The acting is superb in Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. However, it’s hard to feel sorry for Hester La Negrita (Saycon Sengbloh), the supposed heroine of the piece, when she has five children from as many baby daddies. As a chorus of voices judge her stating “who the hell she think she is” and “I’ll be damned if she gonna live off me,” it may be un-PC, but you totally understand why. But oh, my god, when you take into consideration that Hester is illiterate as she lives off the state, that she is living under a bridge with her children, that she is called “slut” – a word she cannot read but her oldest child can – while she states her children are her treasures and her joys, you start to have compassion. Still, that is all dashed when she goes to the father of her youngest, a preacher called Reverend D. (Russell G. Jones), who keeps blowing her off for funds, yet asks her to suck him off to which she does. If that weren’t bad enough, he dismisses her like the trash heap her children play on and she still wants him. When the Welfare Lady (Jocelyn Bioh) comes, you find out Hester had a threesome with her and her husband, and it seems she does favors for money with no qualms.
Her best friend, Amiga Gringa (Ana Reeder), is a hooker who gets pregnant to sell her children, and the state doctor (Frank Woods) wants to give her a hysterectomy and that’s a bad thing. The whole show comes to a head when her first love, Chilli (Michael Braun), the father of her first child who left 13 years ago, has come back to marry her until he finds out she was not faithful and had four other children by four different men and leaves. It seems even her own people find her behavior unacceptable. When she sees Chilli, we see the girl she once was, but we never see how she allowed her base nature to take over and allow her to be swallowed up by these disastrous choices. In grief over losing Chilli, when her oldest son calls her a slut, she kills him in cold blood. We then see her after having the operation that will no longer allow her to bring children into the world as she wipes her bloody hands on herself.
Ms. Sengbloh’s – a 2016 Tony nominee for Eclipsed – performance is truly wonderful, as is the rest of the cast who double as Hester’s brood and the people who stand in her way. Though in reality, it is Hester who stands in her own way. All these characters get a soliloquy called “confessions” in which they describe their shortcomings.
Sarah Benson’s direction is flung to us with a sense of humor, except I do not find this subject matter funny. Louisa Thompson’s set adds another dimension with its graffiti walls, littered space, and curved walls that Hester’s five children use as a slide, which I am sure is a metaphor for never being able to make it to the top once you are that low.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ writing is poetic and topical, but it seems as if she is calling for a race war.
The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. until Oct. 15th.