Some Yalies may view the New Haven’s homeless — such as the Shakespeare Lady — as local celebrities. But as optimistic as that attitude might be, it is too easy to forget that homelessness is anything but glamorous. It is fitting that a play like “In the Blood” would be performed at Yale, because the play promises to reawaken audiences to the multifaceted plight of living on the streets.
An adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” “In the Blood” tackles contemporary issues such as homelessness, illiteracy and sexual violence. The plot follows the tribulations of Hester La Negrita (Nnenna Ukwu ’05), a homeless woman raising five illegitimate children. Intelligent but illiterate, Hester struggles to learn how to read and write with the help of her eldest son, Jabber (Louis Daniels ’07). She has just barely mastered “A,” the first letter of the alphabet and one that becomes ubiquitous throughout the production. Her illiteracy puts her at a disadvantage in the workplace, where she has difficulty finding even menial jobs to feed her children.
In her attempts to “get a leg up,” Hester navigates through a system that has already given up on her; even an unsympathetic social worker (Jane Sikdar ’06, who also plays Hester’s daughter Bully) explains that unless Hester cleans up her act, there is little welfare can do.
A former prostitute, Hester is taken advantage of, both sexually and figuratively, by everyone she turns to. A doctor to the homeless (Chris Kochevar ’07, dual-cast as the child Trouble) slides humorously under Hester’s skirt for a mechanic-style examination of her genitalia. Later, in one of several soliloquies that punctuate the play, Kochevar admits to once having had sex with Hester.
Left with no one to turn to, Hester scrambles to find the fathers of her five children. She first encounters Reverend D., the deadbeat father of her youngest child, Baby. Both characters are played by Kobi Libii ’07. But most of all, Hester longs to rediscover Chilli (Daniels), Jabber’s father and her first love.
The “In the Blood” production team thoughtfully reorganized the Off Broadway Theater’s seating into an “A” that juts into the performance area. This more intimate arrangement complements the effective set of rusty metal supports and brick walls, designed to suggest Hester’s abysmal living situation under a bridge. Making full use of the theater, cast members enter through the audience, emphasizing the fact that the audience is watching something that is closer to reality than to performance.
Most of all, however, it is Ukwu’s inspired performance as Hester that makes the play believable. Ukwu, with bags etched under her eyes and garbed only in a lightly soiled dress, steps onto the stage with the authentic aura of a woman in despair: her presence shows hints of quiet determination, alternating with pangs of self-doubt.
In a cast of six, Ukwu is the only performer not to be dual-cast. The remaining five actors each play two roles: one as an adult character and another as one of Hester’s five children. On the whole, the dual-casting runs smoothly: wardrobe changes and the linguistic difference between young and old ensure that there is no confusion. Yet for some actors, the dual-cast system spreads them too thin. Some characters are fleshed out at the expense of their counterparts’ development.
Libii, as both Reverend D. and Baby, perhaps most successfully interprets his pair of characters. As Baby, Hester’s two-year-old son, Libii goo-goos and gah-gahs in spite of his lanky, un-toddler-like height. On the other hand, as the articulate preacher, Libii owns the stage as he belts out inspirational speeches and biblical passages to passersby. Libii’s skill is most pronounced, however, in the Reverend’s encounters with Hester, in which the smooth-talking minister is reduced to a sniveling fool, ashamed of the affair he had continued with the homeless woman.
The play is not without its flaws, however. One scene in particular, in which Hester rediscovers her lost love Chilli, lacks the emotional depth the rest of the production boasts. Though it suffers from poor blocking, the scene’s weakness could largely be attributed to a lack of chemistry between Ukwu and Daniels. In any other scene, the mistakes would be insignificant; this romantic chapter, however, turns out to be crucial to the plot and its weakness hampers what is otherwise a powerful finale to the tragedy.
Nonetheless ,”In the Blood” does a solid job of accomplishing its purpose: to expose the hypocrisies and inconsistencies that exist in “reaching out” to the homeless, and to dispel one-dimensional views of the homeless that labels often encapsulate. “In the Blood” offers not only some food for thought but also a wholly enjoyable theater experience.