When Back Porch Players decided to take on Suzan-Lori Parks' In The Blood, they looked no further than their own back yard for a director that had the skills, understanding and sensibility to stage the powerful work.
Juilliard School graduate and Landing Theatre Company artistic director David Rainey seemed like the man for the daunting job, having spent 12 years with the Alley Theatre that included a run in their production of the playwright's Topdog/Underdog in 2004.
Written two years before the critically acclaimed Topdog/Underdog, In The Blood hasn't received as much attention, but it is equally as poignant.
CultureMap caught up with Rainey as he prepares for opening night and discussed Parks, his experience on the other side of her work and the importance of In The Blood.
CultureMap: Suzan-Lori Parks came to fame with Topdog/Underdog. I suppose that's what happens when anyone wins an award, especially a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and their work receives attention by major theater companies. What are common threads in her writing?
David Rainey: There are lot of similarities between Topdog/Underdog and In The Blood. At their core, both works are really about family, about needing to hold on to what's important. She has a way of writing that I consider to be very musical. It has a jazz quality with clear poetic rhythms that are uniquely hers. It may seem like it is language we use everyday, but it's much more than that.
Like a lot of her plays, In The Blood ends in tragedy.
CM: How do you think the playwright changed from In The Blood to TopDog/Underdog? Did her style, approach or themes evolve or switch direction?
DR: In The Blood is one of two of her plays that are based on The Scarlet Letter. She put it on the back burner for a bit and started crafting Fucking A. You can see how her writing matured in some ways. When she returned to In The Blood, she became more specific and realistic about her scenarios.
The subject revolves around the way we treat women and single mothers, the way we use others for our own benefit, the way people are raped physically and emotionally, repeatedly. It's a big statement about our humanity, about how we view people who are down and our curiosity for learning how they got there.
CM: As a young theater company, the choice of repertoire often makes a larger statement about the organization's approach. Why In The Blood?
DR: It's really a good play that should get more attention. We liked the script, as it also aligns with Back Porch Player's philosophy on theater programming. We like to involve the community and open conversations surrounding social issues.
It's a poignant play, timely also. We discovered — uncovered through working on it — how significant it is to the socio-economic situation we are in right now. As we live in uncertain economic times, there is a national tide pushing every man for themselves. It's a free for all.
CM: Having been in Alley Theatre's Topdog/Underdog, how does that influence your approach in directing In The Blood? It's been a while since that production. What do you recall from your experience?
DR: I understand the language she speaks, and I understand where she's going with her subjects and thematic material. Topdog/Underdog was the hardest piece of theater I have read, often ending up physically and emotionally exhausted after each performance — not to mention by the end of the run. My voice barely survived.
As a director, I understand how taxing it is, and I understand her structure. It's much freer than most works. You have to invent. Though there's clues, she doesn't answer certain questions and leaves them up to interpretation. I know how she writes, and believe I understand what she's trying to accomplish.
It's quite an important work. There are a lot of people in desperate situations, and often, it's not their fault. But we want to know why.
Parks created Hester, a woman who has five kids from different fathers, through whom we explore how society deals with her situation. It's insensitive and cruel. Often, we are not aware how cruel we are to people, and as a result, we are responsible for perpetuating that situation. Cruelty can be hilarious at times, and at others, very difficult to watch.
CM: Is In The Blood a morality play? Is it trying to teach something?
DR: It's not a morality play in the sense that she's trying to teach a schoolbook lesson. She's laying out reality and asking the audience to mull it over. She's not judging it, she's not necessarily saying what's right and what's wrong.
CM: What did you uncover while working on In The Blood? Was there anything uniquely difficult or challenging?
DR: [Parks] has what she calls "spells" in her writing. These are moments of unspoken dialogue that need to be invented. She doesn't give any indication of what they are supposed to be, so it took time to craft what would fill that dramatic space. There was a lot of trial and error involved, and that is difficult if you are not used to working around those parameters. It's a very mature piece of theater with sexual and violent content. It's just raw.
The content is not supposed to shock audiences. It's just reality. Shock is when you present things you don't expect, not when the story develops the way it's supposed to develop, as raw as that may be.
Back Porch Players' production of Suzan-Lori Parks' In The Blood, directed by David Rainey, opens Wednesday and plays through Sept. 25 at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex. General admission tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors and can be purchased by calling 1-800-494-8497 or online at www.thebackporchplayers.com.