TAMPA — From the start, it's clear that In the Blood might offer insights into the lives of people we either do not see, or people we drive past with eyes fixed straight ahead.
Unfortunately, getting any insight means first being able to believe the characters, something that is almost impossible in this preachy production.
The pedigree behind the play now at Stageworks Theatre is impressive. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer for drama (2002, for Topdog/Underdog). Director Fanni Green teaches acting at the University of South Florida. The set by Frank Chavez effectively portrays a living space for a homeless family of six beneath an overpass, on which someone has scrawled the word "slut."
A field of objects that looks at first like the clutter of a disorganized mind, on closer examination reveals the economy of survival. Every plastic bag, soda can, bottle of bleach, sleeping bag and milk crate helps this mother and her five children acquire food or stay warm. The mother is Hester (Erica Sutherlin), whose struggles should inspire empathy in anyone who has a pulse.
Instead, the people from whom she seeks help are looking to take what little she has left. Her children, by five different men, are learning from the street. Baby crushes aluminum cans for money. Bully sleeps with her fists balled up. Jabber finds companionship in hookers.
Reverend D (played by Willie Hannah, who has his moments) has a full collection plate on Sundays and empty promises. Welfare Lady (Amber Forbes) wants to use Hester as a seamstress for pennies on the dollar. Amiga Gringa (Suzy Devore), a prostitute, wants Hester as a partner for peep-show customers. The Doctor (Johnny Garde) wants to coerce her into having a hysterectomy. Chili, another of the fathers (Domingo Ocasio), would like to get back together, at least before he realizes the extent of desperation in Hester's past and present. All of these adults have had sexual contact with Hester in the past and want it again.
The play is a contemporary take on The Scarlet Letter, a clever dimension since Hester is illiterate. Jabber is trying to teach her the alphabet, but so far she can't get past "A" (which means she can't read the slur written on the concrete).
No one would expect a play about illiteracy, racism, poverty and homelessness to be Noel Coward. Its rough edges are there by design as if to jar audiences to the reality of lives ignored. That said, this production starts off weakly and goes downhill from there.
The acting is, for the most part, a one-dimensional presentation of good people who struggle and bad people who exert power. The script is partially at fault. This feels like a sermon, and would be better delivered as such from the pulpit.
But it is still possible to imagine layered characters playing these roles. The doctor, for example, might actually show the conflict his monologue hints at. Garde's doctor is flat as wallpaper.
There is one exception, and that is Erica Sutherlin as Hester. She creates a full and sympathetic character, rendering some beautifully written lines with nuance and precision. Strong as it is, her performance is not enough to save this play.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.