About halfway through Fucking A, a character named Butcher (John San Nicolas) delivers a language-bending monologue that lists every law his daughter has broken. The offenses range from the severe to the mundane to the absurd. They include homicide, jaywalking, and “leading men and women into cyberspace and leaving them there lost,” among many, many more. Butcher’s speech tells us that world of Fucking A is one where just about anything can be outlawed.
Ironically, abortion is absent from that list.
Though it was written in 2000, Pulitzer-prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks' text is an unflinching and prescient critique of today—where the right to abortion is illegal in 13 US states and under attack in at least 12 others.
Parks set her scene in a nameless dystopia where abortion is protected, but remains a taboo subject, akin to adultey in The Scarlet Letter. Shaking the Tree's Artistic Director Samantha Van Der Merwe realizes Parks’ vision masterfully.
The play charts Hester’s (Josie Seid) journey to purchase the freedom of her son, Monster (Anthony Michael Shepard), who is currently in prison. In order to do so, she makes payments to the Orwellian-sounding “Freedom Fund,” which she scrapes together from her earnings as an abortionist. This proves no easy task, and Hester’s efforts are upended after Monster escapes. When Hester visits the prison, the guards bring out the wrong man (Austin Michael Young) and the meeting goes horribly wrong.
Thankfully, this production has a soft side. Canary Mary (Kayla Hanson) is a much-needed beacon of kindness as Hester’s friend and confidant. The loquacious Butcher is an apt love-interest for Hester, since the pair make a fitting visual match (both sport blood-splattered aprons). But the dark underpinnings are never far away. During one scene, Butcher teaches Hester how to slaughter a pig, miming the action across Hester’s neck with a knife. The moment is oddly sweet, but it reveals how the characters’ love language is mired by the grisly reality of their professions.
Clifton Holznagel, Samson Syharath, and Gerrin Mitchell take on many of the play’s supporting roles, including the town’s local bounty hunters. The trio’s Dogberry-like clowning undercuts the distressingly violent things they say and do. Laughter makes the medicine go down, but all pretense of comedy disappears in the show’s climax.
This being a Parks play, there is music. Short songs intercut the action. The cast doubles as a band—shout out to Holznagel for seeming to be able to play every instrument under the sun. Parks' script also includes a pidgin language called TALK, which is used by the non-male characters to discuss taboo topics like abortion, orgasms, genitals, etc. But Shaking the Tree provides an English-language projection of the translation.
While the SCOTUS decision will undoubtedly be on the minds of the audience—on opening night, one theatergoer wore a T-shirt bearing an Onion headline: “Supreme Court Overturns Right vs. Wrong”—this production is not only political. The play’s relevance is just the tip of the interpretive iceberg, belying a beautifully wrought tragedy of classic proportions. Led by Seid’s incredible turn as Hester, Van Der Merwe’s cast has created a world that, however dystopic, feels disturbingly similar to our own.