Gloria (Christell Lewis) asks her sister Lena (Leigh Rondon-Davis) for a big favor. Is she willing to be her and her husband Greer’s (David Everett Moore) surrogate? They’re desperate to start a family but can’t afford to hire one. Gloria’s already suffered through a failed round of expensive IVF treatments. Because they don’t have the money, she’s asking Lena to sleep with Greer. That awkward conversation between estranged sisters seems like a promising point of departure for a playwright to dramatize. But that’s not where Christina Anderson’s Inked Baby begins. Gloria and Lena never have that exchange on stage. And, even after Lena conceives and moves in with them, they don’t broach the subject or their feelings about it.
Instead, an already uptight Gloria grumpily bosses her younger sibling around. It’s understandable that she’d be depressed after having had two miscarriages. But once Lena’s pregnant, her mood doesn’t improve. She doesn’t seem grateful for her sister’s willingness to accept her proposal or pleased about becoming a mother. When she and Greer are alone in the house, they can’t talk to each other without getting into halting arguments that end in silence and hostility. Anderson doesn’t include any background information about their dysfunction. While bickering, they don’t refer to any past grievances, apart from their shared disappointment in failing to start a family.
Maybe that’s where all the mutual animosity stems from. It’s hard to tell. By the time we meet them, any love that Gloria and Greer might have held onto has evaporated. Greer and Lena have an easier rapport. Lena’s good-natured with a wry sense of humor. When her friend Ky (Jasmine Williams) drops by, she admits that she enjoyed having sex with her brother-in-law. They laugh about how absurd the situation is.
Up until this point, the exits and entrances had been inventive, with characters unobtrusively lingering on stage in the background as the scenes shifted forward. Then Lena and Ky got quiet when they heard Gloria coming home from work. As Ky got up from the couch to leave, she walked directly past Gloria without either character saying a word or acknowledging one another.
It was the first of many odd choices in the staging of body language. The playwright had been working in a realistic mode, particularly in regards to the dialogue and setting. She places this extended and extending family in an ordinary midwestern neighborhood. Gloria and her sister may not be able to get beyond polite (if tense) conversations but Lena and Ky sound like old, familiar friends. Anderson then alters and expands her initial approach.
During the first scene, Lena and Greer are sitting in bed together. She’s nervously snacking on a packet of candy. As they start to embrace, she drops the wrapper on the floor and nobody picks it up. Later, when Lena and Ky are chatting and watching TV, the popcorn they spill also stays on the ground. With each passing scene, litter starts to accumulate across the stage. The characters are careless about leaving debris behind them. They don’t seem to notice the bits of garbage strewn about. Anderson’s implicit message about how we thoughtlessly harm the environment soon becomes explicit. She accomplishes this by changing the genre of Inked Baby from that of a domestic drama into a dystopian tale.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out runs parallel to this story. In his film, a suburban white community mystically enslaves the minds and bodies of African Americans. His metaphor is particularly brutal and effective because the plot contains a complete volte-face from the original set up. For Anderson, a corporation’s contaminating the land, and the people who live on it, with toxins. But the play doesn’t absorb the symbolism. Instead of exploring the complicated dynamics between the three protagonists, a medical assistant (Jennifer McNeal) shows up to take blood and urine samples from them.
Without explaining how or why the characters comply with her at the clinic, their faces go blank and their bodies jerk into an overwrought posture of paralysis. These spasms are overacted. They’ve been choreographed to such a hammy degree because the production wasn’t willing to trust the audience’s ability to grasp the malevolence at hand. The assistant is only carrying out the orders of an omnipotent employer, and one who remains disembodied off stage. In Peele’s movie, we could see, sneer at and recoil from the villains. Here, Anderson’s invisible antagonist is abstract and unknowable. We instinctively dislike someone injecting an invasive needle but she’s portrayed as a caricature of a blindly obedient, evil sidekick without a plausible sense of motivation.
Anderson avoids writing a clichéd love triangle but the heavy symbolism in Inked Baby cancels out the psychological predicaments she introduces in Gloria, Greer and Lena. We learn, abruptly, that no one will be held responsible for poisoning this community and their land. Gloria does enjoy a brief romance with Odlum (Kenny Scott), a man she meets by chance after her colleagues throw her, and not Lena, a baby shower. Her desire for him makes more sense than her desire to have a child. Especially since she doesn’t love her husband and can barely tolerate being in the same room with her sister. But it’s hard to root for the heroine of a play who’s not asked to articulate so many of her withheld thoughts and emotions.
Inked Baby, through Oct. 5 at Crowded Fire Theater, 1695 18th St., $15-$35; 415-523-0034 or crowdedfire.org.