By Robert Bethune
‘In the Blood’
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck. Friday-Saturday through Aug. 23, plus Sunday, Aug. 17. Tickets: $15. For information: 313-365-4948 or http://www.planetant.com.
Planet Ant’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ play “In the Blood” is thoughtful and evocative, and manages, most of the time, to stay out of the social-preaching mode that one might expect from the subject. There are very few nits to pick with this fine ensemble effort. It’s a fine piece of stage poetry; I wish it were more dramatic.
It’s about a homeless woman, Hester (remember your Nathanial Hawthorne, kiddies!), raising five children on the streets. She is surviving, somehow, without skills, literacy or even animal cunning. There is not one character around her who is doing anything that could conceivably be called productive, honest work. The roster includes a hypocritical preacher-man, a sexually exploitative social-work woman, a street doctor hooked on his own pills and not above having sex with his patients, and a woman friend – a street-wise hustler as exploitative and untrustworthy as everyone else. It’s an ugly world, but Parks doesn’t rub our noses in it as a more message-oriented playwright might do. Rather, she takes that world as a given – which is horrifying – and explores it in remarkably fine dramatic language and style. The play is distinctly deficient in structure; rather than fully showing the nature of her characters in action, Parks gives each a major monologue in which they tell us about themselves rather than show us who they are. The monologues are excellent pieces of stage poetry, but they are not dramatic. Structurally, for an oral poet, that’s acceptable; for a playwright, that’s a cop-out. The dramatic culture of the present day seems to encourage this kind of play writing; perhaps we even prefer it.
Hester’s children are played by the same actors that play the adults in her world. Apparently the playwright wrote that into the script. It’s a mistake. Park’s children, though only lightly sketched in, are true children; well-played by children, they would be enormously touching, and the play as a whole would benefit greatly. When adults try to play children, the results are rarely productive; we fare no better here.
However, the cast does a fine job with the adults. Kennikki Jones as Hester is intriguingly soft and strong at the same time. She can beg without sacrificing dignity; when her rage explodes at the end, it’s absolute dynamite.
Sharon L. Brooks’ Welfare Lady is virulently, elegantly vile, yet human; you hate her guts, but you give her something as well.
Andrew Huff as Chili looks like salvation at first, then turns out utter slime, as does Renell White’s Reverend. (Note to Mr. White, re this and “Cobb”: The room is small, dude! Take it easy on the decibels!)
I very much enjoyed Sarah Switanowski’s Amiga Gringa; sexy, untamed, with a sense of morality that would make a rat shiver.
Henry Nelson as the Doctor lets us see that there is evil in his goodness, and yet goodness in his evil. Fascinating.
Direction and design are good. Lavinia Hart’s direction makes fine, understated use of her LeCoq movement background. Set, costumes and lighting (Kristen Gribbin, Tamam Tayeh, and Joshua Fisher, respectively) are gritty and appropriate.
An evening at this production is time well spent.