Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
September 26th, 2017
In In the Blood, Saycon Sengbloh plays Hester La Negrita, a single mother with five children by five different men. The play by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Sarah Benson was originally produced in 1999 and is now playing at Signature Theatre in repertory with Fucking A as part of The Red Letter Plays, Suzan-Lori Parks’ reimagining of The Scarlet Letter. In the Blood not only features Suzan-Lori’s trademark heightened language, but this production also calls for a rigorously physical performance. Saycon, who is perhaps best known for her Tony-nominated performance in Eclipsed, recently earned high critical praise for her performance in this demanding role. We sat down with her to discuss her process, the demands of the role, the play’s politics, and more.
When you got the script, what was your first way into the character?
When I first read this script, I thought that it was a really gritty story. I thought that the character was really interesting—bold yet shy at the same time. And I thought that it would be really interesting to have an opportunity to portray a character that was so multidimensional in her ordinariness. I thought that she was a woman who many would just consider to be ordinary, a woman that people would walk by and wouldn’t think about on the street, but would have no idea what her life is or what she’s going through.
Do you like to do a lot of work at home before you come into the rehearsal room? Or do you prefer to wait and see what the director and everybody else has to say?
I do both. It depends on what kind of project you’re working on. Sometimes the directors don’t have time. They hire you to bring your talent to the table. So 9 times out of 10, I just do my own work. And then if the director tells me something that goes against what I’ve already worked on, then I make the adjustments. [For In the Blood] Coming into the rehearsal room, I had clarified for myself what her goals and desires were, what her life had been like as a child. I had come up with a sort of backstory because the play dives right in where she already has five children. And so I just sort of filled in the gaps of what happened. I also filled in gaps between things that happened between scenes and transitions so that I could have a through line so that everything that I would do would just flow through really evenly. I was glad I did that. I have this saying with directors, some directors plan their Legos ahead of time, and some like to play with their Legos in person. And I feel like Sarah Benson likes to play with her Legos. She wants you to try it this way, try it that way. So I was glad that I had made some decisions so that I could have some things to throw out to her to give her some options. But then also, she had a really strong idea of how she wanted the play to be portrayed. The play is not written in the traditional linear way. It’s got a kind of Brechtian inspiration to it. I was just ready to adapt, but it ended up being a really hard process because what I saw on the page was not the physicality that was put into this particular production. We have not only Sarah Benson, but we also had Elizabeth Streb [doing movement], and we have an extreme raked stage and an angle, and this wall that they wanted me to climb. So I came into it having to do some physical work that I didn’t realize I was going to have to do.
How did you work on the physicality of the play?
At the end of the first week of rehearsal, they took us to down to Brooklyn to Elizabeth Streb’s studio. We saw these trapeze artists flying back and forth, and they had put up this wall and they were like, “You guys are going to climb this wall, and we’re going to teach you how to slam your bodies into the ground. Slam tummy first, but don’t hurt your neck. Slam, run into the wall and try to climb up.” Whenever I’m about to do a show, I amp up my workout a little bit more. But there’s a type of impactful buoyant energy, that more static energy that I needed to prepare myself for. And so we did that work with Streb to learn the fundamentals of that. Then in the rehearsal process, we did it in the room on the floor, which was a regular 90-degree angle floor. And then when we got into tech rehearsal, we had to adjust because the stage was rigged at such an extreme angle. I get a little banged up crawling in and out from on top of the stage or under the stage and whatnot. Now that we’ve got it all together, we’ve got the routine together, it’s a lot more manageable.
You mentioned before that when you were reading the script, you didn’t necessarily picture all the physicality that came with it. How is it for you as an actress to do the physical part and then still make sure that all the emotional things that you want to accomplish are being accomplished?
I use a lot of my own emotion during the show. When I’m doing it, I’m like, “God, this is hard,” so I don’t have to necessarily use sense memorization and I don’t have to use some other experience in my life. I can just be like, “This is hard right now right here, so it’s hard.” I’m able to incorporate it. If I’m out of breath, I’m just out of breath, I’m able to incorporate it, I don’t have to affect that feeling.
Also, words affect different people in different ways, and I was always a person who was extremely affected by words. I’m a bit of an empath, so the words in the script are very strong, and I’m so sensitive to them. It’s like I’m being cut every night by the words that the other characters say to me, by the words that my character says; it’s very sad, heartbreaking, and achingly painful. The words are there and they hurt me, and the audience just gets to watch. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing even in taking this role because people just get to just watch me be beat up and vulnerable.
Is that difficult?
Yes, it’s very difficult. It’s very, very difficult. And it feels personal because of who I’m representing, this type of woman that I’m representing. I want to pay her justice because she is a woman who has not had a lot of justice in her life. So yeah, it’s very difficult. Also we’re working at a really high level of performance, myself and all the cast. We’re all working at a really high level of talent and of passion. And we’re working within this uncomfortable set of circumstances for the entertainment of the audience, but not only that, but also for them to learn from the story of these people, this woman, these children, these people.
In rehearsal, did you talk about the fact that you’re playing a character who maybe isn’t seen that much on stages, and that the audience might come in with preconceived notions? Was that something that you felt like you had to deal with or discuss, or not really?
We talked a lot about the people, the character, the characters, and who they are and what they represent. But for the most part, in my opinion, if you’re presenting a work, you’re presenting a work, and you know that people will take their point of view however they take it. However they take it, you cannot let the audience hijack your show, which means you can’t be like, “Oh, they’re not laughing at this part, let me try to make them laugh harder,” or, “Oh, they’re not crying at this part, let me try to make them cry harder.” During the moment, you can’t really worry about the audience. You deal with them afterwards if they have questions and whatnot, or if they write. And sometimes not even then. It’s a really strong subject matter. Similar to when I did Eclipsed on Broadway. [For that] we did a lot of research, and I had a lot of knowledge about the Liberian Civil War. I have family members who were affected by the Liberian Civil War, and so I had no desire to discuss the Liberian Civil War every single night after I finished doing the show. I just wanted to watch the Tonight Show and have some milk and cookies. The one fascinating thing is audience members who are just being introduced to some particular subject—it never crossed their mind to think about this woman they might see on the train with a lot of kids who looks like she’s kind of scraping by—and so now because of their sudden interest, they want to have a full out conversation with me about it. And so I try to do my best. On nights that I have the time and the energy to really get into some discourse, I will. And then on nights when I can’t, I don’t. And I don’t feel bad about it. I just do what I need to do in order to maintain for the show, and in order to give the people a good performance.
A lot of what’s being written about this production, also this play in the past, talks about the politics of it, and Suzan-Lori has said she hopes there’s a discussion around these plays. In rehearsals, did you talk about the political message behind it or was that left at the door and it was more focusing on the character and the story?
We discussed it a bit. We did some table work for several days on the show before we really started to get on our feet. Of course, we thought about this current political environment and the U.S. government and women’s health issues, healthcare rights, and women’s reproductive issues. We talked about how it’s in the limelight right now, but we really did focus pretty much on the characters and on their situations.
Personally, I can’t help but think about information that I’ve learned recently about women who are having unnecessary surgeries that can possibly be deemed medically unnecessary, hysterectomies and different things, which is something that affects the character in my show. She’s asked to have a hysterectomy in order to prevent having more children. But there are other ways to have birth control. Some women, upon having that type of surgery, especially if their organs are intact and they’re not having any health issues, it can cause more health issues. Then learning about the amount of money that hospitals and surgeons make from these surgeries, sometimes the patient’s best interest is not always at heart. That’s something that I was learning about before, but we didn’t get into the literal politics of it. I think the audience comes into the room with their own idea of who they are and how they see someone and what they believe. They may walk away with a new thought, or they may walk away with the same thoughts. I believe that Suzan-Lori Parks has her own mission and aim with writing shows and writing a show like this, and she has her own style. She just has her own style. My thing was just to adapt to her style as best I could and to bring myself to the project as best I could.
How did the visual landscape created for the play affect your performance?
The first time I saw the set, I was like, “What?” I was so shocked. I peeked in one day while they were building it, and I thought it wasn’t finished. Then when I saw it, I was like, “Oh, they were pretty much finished.” There wasn’t a lot that had changed, so I was really shocked. It just looked uncomfortable. I think that’s what it gives you, a stark uncomfortable landscape with an impossible hill to climb, which is what the character, Hester, is dealing with. She’s pushing a boulder up a hill. Then also seeing the starkness of the lights. The lights were so jarring. They may not look that way to the audience, but on stage, they feel very jarring. So the visual of that was quite, has been quite intense for me as well.
Are you visual in your process?
I’m very visual. I draw. I would draw little pictures of my cast mates in my script. I would draw Jocelyn [Bioh] and her little braids, or I would draw Frank [Wood] with the glasses that his character is supposed to wear. I would draw them so I could really get their faces in my head and learn them as my children. Normally if I have children [in a play], they’re little children and I’m looking down to talk to them. [In this], all of them are taller than me, so I’m looking up to them. I’m looking up to Russell [G. Jones] and talking to him, but he’s a two year old. So I would draw little pictures of them. That’s my visual way.
You were talking about language earlier, and I wanted to go back to that a little bit and your relationship to language, especially Suzan-Lori’s language, which is heightened.
Her characters have their own really unique way of speaking. When you hear it, there’s a certain way, types of words, that she chooses to relay a thought or an idea. I had a hard time getting those words in my body because it’s not your regular daily life English. I had seen Fucking A years ago, and I had forgotten that the language was the way that it was. When I saw Fucking A again, it reminded me of how the language was used, just by being on the outside looking in, rather than being on the inside and doing it. And the language was very different in Venus. It’s really unique. Just the poetry of it is something that I had to really get into my body. Also there are scenes where I’m having a conversation with one character, I’m talking about one thing, and he’s talking about something else, and we just know we’re both talking about two different things and trying to keep myself on my task on what I want to talk about and what I want to convey, even though the responses have nothing to do with what I’m about to say. Usually, when you’re memorizing material as an actor, if it’s regular prose, the question is in regards to what you’re talking about, so you’re easily reminded, but just really staying on track was a challenge [in this]. It continues to be a challenge. I have to refresh myself. I look at the script all the time. With some shows once you learn it, you don’t even look at the script anymore. But I look at the script every other day to remind myself of the language.
Have you found that you’ve had to adjust your personal life around the demands of the show?
It’s been an adjustment. Most shows, once I learn the show, I know it, and I don’t have to go over my lines, but I have to go over my lines a lot. So it always feels like an audition. I’m always going over my lines. Also my energy levels. I’ve had to really kick in my nutrition because really going through sort of this emotional journey is exhausting. So I’ve had to try to kick up my nutrition so that I can have more energy. We all love to drop weight, and dropping weight during the show is like, “Oh my god, I’m dropping weight,” but if it’s not eating because of being busy or stressed, then I try to do the show, and I’m just like eh. Like that V8 commercial, hauling myself up the thing.
[Because it’s emotionally draining] I watch really, really light fluffy things. I was just being considered for a movie that’s really heavy about a woman that has mental health issues, and I had to turn it down. I am trying to find uppers, things that make me feel happy. It’s hard not to take on the energy of the show that you’re doing. When I was doing Motown, I was super duper glamorous and wearing eyelashes all the time because I’d get out of the show, and my lashes would still be on. Doing this show, I’m wearing very little makeup, just getting by. In this show, I’m just getting by like the character. We’re not on Broadway, but I feel like we’re doing Broadway level work in terms of the energy that’s required of us. Yeah.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
I hope that audiences are able to have more empathy for people in general. I hope that people are really able to think about other people’s circumstances. Then perhaps writing to their congressmen, their state legislators, if they feel women are not being represented as far as reproductive rights and laws. I hope that people walk away with that desire to do that.
I’ve never been a person to march in rallies. I have friends marching for everything from LGBT rights or for Black Lives Matter or different things like that. I’ve never been a person to march. I don’t march. I don’t have a problem with the fact that I don’t march because I get on stage and I portray characters where I give my blood, sweat, and tears for these communities of people that have been ostracized. I feel like society is like a chess game: there are pawns, there are knights, there are queens, there are rooks, there are kings, and people play different positions. As a warrior, the type of work that I do is I don’t necessarily march, but it’s not because I don’t believe in it. It’s because I’m doing a different type of work, and I have to do that work in order to inspire the marchers to march or inspire the politicians or inspire the people who will talk to the politicians.