Hester La Negrita’s Illness Narrative

Phyllisa Deroze // In the Blood (1999), written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, has received a myriad of critical acclaim and scholarly criticism. This essay is an excerpt from a larger project that I am working on that aims to expand current discussions about the intersectionality of illness narratives, literary studies, and racialized bodies. Because Hester’s health is a prominent aspect of the play, I will analyze the drama as an illness narrative.  

Parks wrote two plays inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and each has an African American protagonist named Hester. Hester La Negrita, the protagonist of In the Blood, emerges as a more layered and complex character than Hawthorn’s Hester Prynne; La Negrita’s “scarlet letter” is materialized through the space she occupies as a poor, unwed, illiterate, homeless, African American mother of five living under a bridge in urban America. The plot follows the single mother across nine scenes as she seeks assistance from religious, social, and medical systems. A quick glance of reviews reveal that the play opens up conversations about race, literacy, sexuality, poverty, social support, and the gender entrapment of Black American women.[1,2,3]  

 The goal of analyzing the plot as an illness narrative is to introduce the play into health humanities discourse. Although In the Blood is not an autobiographical, first-person illness drama like Robbie McCauley’s one-woman play, Sugar, Hester’s health is continuously the central subject of the play. Sharing the stage with Hester are five other actors. The five cast members perform as doubles—first as one of her five children, then as an adult with access to financial and/or emotional support. As adults, the characters represent Hester’s first love, a local preacher, her social services caseworker, her primary care physician, and a close friend. Despite all the aforementioned characters having the ability to help Hester, they each violate and abuse her. In sections of the play labeled “Confession,” the adults deliver soliloquies detailing how they sexually abuse Hester. These confessions provide insight into understanding Hester’s emotional and psychological health as a survivor of multiple sexual assaults. 

From the Prologue, Hester is vilified by society. In unison, the characters say, “All: THERE SHE IS!/WHO DOES SHE THINK/SHE IS/THE NERVE SOME PEOPLE HAVE/SHOULDNT HAVE IT IF YOU CANT AFFORD IT/AND YOU KNOW SHE CANT/ SHE DONT GO NO SKILLS/ CEPT ONE…” (Parks). As audience members, we are introduced to Hester’s reproductive health before even meeting her. She is initially portrayed as hypersexual and irresponsible. Throughout the play, however, we learn that she is vulnerable and easily exploited by others because of it. Her body remains paramount to the plot from beginning to end. In Scene 1, when Hester meets the physician, we discover that she has a chronic health condition.  

The Doctor comes in. 

He wears a sandwich board and carries all his office paraphernalia on his back. 

Doctor: Hester! Yr due for a checkup. 

Hester: My guts been hurting me. 

Doctor: Im on my way home just now. Catch up with me tomorrow. We’ll have a look at it then.  (Parks).

Hester’s use of the stressed “been” in African American vernacular indicates that she has had abdominal pain for a long time.[5] The following day, in Scene 2 “Street Practice,” the doctor meets Hester while making rounds with his mobile clinic. During the appointment, the physician is more concerned about government regulations than Hester’s abdominal pain.  

Doctor: …Do you know how much The Higher Ups would like to shut me down? Every blemish on your record is a blemish on mine. Yr pain could be nothing or it could be the end of the road—a cyst or a tumor, a lump or virus or an infected sore. Or cancer, Hester. Undetected. There youd be, lying in yr coffin with all yr little ones gathered around motherlessly weeping and The Higher Ups pointing their fingers at me, saying I should of saved the day, but instead stood idly by….” (Parks).  

The doctor never adequately addresses her abdominal pain or provide an accurate diagnosis. Despite doubling over in visible pain a couple of times throughout the play, Hester’s medical condition remains undiagnosed. Illness narratives, according to Ann Jurecic, should highlight “experiences of living at risk, in prognosis, and in pain.” Parks, however, leaves her audience haunted by Hester’s unknown prognosis in this dystopian drama. The silence amplifies the risks the protagonist faces as an illiterate single mother surviving in an urban city. It is evident that Hester’s pain is physical as well as emotional, financial, spiritual, and psychological. Unfortunately, the only medical treatment Hester receives is a hysterectomy. “The Higher Ups” demand the doctor perform the procedure. Hester’s operation recalls a number of historical violations, such as the 45-year State-mandated sterilization laws that disproportionately targeted African American women in North Carolina.[6] 

In the Blood elucidates a plethora of health issues African American women encounter. As the paper develops, I aspire to demonstrate how Hester’s illness narrative is an individual tale but also symbolizes the collective experiences of women facing medical racism and socio-economic vulnerability.  

[1]Fraden, Rena. “Suzan-Lori Parks’ Hester Plays: In the Blood and Fucking A.” The Massachusetts Review, Vol 48, No.3 (Fall, 2007), pp. 434-454.

[2]Guran, Letitia. Suzan-Lori Parks: Rearticulating the Laws of Race and Gender in African American History.” South Atlantic Review, vol 76, No. 2 (Spring 2011), pp. 65-91.

[3]In her text, Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women, Beth E. Richie defines gender entrapment as “the socially constructed process whereby African American women who are vulnerable to men’s violence in their intimate relationships are penalized for behaviors they engage in even when the behaviors are logical extensions of their racialized gender identities, their culturally expected gender roles, and the violence in their intimate relationships” (4).

[4]For a historical overview of illness narratives see Chapter 1, “Illness Narratives and the Challenge to Criticism,” in Ann Jurecic’s Illness as Narrative.

[5] https://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/stressed-bin-been

Parks, Suzan Lori. In The Blood. Theatre Communications Group, 2012.  Amazon Kindle E-Book.

Photo credit: Austin D. Oie

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