It’s coming. And I don’t mean The Rapture.
On the eve of “the end of welfare as we know it,” by chance I see a
play about a homeless black welfare mother of five illegitimate
children she calls her ‘”joys” and “treasures”
— each fathered by a different man — and how she’s driven by
desperation to kill her firstborn favorite. Racist cliché, you say.
Well, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who took that decidedly un-PC premise
and grafted it onto Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Scarlet Letter,” is an
exceptionally talented, highly successful writer for stage and screen,
including Spike Lee’s film, “Girl 6.” And she just happens — surprise
— to be a poetic young black woman attempting to transform stereotype
During the post-performance discussion with the playwright and cast,
audience members — both black and white — seem to almost uniformly
love this searing, bleak, truly heartbreaking piece about exploitation
and betrayal. Certainly Suzan-Lori Parks, trained at the prestigious
Yale School of Drama, excels at her craft.
The characters are compelling, all of them, an accusatory chorus,
indictment of an unfeeling society. There’s Hester the mother, who can
not read or write anything except the letter “A,” and is taken advantage
of sexually by every other adult in the play. There’s the social worker
who seduces and deceives her; the
doctor who gains her confidence
then forcibly sterilizes her; her junkie first lover who returns to
reject her again; her last child’s minister father aroused by her
helplessness; her best friend who would sell the moon for a profit; her
children themselves as they become bent and kinked by circumstances.
Perhaps “In the Blood,” completed in 1998 at the outset of welfare
was intended as
artistic outcry against the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor.
They’ve been heralding the
“end of welfare as we know
for some time now. You can almost hear the
remedial programs creaking into place. The private sector being
encouraged, or induced, to participate in hiring and training scads of
disadvantaged workers. The new bureaucracies being set up to replace
some old ones. It’s either optimistic, practical, delusional, or
mean-spirited, depending on your perspective. But it will have
far-reaching consequences in our country.
“Governor Ridge (R-Pa.) should see this play,” comments one attendee,
a white woman who says seeing “In the Blood” helped her better
understand her black partner.
“I can’t imagine a woman today who would want to have so many
children under similar circumstances, but this helps me understand the
mindset,” observes a brisk, brusque, well-dressed African-American
career professional, who obviously has never met a happy voluntary
stay-at-home parent like my Italian-Polish friend “Pastina,” a new mom
who wants “10 more” babies with her hubby.
But for each of Suzan-Lori Park’s characters, trapped in the
relentless culture of victimization like insects in amber, there IS no
way out short of death. Though I have loved her previous work for its
gorgeous inventive qualities in both plot and language, I found this
play colossally painful to watch, awash in good intentions, politics
obscuring pathos. Despite its flashes of brilliant choral writing and
many highly effective satiric digs at hypocrisy, I found the over-all
play depressing, hopeless, without catharsis or transformation, no
escape. To me, the play failed as either theater OR agit-prop. It was
all prop and no agit, making me yearn for a well-made drama managing to
focus upon social issues while presenting implicit blueprints for
change. Afterwards, I feel emotionally flattened, drained, gripped by a
profound, unrelenting sense of doom. Rather than make meaningless
small-talk at the reception, no matter how enticing they promise the
cheese balls would be, I leave the theater in, yes, emotional chaos and
head for home.
Just outside the glass doors of the theater on Philadelphia’s
so-called Avenue of the Arts, I’m greeted by a one-legged homeless black
man on crutches. Over the past five years, I’ve often seen this guy
begging around center city with his much-younger white girlfriend. He’s
someone my neighbor Gary, head of a nearby high-rise condo council,
swears is dangerous, violent, evil. Call the police on sight, Gary
always warns, but I’ve only witnessed docility.
Often the derelict and his lady spend mealtimes trying to cadge
change a few blocks away around the bustling luxury commerce of 16th and
Walnut. Or I would see them napping in their nocturnal down-time by a
brick wall of the art-school dorms near where I used to walk my old dog
Freda. As the terrier mutt began to stiffen up over a span of several
months, the fellow observantly remarked, “Arthritis? I know a lot about
that.” Whenever he saw me after that, he’d inquire, “How’s the dog?”
instead of begging money. Lately, the two have been displaced by massive
construction of a regional performing arts center, which for the time
being is merely an annoying pit dubbed “the largest hole in the world.”
“You coming from some kind of entertainment, some kind of show?” he
asks as I exit the theater, jolting me into a surreal segue. It’s as if
he has stepped out of the play, off the stage, and now confronts me out
on the street, a character out of context, demanding I pay attention to
him. And I’m forced to face a living example of the play’s real story,
rather than what was going on inside in the name of “entertainment.”
Here’s an actual homeless,
crippled black man out on the street demanding I pay
him the kind of attention the audience was giving a bunch of actors
pretending for a bogus exercise on stage. Am I getting too abstract
here? Probably. But why is he attempting to make conversation at this
precise instant? Strange. I put a crumpled dollar in his paper cup. “A
play. I just saw a play,” I say wanly. Then, swallowing any hesitation,
I plunge ahead. “About a desperate black woman on welfare who murders
the favorite of her five children.” I shake my head, overcome, barely
able to continue.
“I’ve never seen a play,” the homeless man admits wistfully. A cold
blast of wind nearly knocks me over. I shiver. “Someday, I’d like to.
Oh, I wouldn’t go to the theater dressed like this,” he looks down at
his stump of a leg that ends right below his knee. “I’d clean up.” I’m
overwhelmed at this, nearly speechless, holding back tears. I try to
imagine what the possibility of Theater for the Homeless might be like.
And I’m slightly embarrassed at the unexpected, awkward symmetry of the
evening’s events, shaped like a figure eight leaning on its side.
Sometimes, I say to him, trying to make sense of the absurdity that
grips us, sometimes plays are so … irrelevant to how people really
live, and suffer, and struggle.
Suddenly my plan to take a playwrighting course soon at that same
theater seems silly and self-indulgent, dwarfed by a more immediate
urgency of distributing sandwiches to the hungry and impoverished. What am I
supposed to say to this guy? What does this encounter mean in the larger
scheme of things? Why bother aspiring to make art at the millennium when
things in this country are so messed up? Can anyone do anything? I’m
gripped by a sense of impotence. I wonder how many of the audience, so
engrossed moments ago by a contrived literary dilemma called a play,
would walk past this cripple on the sidewalk in real life, deliberately
not seeing him, assuming he is a drug addict or a wife-beater or a child
molester or a killer or, worse yet, someone they might once have known.
“Don’t give to the homeless,” we are told repeatedly by our so-called
civic leaders. “That only encourages them. Besides, most of them are
just opportunists pretending to be homeless.”
Emboldened by his confession he’d like to see a play, I ask him
something I’ve always wanted to know: how he lost his leg. Is he a
Vietnam vet? “No. Bone infection,” he says. “Look, I’m 53 years old. The
shelters treat everyone like you’re on booze or drugs. Last year I
almost got into Section Eight housing, but the paperwork became screwed
up.” Pick one person you trust, maybe a social worker, I tell him —
involuntarily flashing on the duplicitous social worker of the play —
and let them try to help. He nods, but we both know he won’t. Where’s
his girlfriend? Across the street on a vent, he points. Go inside, I
say. Stay in a shelter, just for tonight. It’s much too cold out here.
Who can vouch for anyone these days? The most nefarious thing I know
he did was barbecue some expensive steaks last summer, bought by his
girlfriend at the Food-Rite, on the steps of the supposedly sacrosanct
Academy of Music, home of the veddy, veddy proper Philadelphia Orchestra
a sassy, audacious gesture which, I must confess, made me laugh and