Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

At Shaking the Tree, a scarlet letter and Roe v. Wade

In Suzan-Lori Parks' drama "Fucking A," the "A" is for "abortionist," not "adulterer." Actor Kayla Hanson talks about the issues and the action.

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Josie Seid (pointing) as Hester and Gerrin Mitchell as the Freedom Fund Lady in Shaking the Tree’s “Fucking A.” Photo: Owen Carey

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and its guarantee of abortion rights, Suzan-Lori Parks’ grim fable Fucking A has some things to say. Though it was originally released in 2000, long before the landmark political regression, the play’s searing portrayal of working-class women struggling within a violent, classist society still resonates today. 

Fucking A and Parks’ 1999 In the Blood were both inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, and are known collectively as “The Red Letter Plays.” In Fucking A, Hester (Josie Seid) still appears with an “A,” as in the original tale. Only now, rather than an adulterer as in the novel, she’s an abortionist, with her occupation’s letter branded into her skin, and she’s doing this work to help her gain access to her imprisoned son.

Parks, the play’s author, is one of the most accomplished playwrights in the United States. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for 2001’s Topdog/Underdog, and has also won two Obie awards, for White Noise and In the BloodFucking A will be onstage Oct. 8-Nov. 5 at Portland’s Shaking the Tree Theatre. It’s a busy fall for her, with a Broadway revival of Topdog/Underdog in rehearsal; a new play, Sally & Tom, about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, just opened at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis; and a couple of other major productions coming soon.

Actor Kayla Hanson plays the role of Hester’s best friend, sex worker Canary Mary, in Shaking the Tree’s Fucking A. Kayla shared her views on the frustrating life of her character, her relationship with Hester, and their obligations to a brutally puritanical world.

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Kayla Hanson talks about Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Fucking A” and playing Canary Mary.

How would you describe this play to people who don’t know anything about it yet?

It is a kind of retelling of, or adjacent to, The Scarlet Letter. It definitely draws on themes from the original story, but it’s not a one-to-one adaptation. It is a series of short scenes where you get a glimpse into this world. The main character, Hester, is an abortionist in her town. So that’s what her “A” stands for. 

And you get an idea for how the structure of the town works. The main draw of the story is Hester trying to reconnect with her son, who was imprisoned for a petty crime when he was really young. 

There are songs–ten different songs. There’s a secret language throughout the show. It is vicious and bloody, but it has a lot of heart. 

The secret language is exclusively spoken among women, right?

Yes! In the play only women speak it. Although some of the male characters can understand it, they don’t speak it.

I’m curious what drew you to this play. As you’ve been starting to work with it, how has it kept you compelled as you dig more into the material?

Samantha [Van Der Merwe], who’s the artistic director at Shaking the Tree and the director of the show–she reached out to me and sent me the script. She said to specifically check out the character of Canary Mary. 

So I read the script, and the story just really stuck with me for a while after I read it. I got on the phone with her and we were chatting about (another project and) about the play, and I think she put it best where she said, ”You know, this isn’t necessarily a feel-good play, but I think especially right now it’s a story worth telling.” And I completely agree with that. Especially with Roe v. Wade being repealed very recently, it’s unfortunately very timely, even though this play–I believe she started writing it in the mid-’90s. 

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Oh, I didn’t know it was written that long ago!

Yeah, it premiered in 2000, I believe. It was a story that really stuck with me. I was interested in all the intricacies of the world, like the secret language, which is called “Talk,” the songs, just the way the different characters speak and the bits of information you learn about the society. It really pulls you in. So figuring that out has been fun and interesting, expanding on what all those intricacies are and getting to be in that world. 

Just reading about it, my curiosity has been piqued more and more. I’m curious to hear the second language. I always think it’s neat– maybe it’s a nerdy thing, too, to get excited whenever any type of artistic work has invented another language for itself. 

Yes, and what’s cool, too, is that there is a key in the back of the script that has what the characters are actually saying. When I first read it, I assumed that the actors would go into this “Talk” and the audience would have to sort of figure it out, but we’re going to have subtitles for what we’re saying, which is fun.

Kayla Hanson as Canary Mary. Photo: Owen Carey

I like that, because you get to hear the language, but the audience doesn’t have to wonder what’s going on. They’ll get the best of both worlds. So, you’re going to be playing Hester’s best friend, Canary Mary. She’s a prostitute and also the mayor’s mistress. Are there any ways that your character has been challenging or fun to develop so far? 

Yeah, I think the most challenging and interesting thing about her is. well, there are kind of two parts. I love her friendship with Hester. The very first scene, it’s the both of them and you really get a glimpse into how close they are and how much they can lean on each other, even though the world is terrible and really hard. But they find joy with each other. 

Then there’s her relationship with the mayor. The mayor owns exclusive rights to her. So she has security; she doesn’t necessarily get paid money very often. Like, she says, “He gives me clothes, rarely cash.” But she’s getting things. So it’s like a bump up in quality of life.  However, emotionally, it’s really hard and unsatisfying.

So that’s been kind of the pull with her, which is really sad. She comes to realize that even though she has hustled so hard up through this point in her life–she’s very smart. She can make her own way in the world. However, she realizes that she’s sort of reached her limit of where she can go in this society, and that the class divide is just too great for her to make it on her own. 

There’s a lot of interesting things going on with Canary Mary, and I think it all goes back to her friendship with Hester. And women supporting women, you know. I love that aspect of it, too. 

Does Hester have a similar social or class standing to Canary Mary in the play?

Similar, yeah. In the first scene, they’re going back and forth about how they both perform two of the grittiest but most necessary jobs in the society. And Hester is interesting because you come to find out that her son went to prison at a very, very young age, and then she sort of had this choice of, well, you can become an abortionist, you can make some money to try to buy back your son’s freedom, or at least buy back visits and time to see him–and slowly make your way to buying his freedom. Or you can not. 

So it’s like she was forced into the position that she’s in. She’s just trying to make the most of it, just trying to do her job, do her service to the best of her ability. But she’s sort of in the same, but different position. 

So they’re both locked into situations it sounds like they’re not happy with, but they have their needs met more than some. While there’s gratitude for having the money, there’s a feeling of being stuck in society. 

Yeah, I think that’s accurate. 

You already mentioned a little bit about Roe v. Wade and the timeliness there. Do you have anything else to say about why you think people need to see Fucking A, and/or why it’s relevant right now?

Definitely. The world of the show doesn’t take place in our society, but it is eerily similar to our society, even though it is very extreme. I definitely think it’s a social commentary. It’s a political commentary, it’s a women’s rights commentary. I mean, there are so many different angles that you can look at this show from that make it relevant today. 

I think it’s a story worth telling, and hopefully if you come see it, you’ll be able to think critically about the world we are in today, our America, and–how close are we to a totally totalitarian dictatorship that you see in the show? I mean, it’s not completely dissimilar. 

And then, of course, Roe v. Wade and women’s right to an abortion is obviously something that a lot of people are dealing with right now. Unfortunately, it’s very timely in that aspect, too. 

Definitely.

Yeah, I think there are a lot of different facets to it. I feel like everyone will find something to connect with in the show. It’s like, you see these people, they’re so hard-working. They’re making the most of what they can do with. 

Definitely relatable for working class America. 

For sure. 

Are there any last things you’d like to add?

I’m really excited and grateful to be working on this project with this group of people––the cast is incredible. Really excited to see how the final show shakes up when everything comes together. I think it’s going to be special, and I think it’ll be a great show. 

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  • Fucking A opens Oct. 8 and continues through Nov. 5 at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 S.E. Grant St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

Freya Drake is a freelance writer, poet, and musician based in Portland. She specializes in writing about the performing arts, all things culinary, and personal essays. In her free time, she teaches Qigong and writes and performs music locally.

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