The exhilarating Victorian College of the Arts production of Fucking A was a rare chance to see one of the US’s most significant playwrights, says Alison Croggon
Suzan-Lori Parks is an egregious absence on Australian stages. Taught by James Baldwin, who encouraged her to write for the theatre, she is, according to Tony Kushner, one of the most important playwrights now writing in the US.
Parks has all the plaudits: she’s the first African-American playwright to win a Pulitzer and a Macarthur Genius Fellow, and is widely produced in the US and elsewhere. So it was at once exciting and depressing to get the chance to see Parks’ Fucking A, directed by Candy Bowers for the 2019 Graduate season at the Victorian College of the Arts.
It was exciting because Bowers’ production – visceral, powerful and beautiful – did justice to this extraordinary and challenging text. And it was depressing to be reminded, once again, of the narrowness of the canon presented on our main stages. This play premiered in 2000, almost 20 years ago. Since then, Parks has consolidated her reputation: she is, by any measure, a major international playwright.
But not, it seems, in Australia. The only previous Australian productions of her work that I can find are a NIDA student production and a Company B indie production at Belvoir in 2005.
It’s intriguing to think about the international playwrights who don’t get programmed on our main stages; among other things, it’s revealing about what’s valued in local plays. Sarah Kane, for example, hit the British mainstream in the 1990s with the succès de scandale of Blasted and has long been regarded as one of the most important contemporary playwrights writing in English. But our major companies ignored her, until the STCSA programmed Blasted in 2012. We had to wait until last year to see it in Melbourne.
I doubt that it’s a coincidence that both Kane and Parks are women, and certainly it’s pertinent that Parks is Black. But what’s also striking is that both are formally and politically fearless writers, poetic playwrights whose work addresses some of the deepest and most painful faultlines running through contemporary society. Rather than the muscular vitality of playwrights like Parks, the MTC this year has given us a jejune rerun of one of Alan Bennett’s minor plays, or Lucas Hnath’s molecule-thin rewrite of Ibsen. Why do we insist that our theatre be so dull?
Well, the answer to that is heinously complex: there are so many factors at work, and they’ve been at work for decades now. But a major reason is that work like Parks’, work that shifts the cultural needle, is a kind of Kryptonite to blandness. It comes with big red flags saying RISK, and for the most part our main stages like to outsource their risk to small companies. The weird thing about this perception is that the biggest risk our major theatres face is of boring themselves and everyone else to death.
This is a syndrome that tends to intensify in times of austerity, and we’ve been in austere times for a long time now. Underfunding was at a critical stage long before the Abbott government was elected in 2013, and its attendant conservatism has been reinforced by the increasing corporatisation of our institutions. Watching Fucking A, I wondered again if we have forgotten how to imagine what plays can be.
Parks is a highly accomplished writer, a poet of the theatre, which gives her the freedom to do pretty much what she wants. Along with In the Blood, Fucking A is one of the so-called Red Letter Plays that spring off Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman who bears an illegitimate child in Puritan America is condemned to wear a red “A” sewn onto her dress to inform everyone of her sin.
The play creates a fictional world not a million miles from the Epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht’s wild west city Mahagonny: the action takes place in “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere”, a dystopian noplace run by a Mayor (Lachlan Clarke), and it’s punctuated by songs performed in a wide variety of styles.
The stench of degraded humanity is everywhere. The Mayor, who despises his barren but rich wife, The First Lady (Rose Adams), openly fucks the local sex worker Canary Mary (Tamara Bailey). Children are imprisoned arbitrarily and their parents never see them again; escaped convicts are hunted down by psychopathic bounty hunters. The central character Hester (Senuri Wagaarachchi) is branded, like Hawthorne’s Hester, with an A: except in this town, the brand is on her skin, and A doesn’t stand for Adulterer, but for Abortionist.
It turns out that when her 12-year old son, Boy (Mark Nannup) was arrested for stealing meat from The First Lady, Hester was offered as a choice: she could go to prison with her son, or she could do the dirty work of the patriarchy, getting rid of the evidence of sexual deceit, and be branded as an outcast. She chose the latter, because this way she earned coins that she could put into the Freedom Fund to get her son out of prison. She hasn’t laid eyes on him for 30 years, and it’s clear that the Freedom Fund Lady (Rosangela Fasano) is scamming her.
This is a world that’s transparently gothic and extreme (Parks herself refers to her play as a “revenge tragedy”) but which is also unsettlingly and damningly similar to our own world. The prison-industrial complex in the US is, after all, not in essence very different to its crude analogue in Fucking A. In 2011, for example, Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr was convicted of taking $1 million in bribes from developers of juvenile detention centres and sending thousands of Black children to prison.
Economic divisions are profoundly racialised, as in the US. Hester is Black, her best friend Canary Mary is Latino, and the Mayor and his First Lady – who live in the rich house – are white. This reality is simply scored into the play without comment, and Bowers has given it a lot of play in the design as well as the casting. Dinda Gardner’s costuming sees the very blonde Mayor and First Lady get about in mauve like uber-dandified country and western singers, while Hester is in a denim dress torn open at the shoulder to reveal her brand.
All sex is transactional or violent; the passion that underlies the action is Hester’s hopeless love for her missing son and the friendships, or complex complicities, between the women. (One strong point in this production is the non-sensational approach to sexual violence). Dark though Parks’ reality is, it’s also shot through with sardonic humour. One of the highlights is when Hester is wooed by Butcher (Indey Salvestro), which allows one of Park’s extraordinary riffs, an increasingly absurd version of a list poem in which Butcher lists the unlikely and multiple crimes of his bad daughter.
The other notable aspect of Parks’ text is an invented language, a kind of patois called “Talk”, that the characters slip into on occasion (surtitles wrap around the stage so we know what is being said). Talk is a means by which the women amuse each other with obscenities, or to have a private conversation in the presence of others, mostly white people, who don’t speak Talk. It’s very convincing – I had to check it wasn’t a real language – although that’s also a quality of the performances.
Bowers’ production, like the play, is both spare and rich in detail, creating a compelling stage reality that permits the play’s complex political points to slide home, like a knife into the heart. The accents, for example, vary wildly, underscoring the fiction of this no-place: some characters have southern American twangs, Hester seems to have a Caribbean spin (my ear isn’t acute enough to place it accurately) while the grotesque bounty hunters (Jessa Koncic, Ben Goss and Romaine McSweeney) speak with strong Afrikaans accents.
The design is simple but spectacular. Bianca Pardo’s eye-catching set surrounds the central stage with a double-floored scaffolding designating different areas – the prison, the rich house, and so on – in front of a colourful cyclorama. Harrie Hogan’s lighting design can render the action when required as silhouettes, a device that is tactfully used throughout. Blinds and curtains create areas that are used for projection: closeups of the gurning faces of the Hunters, for example, that underline their grotesqueness.
It’s extremely well performed, and the spirit of ensemble is strong: aside from anything else, it’s a great showcase for the skills of these young actors. My reservations were minor: the occasional rhythmic glitch between scenes, or a moment here and there when I wish the performers had an inch more time for the complexities of what was happening on stage. But it’s fair to say that I haven’t enjoyed a play this much for a while.
Sometimes you need to be reminded how free writing can be, and how powerful it is when it’s allowed that freedom. And how sheer exhilaration rises in your soul when a production picks that freedom up and runs with it.
Fucking A by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Candy Bowers. Set design by Bianca Pardo, costume design by Dinda Gardner, lighting design by Harrie Hogan, sound and system design by Nathan Santamaria, video design by Lachlan Wolters. Performed by Senuri Waggarachchi, Tamara Bailey, Lachlan Clarke, Rose Adams, Indey Salvestro, Mark Nannup, Rosangela Fasano, Ayesha Harris-Westman, Jessa Konsic, Ben Goss, Romaine McSweeney and Abdul Muhaimin. Acting Company 2019 and Production, Victorian College of the Arts, Dodds St Theatre. Closed.