Reader Advisory: This review contains so-called “adult” language.
Let’s deal right off with those annoying asterisks in the title. Not like they are fooling anyone. Most of us as children heard these words before we were out of diapers, though we won’t actually feel bold or old or free enough to say them aloud till years later. For this review, now that you’re past the title and have read the reader advisory, the asterisks will be removed. (For more on how some English words became outlaws, read the note after this review.)
When you intentionally produce “dangerous works” as Washington Ensemble Theatre describes its mission, with dangerous titles to boot, one is well advised to do them well. And the short verdict is: yes, The Motherfucker with the Hat (M—Hat) is very well done. The credit goes to everyone involved with the three producing companies (Washington Ensemble Theatre, The Hansberry Project, and eSe Teatro) working together for the first time.
It helps that they have an airtight script by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The show was originally produced on Broadway in 2011 and featured Bonny Cannodale and Chris Rock. As director Valerie Curtis-Newton says in the program notes for this production “… Guirgis writes with a ferocity that gets right to the heart of both our highest human hopes and our deepest hopelessness. In The Motherfucker with the Hat, he explores trust, betrayal, addiction, and recovery. The central question for our production has been ‘can we break old patterns in order to claim a better life?'”
Paradoxically, to present this play about lives in messy disarray required machine-tooled precision. Curtis-Newton’s direction raised the question about the challenges of breaking old patterns from the very opening scene. As the lights come up, we see clothes strewn about a small apartment in an east coast city. Veronica (Anna Lamadrid) complains about the mess and begins cleaning up. Meanwhile she’s talking to her mother on the phone with very limited respect, telling her mother to drop her boyfriend (“he looks like a fish”). “Ma,” she says before hanging up, “the next time you are with him take a good long look. Ask yourself, do I want to fuck him” or fry him up? She also snorts a bit of cocaine, so we know she uses.
Enter Jackie (Erwin Galán), Veronica’s boyfriend who is just a few days out of prison. He’s excited, he’s free, in recovery, plus he’s gotten a job assisting at some apartment buildings. He has treats and gifts for Veronica. They have this playful exchange. Jackie asks her “when I said I’m going out to get a job, did I deliver?” She said, yes. “Damn right. Like fucking FedEx,” he says.
This is the high mark of Jackie’s return. As he waits for Veronica to finish her shower he notices a hat (a small fedora) and literally sniffs around the hat, pillows, and sheets. When Veronica returns to the bedroom he confronts her. She denies cheating on him. Given the language she uses with her own mother you are prepared for her spirited denial and counter accusations.
Jackie’s not buying it. He gets his hands on a gun and begins to look for the motherfucker with the hat. But part of him is not into violence—he obeys his probation rules, and gives fair hearing to his AA sponsor. Late in the first act, Jackie even talks about an unwritten Code among male friends that they do not sleep with each other’s wives or girlfriends. He summons this as he is rejecting the advances of his sponsor’s wife (Victoria, played by Meg McLynn). Out of her pain and confusion about being rejected, Victoria lays some facts on Jackie that leaves him feeling betrayed by everyone he felt was close. Everyone. A very dangerous state for anyone barely in recovery.
The tragedy of M—Hat is everyone could use more closeness but they are stuck in combat mode. Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir as Ralph D., Jackie’s AA sponsor, alternatively offer Jackie advice, friendship, a couch to sleep on, and even a place in his multi-level juice supplement team, while simultaneously being ready to say the most hateful and corrosive things. He blithely upholds the AA ethic of personal accountability, insisting that Jackie read a specific page in The Big Book and journal about it in one of their first scenes together. Later he switches to third person, as in “things happen” while seemingly glorifying in “what happened” and skewering Jackie with vivid details about it at the same time. Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Nice poetry, but less than worthless when recovery and love and hopes for a better life are on the line.
Rounding out the cast as Cousin Julio was Moises Castro. Cousin Julio had yet another “come closer-keep your distance” relationship with Jackie. As a relative, his apartment was Jackie’s third landing place as he moved from Veronica’s, to Ralph’s and then to Julio’s.
Scenic designer Peter Rush and his team put the limited space in the middle of the small Studio Theater at 12th Avenue Arts to maximal effect with clever uses of curtains and hide-away beds. Stage Manager Nicole Song and the run crew were quietly efficient as they managed the multiple scene changes.
[NOTE] How did some words become improper? They are, after all, as all printed words are, arrangements of marks on the page that we have been schooled to know represent various sounds. For the sounds themselves we push air past our vocal cords and mouths to make them—like we do with every other word. Plus, they are English words and we speak English.
To understand this divide we must look at the effects on language of the Normandy Conquest in 1066. Spoiler alert: the Normans (Vikings) conquered England. The aftermath of which there was a wealthy class of settlers with refined (for their time) continental tastes. This new disruptive dominant class communicated in writing in Latin and spoke French. Formal institutions like the courts system and professions like law, medicine, and theology—being trades of the upper classes—used either Latin or French.
Thus, a few non-Latin words in England became dishonored. Consider, one can speak in all contexts of “penises” and “vaginas” but not “cocks” and “cunts.” For example, The Vagina Monologues does not need asterisks. The pattern is set. In sex ed classes, for instance, students are taught the formal medical (Latin) names of their genital parts so that they can communicate “accurately” with medical personnel during clinic visits. The word “genitals,” of course, is derived from Latin.
“Motherfucker” is strongly associated with black speech styles for a reason: it originally referred to white males who had raped black female slaves.
The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. Advisory: this play contains adult language, nudity, & cigarette smoking. Washington Ensemble Theatre in partnership with The Hansberry Project and eSe Teatro. 12th Ave Arts Studio Theatre, 1620 12th Ave. Capitol Hill. Runtime 2 hr 20 min with one intermission. Mon, Thurs – Sun at 7:30 PM. Ticket information at washingtonensemble.org. Show runs Jan 15 through Feb 1.