“The United States government did something that was wrong, deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”
– President Bill Clinton, apologizing to the survivors of The Tuskegee Experiements (16 May 1997)
There was a study a few years back that, like all studies about institutional racism, didn’t surprise me in the least. The result of this particular study showed that White people, on average, genuinely believe that Black people are less susceptible to pain. I mean, if we’re going to be subject to systemic violence, it must be because each of us is Luke Cage, right? It couldn’t possible be the fact that we’re so often thought of as less-than-human that the United States Constitution once said that each of us is 3/5 of person. Naw, that couldn’t be it.
I’m sure there’s some other logical reason why Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water after all these years.
Although Christina Anderson’s play was first produced ten years ago, I imagine a town like Flint was on her mind when she wrote it. Those sorts of towns aren’t the last to receive much-needed help and recovery, they just don’t get help at all. They dilapidate and rot like spoiled fruit until an army of White money decides it’s time to gentrify the place, removing any trace of the original inhabitants the way metropolis erases and ancient ruin. I don’t know enough about Kansas City, MO to know if it resembles the near-post-apocalyptic town she depicts here, but the fact that this can be almost any Black neighborhood in the US says quite a lot.
When Lena returns from New York to Kansas City from like the prodigal child, both she and the town have changed in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. At the request of her 40-something sister Gloria, Lena’s here to have sex with Glo’s husband Greer, so that the couple can have a child. Once the conception is done, Lena’s days consist primarily of staying healthy and reconnecting with Ky, her childhood BFF.
But as Lena regularly visits her doctor, a different kind of medical procedure becomes more prominent with the people around her. It seems as if everyone she knows finds themselves the subject of invasive testing procedures that leave them physically violated and mentally shaken. But it’s hard to say who’s really at fault. And as the months pass and the appointments continue, Lena and those around her find out things about each other they rather wouldn’t have known.
One should know going in that Anderson and director Lisa Marie Rollins eschew subtlety in their depiction of the experiments: it’s a violation of the body deliberately meant to resemble sexual assault. During the first sequence on Ky, I wrote in my notes that the terrifying scene was a Kafka-esque nightmare, with the unnamed medical tech (Jennifer McNeal) seemingly taking control of the subject’s movements as they’re probed. But it was the shaken reaction of Ky (Jasmine Williams) that truly left a jarring impression. This is the effect of someone who’s just been stripped of their personhood and was powerless to do anything about it.
Another thing that fascinates me about Ky is that while she initially seems glad to see Lena (Leigh Rondon-Davis) back on their old stomping grounds, the after effects of the procedure eventually turn Ky on Lena, calling her a “sellout” for running away to New York. This scene got to me because I’ve been witness to it so many times before I could recite it by heart. Black folks who leave their rundown hometowns for better opportunities for are considered fakes, but if they consider returning with the intent of improving things (as Jay-Z said, “And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them/ So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win/win”), they’re never thought of as sincere. No one wants to try for the middle ground. When this conversation takes place, both Ky and Lena have had their bodies influenced by outside forces – Lena by choice, Ky by force. As more of the cast go through the procedure, they look for ways to reclaim their autonomy, be it through bodily modification, sexual gratification, or drinking their pain away.
Anderson wrote a story about the Black woman’s body as a metaphor for Black personhood. The parallels aren’t hidden because they weren’t meant to be. The most terrifying part is that this “sci-fi” element of the play is the one that seems most likely to take place.
Also working in the play’s favor is the cast and crew assembled by Crowded Fire to pull it off. The last show in which I can recall seeing Leigh Rondon-Davis was last year in Crowded Fire’s production of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. I hardly recognized her as the home-again Lena, but she brings an emotional sincerity to the role, if not a well-travelled sensibility. I also last saw David Moore in a Crowded Fire show, this season’s opener. Both this script and his performance are marked improvements. I don’t believe I’ve seen Christelle Lewis before, but she certainly has the “grown-up” sensibility to pull off Gloria, as well as the emotional depth to make her more questionable choices all the more relatable (when I saw the show opening night, Gloria appeared to have her own fanbase in the audience).
Having worked with both ShawnJ West and Jasmine Williams before, I was hesitant to mention their performances specifically. But Jasmine’s Ky is a major character, and I’d have been remiss not to mention the heartbreaking scene above. ShawnJ brings his usual “no bullshit” skepticism to his role as the doctor able to easily see through lies his patients tell him. When we learn (kind of) the purpose behind Jennifer McNeal’s character’s experiments on the rest of the cast, it only makes her slightly less terrifying. Before that, she seems to personify every excuse people have for missing their dental appointments and physicals – I say that as a compliment to McNeal. Rounding out the cast the charming Kenny Scott as Odlum, that tattooist who tries to work that very charm on Gloria (it certainly worked on her aforementioned fanbase).
The technical side of the show isn’t lacking either. Celeste Martore’s set at first suggests some sort of Dutch-angled perspective with steel and transparent set pieces accentuated by splashed of color (orange duvet, blue throw pillows, green leaves, etc.). I began taking note of Dylan Feldman’s lights and Christopher Saucedo’s sounds from the beginning. The magical realism they bring to the lovely conception scene is matched by the terror they bring to the procedure scenes. Furthermore, Kendra Barnes’ marionette-like movement choreography adds another layer of horror. Finally, if I only mention one thing about Jackquelin Pedota’s costumes, it would be how seamlessly they integrate Lena’s ever-growing belly into the transitions.
Inked Baby is an emotionally-devastating portrayal of Black bodies reduced to their bare elements as their hearts still beat. It makes literal what politicians and talking heads have implied through none-too-subtle innuendo. Its sci-fi elements don’t deter from its humanity, nor do its emotional beats deter from the more fantastical plot twists. The scariest part of all is that the story seems less a fantasy with each passing day.
Inked Baby is scheduled to run until the 5th of October at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco, CA.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.