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 aplay about a homeless black welfare mother of five illegitimatechildren she calls her '"joys" and "treasures"-- each fathered by a different man -- and how she's driven bydesperation to kill her firstborn favorite. Racist cliché, you say.Well, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who took that decidedly un-PC premiseand grafted it onto Nathaniel Hawthorn's "The Scarlet Letter," is anexceptionally 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 stereotypeinto archetype.
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During the post-performance discussion with the playwright and cast,audience members -- both black and white -- seem to almost uniformlylove this searing, bleak, truly heartbreaking piece about exploitationand betrayal. Certainly Suzan-Lori Parks, trained at the prestigiousYale 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 cannot read or write anything except the letter "A," and is taken advantageof sexually by every other adult in the play. There's the social workerwho seduces and deceives her; thedoctor who gains her confidencethen forcibly sterilizes her; her junkie first lover who returns toreject her again; her last child's minister father aroused by herhelplessness; her best friend who would sell the moon for a profit; herchildren themselves as they become bent and kinked by circumstances.Perhaps "In the Blood," completed in 1998 at the outset of welfare"reform" was intended asartistic outcry against the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor.
They've been heralding the "end of welfare as we knowit" for some time now. You can almost hear theremedial programs creaking into place. The private sector beingencouraged, or induced, to participate in hiring and training scads ofdisadvantaged workers. The new bureaucracies being set up to replacesome old ones. It's either optimistic, practical, delusional, ormean-spirited, depending on your perspective. But it will havefar-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 betterunderstand her black partner.
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"I can't imagine a woman today who would want to have so manychildren under similar circumstances, but this helps me understand themindset," observes a brisk, brusque, well-dressed African-Americancareer professional, who obviously has never met a happy voluntarystay-at-home parent like my Italian-Polish friend "Pastina," a new momwho wants "10 more" babies with her hubby.
But for each of Suzan-Lori Park's characters, trapped in therelentless culture of victimization like insects in amber, there IS noway out short of death. Though I have loved her previous work for itsgorgeous inventive qualities in both plot and language, I found thisplay colossally painful to watch, awash in good intentions, politicsobscuring pathos. Despite its flashes of brilliant choral writing andmany highly effective satiric digs at hypocrisy, I found the over-allplay depressing, hopeless, without catharsis or transformation, noescape. To me, the play failed as either theater OR agit-prop. It wasall prop and no agit, making me yearn for a well-made drama managing tofocus upon social issues while presenting implicit blueprints forchange. Afterwards, I feel emotionally flattened, drained, gripped by aprofound, unrelenting sense of doom. Rather than make meaninglesssmall-talk at the reception, no matter how enticing they promise thecheese balls would be, I leave the theater in, yes, emotional chaos andhead for home.
Just outside the glass doors of the theater on Philadelphia'sso-called Avenue of the Arts, I'm greeted by a one-legged homeless blackman on crutches. Over the past five years, I've often seen this guybegging around center city with his much-younger white girlfriend. He'ssomeone my neighbor Gary, head of a nearby high-rise condo council,swears is dangerous, violent, evil. Call the police on sight, Garyalways warns, but I've only witnessed docility.
Often the derelict and his lady spend mealtimes trying to cadgechange a few blocks away around the bustling luxury commerce of 16th andWalnut. Or I would see them napping in their nocturnal down-time by abrick wall of the art-school dorms near where I used to walk my old dogFreda. As the terrier mutt began to stiffen up over a span of severalmonths, the fellow observantly remarked, "Arthritis? I know a lot aboutthat." Whenever he saw me after that, he'd inquire, "How's the dog?"instead of begging money. Lately, the two have been displaced by massiveconstruction of a regional performing arts center, which for the timebeing is merely an annoying pit dubbed "the largest hole in the world."
"You coming from some kind of entertainment, some kind of show?" heasks as I exit the theater, jolting me into a surreal segue. It's as ifhe has stepped out of the play, off the stage, and now confronts me outon the street, a character out of context, demanding I pay attention tohim. 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 payhim the kind of attention the audience was giving a bunch of actorspretending for a bogus exercise on stage. Am I getting too abstracthere? Probably. But why is he attempting to make conversation at thisprecise instant? Strange. I put a crumpled dollar in his paper cup. "Aplay. I just saw a play," I say wanly. Then, swallowing any hesitation,I plunge ahead. "About a desperate black woman on welfare who murdersthe favorite of her five children." I shake my head, overcome, barelyable to continue.
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"I've never seen a play," the homeless man admits wistfully. A coldblast 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 athis stump of a leg that ends right below his knee. "I'd clean up." I'moverwhelmed at this, nearly speechless, holding back tears. I try toimagine what the possibility of Theater for the Homeless might be like.And I'm slightly embarrassed at the unexpected, awkward symmetry of theevening's events, shaped like a figure eight leaning on its side.Sometimes, I say to him, trying to make sense of the absurdity thatgrips us, sometimes plays are so ... irrelevant to how people reallylive, and suffer, and struggle.
Suddenly my plan to take a playwrighting course soon at that sametheater seems silly and self-indulgent, dwarfed by a more immediateurgency of distributing sandwiches to the hungry and impoverished. What am Isupposed to say to this guy? What does this encounter mean in the largerscheme of things? Why bother aspiring to make art at the millennium whenthings in this country are so messed up? Can anyone do anything? I'mgripped by a sense of impotence. I wonder how many of the audience, soengrossed moments ago by a contrived literary dilemma called a play,would walk past this cripple on the sidewalk in real life, deliberatelynot seeing him, assuming he is a drug addict or a wife-beater or a childmolester 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-calledcivic leaders. "That only encourages them. Besides, most of them arejust opportunists pretending to be homeless."
Emboldened by his confession he'd like to see a play, I ask himsomething I've always wanted to know: how he lost his leg. Is he aVietnam vet? "No. Bone infection," he says. "Look, I'm 53 years old. Theshelters treat everyone like you're on booze or drugs. Last year Ialmost got into Section Eight housing, but the paperwork became screwedup." 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'shis girlfriend? Across the street on a vent, he points. Go inside, Isay. 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 knowhe did was barbecue some expensive steaks last summer, bought by hisgirlfriend at the Food-Rite, on the steps of the supposedly sacrosanctAcademy of Music, home of the veddy, veddy proper Philadelphia Orchestraa sassy, audacious gesture which, I must confess, made me laugh andlaugh.