In the play In the Blood, intersectionality is not just your favorite little keyword to feel like a responsible member of society. It’s compound suffering and it’s really, really sad. Staff writer Mia went to see the play In the Blood by the Acting Class of 2020. And the tl;dr is that you should go see it!!
A story about a woman can haunt you: no supernatural behaviors needed, just a portrayal of her terrible reality, and of the twisted and powerful things it awakes in her. Or maybe it’s just me? But that is seriously what makes me lose sleep at night sometimes.
When my friend and I walked out of In the Blood, the acting thesis of the Columbia School of the Arts MFA Class of 2020, we knew what we just watched was going to haunt us: the strange yet perfect pacing; the main character, Hester, screaming until she ran out of breath; the lights of Manhattanville shining in on a play about a black woman in poverty.
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, In the Blood is a play about Hester La Negrita, a woman raising her five children of different fathers “in a city and system that is not built to support her”. Waiting for the “leg-up” she never gets, Hester is exploited by many who are supposed to help her. As the manifold oppression of the system and the self-righteousness of its agents increase, she struggles to support herself and her kids. This production was directed by Eugene Ma and put on at the theatre space in the Lenfest Center.
Being an acting thesis, the show unsurprisingly has a great cast. All six actors have very impressive bios, and you could see how much fun they were having with this play. Other than Owala Maima, who plays Hester, every actor plays two parts–Hester’s child, and an adult in Hester’s life. Their acting as rowdy children, more needs and emotions than thoughts, was spot-on. The actors had an amazing dynamic in the many group scenes of playing, sitting on the couch or standing in fear together: they would collectively burst into laughter, tears or whispers.
Then each actor would turn around and play one of the people who thwart and use Hester: her hooker friend Amiga Gringa (Yeena Sung), the doctor (Hal Miers), the welfare officer (Tenneh Sillah), her first lover Chilli (Jon Robin), and the TV preacher Reverend D, father of Hester’s youngest (Anthony Othello Pratt Jr.).
These characters all have scenes where they are alone with Hester, as well as monologues called “confessions”. Tenneh Sillah’s performance as the Welfare Lady was especially masterful.She portrayed a complacent and repressed woman who uses and humiliates Hester sexually. In an extremely well blocked-out scene in which she visits Hester, a disdainful and smooth-voiced Sillah sits on Hester’s couch and makes Hester massage her. Sillah’s command of body language–her non-verbal orders to Hester, and her tic of snapping her fingers to remain collected–made me genuinely fear the Welfare Lady and feel anxious about her history with Hester.
At the center of the play is Owala Maima’s Hester, who just shines in every scene. Maima could simply stand in one place, and her face would express a thousand different emotions: always hopeful, exhausted and on edge at the same time. The Hester she brings to life is naive, seductive, calculating, and troubled in every scene, and she acts out the huge character arc with ease–from happy and humming to desperate and raging. There are several moments when Hester stands on a stool and looks at an “eclipse” that only she can see, describing it as the “hand of fate with its five fingers coming down on me”. During these moments, I could see actual tears in Maima’s rapt eyes.
I went to see In the Blood because, well, the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has become my new obsession. My Lit Hum class just studied her play, Father Comes Home from the Wars, which is inspired by The Odyssey and tells the story of a slave who serves his master and fights for the South in the Civil War. It is being added to the curriculum as the pilot text of the “Contemporary Core” initiative. In her essay “Possession”, Parks writes that a play is her way of making history. To create and rewrite lost and erased African-American history, she seeks to “locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down”. Like Father Comes Home from the Wars, In the Blood is inspired by a classic story–The Scarlet Letter.
This production definitely reflects the script’s nature as a realist narrative about racism, sexism, and capitalism that takes elements from an artistic and temporally distant text. It combines realist elements like dark humor, explosive emotions, and unflinching moments of sexuality and tension, with details that are experimental or symbolic. For example, the set includes a dilapidated tower of old TVs in the shape of a cross. The screens serve both as a way of characters looking out, playing the self-help speech tapes that Hester watches, and a way of the audience looking in, marking the passage of time with messages like “first confession” or “intermission”.
In fact, there is a very self-aware coherence to the whole play. The layered costumes of the five kids, designed by Alexandra Soiseth, present an artistic representation of poverty, and not an actual or mocking depiction of it. The fourth wall was brittle–the characters showed an awareness of the audience, and the musicians were, at times, part of the story. The music–drums and cymbal and a lone saxophone–emphasized the beats and spells of Parks’ script, and created an urban sound that constantly reminded me Hester would exist in the exact city environment that we find ourselves in.
In the Blood is a great play about poverty, oppression and the many ways in which we rationalize apathy. Suzan-Lori Parks begins the script with, “The locale is here. The time is now.” In the director’s note, Eugene Ma acknowledges that this production of In the Blood is a team of creatives with a bright future at an Ivy League telling the story “on the banks of a storied and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood”, and frames the show as “an exercise of empathy, a checking of privilege”. While I wonder to what extent that mission is possible, given the very time and locale, one thing is certain: the message of the play will only matter more if we go to see it. Maybe, as we move through the world, everyone needs to be haunted by a story of a woman multiply victimized. And this is a very good one.
(In the Blood is on today at Lenfest Center at 2 pm and 8 pm. Tickets may be available at the box office.)
Feature image is the poster designed by Annie Jin Wang, accessed from website of Columbia School of the Arts.