When the play “F---ing A” begins, abortionist Hester Smith has just met with one of her clients.
It’s midnight and she begins waxing poetic about what the rest of her community is up to at such a late hour.
“The more they stay in bed, the more trouble they get in,” she says, “and then they have to come see Hester.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ script — and, yes, the actual word is spelled out in what a CurtainUp reviewer called “the title that dares not fully spell its name in most propriety-conscious publications” — is loosely inspired by “The Scarlet Letter,” mostly in the lead character’s name and the “A” she’s forced to wear.
But Parks’ Hester doesn’t stitch it onto her clothing; it’s branded into her skin as a mark of the profession she was forced into years earlier, after her young son stole from the couple in whose home she worked as a maid.
As punishment, he was sent to jail, and Hester had a choice: She could either go with him, or work as an abortionist. She chose the latter, hoping to one day earn enough money to pay her son’s way to freedom.
The script deals with the hot-button issue “without taking a stand,” says Ken Parks, who is directing Randolph College’s production (and has no relation to the playwright). “I really can’t tell you what Suzan-Lori Parks thinks about abortion.”
“[Hester’s] role as an abortionist is just part of life,” he says. “A lot more, it’s about the choices we’re forced to make. … It focuses more on the position she’s in. It’s something that’s not really savory for her, either. But she makes due.”
Not long after Hester’s opening monologue, she and friend Canary Mary — whose affair with their town’s married mayor has brought her into Hester’s service a time or two before — sing about that very thing.
“It’s not that we love what we do/But we do it,” Canary sings in “The Working Woman’s Song,” with Hester later adding “We get through it.”
Hester and Canary are living in what appears to be some kind of dystopian society that’s never given a name — the mayor’s wife characterizes their community as “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere” — or specific time period.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” says Sonja Cirilo, the junior starring as Hester. “It’s not of this time.”
To add to that feeling of otherworldliness, Suzan-Lori Parks created a language, called “Talk,” that female characters occasionally use, mostly when talking about sex (translations for it will be projected onstage come opening night).
She also incorporated what she calls “spells” into the script, moments described as “heightened and elongated” pauses during which characters “expose their pure true simple state,” according to the book “Suzan-Lori Parks: Essays on the Plays and Other Works.”
And while the play includes songs that usually move the story forward, it’s not technically a musical, in the musical theater sense of the word. Instead, it’s billed as “19 scenes with song.”
“It’s about movement,” Cirilo says. “It’s more expressing yourself not only with your voice but with your body [and] incorporating your movement with your lines with the story.”
The intensity of the play — which that same CurtainUp review called as “downbeat and bloody as any Greek tragedy” — cannot be denied, but that’s what art is all about, Ken Parks says.
“I think it’s the role of theater to try and engage the audience,” he says. “This is a different kind of presentation. It’s part of the breadth of our expression as a people. This is definitely an American-made play [that reflects] what the American experience is for a great number of people. There are some important things here to look at and think about.
“It’s really dynamic work.”
Contact Casey Gillis at (434) 385-5525 or email@example.com.