As the title would suggest, there is no subtlety in Suzan-Lori Parks' "Fucking A." In the dystopian future world crafted by Parks back in 2000, everything seems to exist in the extreme—the subjugation and exploitation of women, the political reach of the aristocracy, the wealth gap, the bloodthirst of humankind, the severity and inescapability of incarceration. So, not a far cry from where we find ourselves in 2017, when darkness makes itself louder and clearer than most generations living in America today have experienced.
In the dust-land world of "Fucking A," currently staged by Iron Crow Theatre at Baltimore Theatre Project, even the "good" when operating in the extreme turns bloody—a mother's love, interrupted, becomes a revenge fantasy. That's what happens when you live in the shadow of judgment, as does the protagonist Hester Smith, inspired by the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." Parks' Hester (played by Jessica Bennett) wears an "A" brandished on her breast not because she is an adulterer, like Hawthorne's Hester, but as an obligatory signifier of her occupation. She is an abortionist, a particularly skilled one favored by the women of the lower class who works not in a clinic but out of her own little shop. Hester took the job to raise money in the hopes of getting her son out of jail for a day just to have a picnic lunch. She hasn't seen him in 12 years and pays a scribe to pen letters and has her friend, a prostitute named Canary Mary (Deirdre McAllister), read his responses back to her; illiteracy is commonplace here. Before, Hester worked as a custodian for "the rich people," that is, the mayor (Jamil Johnson) and his wife (Cricket Arrison), known to the public as the First Lady and to Hester as "the Rich Bitch." Hester blames the First Lady for her son's incarceration after she snitched on him for stealing food when he was hungry.
Though the legality and regulation of abortion in this world is unclear, the moral judgment cast on the service provider is not unlike her place in our own.
"Like me," Canary says to Hester, "You perform one of those disrespectful but most necessary services."
Set designer Logan Lynch interprets that shadow of judgment literally but to great effect. Looming over the stage is a long, tall judge's bench of sorts, where members of the ensemble cast sit and watch over the action below, at times translating the "talk," a strange language used by female characters when discussing women's matters (abortion, for example, is "die Aba-nazip"). No one leaves the stage; all cast members remain visible in the sidelines observing the transgressions unfolding in front of them, dimly lit by a shrine-like stack of flickering, misshapen candles that bleed pink light into the twilight blue cast over the stage. The color is so potent that it might take you a while to realize the entire floor is splattered with blood.
Like other set pieces, which include a bar, a butcher's table, and a swing bench hung from the ceiling, the judge's bench is crafted out of pale wood and mounted with knickknacks and props like a rifle and a pair of bloody aprons—a Cracker Barrel of nightmares. A torn and charred American flag hangs from the bar. Three musicians—banjo, hand drum, mandolin—sit in front of the judge's bench, constant onlookers who provide bluegrass-y interludes between scenes and accompany the brief musical numbers, which, for the most part, serves only to make the dark subject matter a little easier to swallow, even comical at times. In one foot-stomper, Butcher ticks off the list of crimes committed by his imprisoned daughter (never mentioned again), such as unlawful reproduction, failure to predict natural disasters, not believing in the afterlife, conversations with children that are not her own, and murder.
The plot is thick: There's Hester's struggle to raise funds for her reunion with her son and thirst for vengeance against the First Lady; the fraught marriage between the mayor and his wife as she proves unable to produce an heir and his Henry VIII-like wish to have her executed, calling her apparent infertility "treason"; the affair between the mayor and Canary Mary, whose body the wealthy mayor holds exclusive rights to; the hunt three hick psychopaths (Martha Robichaud, Kelly Hutchison, and Caitlin Weaver) wage on a mysterious escaped convict (Javier Ogando) with an impressive rap sheet—"We hunt but we do not eat what we catch" the hunters sing, though they do keep trophies; the oddly adorable courtship between Hester and a sweet, simple butcher known as Butcher (Jared Swain), who demonstrates to Hester how to properly slaughter a pig—both a useful lesson and, somehow, a vaguely erotic moment.
Parks demands significant attention from the audience for what at times amounts to loose threads and peripheral distractions, but the strong performances—particularly from Bennett as Hester, Swain as Butcher, Arrison as The First Lady, and Kaya Vísìon in multiple small-but-memorable roles—and acute direction from Stephen Nunns (who, full disclosure, is the husband of recently departed CP editor Karen Houppert) anchor the story in place even when it seems bent on rolling away.
It's hard to imagine the rest of Iron Crow's "Season of the Dark Play" could get more grim than it does with "Fucking A." The sting of this kind of story, dominated by shame, penetrates deep and lingers in a time like this, as the gap between reality and dystopian fiction narrows and we're asked to reconsider what dystopia itself even means anymore. Don't bother to suspend your disbelief.
"Fucking A" runs through Feb. 12 at Baltimore Theatre Project. For more information, visit ironcrowtheatre.org.