat, Sonali is outstanding as the cigarette smoking, pregnant, hooker Amiga Gringa. She manipulates Hester into selling something that doesn't belong to her, and we never see Amiga bringing back any money. Amiga tells Hester her five children are mistakes; yet, Hester still considers them her treasurers. She tells her that she should sell her babies, though they won't get as much money as Amiga's baby.
Jeffrey, as the pill-popping roadside Doctor, adds an element of comic relief until we realize he is giving Hester no choice over her body. Art imitates life in this frightening look at a woman losing her reproductive rights.
My reaction to Lena as the social worker called Welfare Lady is to want to smack the pursed smirk, contemptuous look off her face. Perfectly coiffed, flashing a rock on her finger, bragging about being a married lady, she so accurately captures and reflects the disdainful, better-than-thou attitude that many have to the poor. Lena is exceptional in the role.
"We was making ends meet all right then," Hester explains to Welfare Lady. "Ends got further apart."
"We build bridges; you burn them. We offer safety nets, you slip through the weave," retorts Welfare Lady.
The juxtaposition of the Reverend 's booming voice preaching over Hester practicing writing A's on the back wall, and the projected letter A's covering her is a goosebump-worthy moment. The Reverend thinks Hester should appeal to the fathers, despite ignoring being one of them. I inadvertently think the Reverend will bring salvation to the mother of his child. Instead, an undone zipper causes a seat-squirming moment of uncomfortableness. "Suffering," the Reverend explains after Hester gets up from being on her knees, "is an enormous turn-on." Keith is compelling to watch as the abusive reverend.
I hope that Hester will find her first true redeemed with Chilli, the father of her first son. He toys with her emotions, promising happily-ever-after then recants. His reaction to seeing Hester's five children, who she calls the "neighbors," and the kids even refer to themselves as "the neighbor's children," is heartwrenching.
Separate monologues from all five try to offer validation of why they treat Hester less-than, the way they do, why they feel justified in using her sexually. The performances are excellent under Drew's solid direction.
The finale rips out your heart and stomps on it. There is no neat and tidy happy ending to this sad story to help us catch our breath. But then again, when we go to sleep in our comfy beds, the 16,000 homeless in Tampa - 1 in 5 a child - don't get closure either.
In the Blood runs through November 17 at Powerstories Theatre.