Suzan-Lori Parks began writing novels at the age of five. But it wasn’t until she first heard voices that she realized she might be cursed and blessed with a case of possession—in both senses of that word. Parks knew that she possessed something, but she also knew that it possessed her.
It was 1983. She was working on a short story called “The Wedding Pig” for a writing class she was taking with James Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Suddenly she had the sense that the people she was writing about were in the room with her, “standing right behind me, talking. Not telling the story, but acting it out—doing it. It was not me,” she says, “not the voice of confidence or the voice of doubt. It was outside of me. And all the stories I wrote for this class were like that.”
Parks intended from the beginning that her writing should be read aloud. So in Baldwin’s workshops she would speak her stories, playing all the characters, recreating her creative process, moving naturally from writing to (or back to) performance. Observing her, Baldwin soon posed the obvious question: “Why don’t you try writing plays?” Parks had never done theatre in high school or in college because, well, she thought it was “dumb,” and most theatre people turned her off. But this was James Baldwin talking. “Someone I respected was telling me what to do—in a good way,” she says. “It wasn’t some Whosey-Whatsit who runs La Fuddy Duddy Playhouse in Whosey-Whatsitville.” (Experience has instilled in Parks a healthy contempt for dim-witted dramaturgy, workshops and readings that go nowhere, and the cookie-cutter mentality of conventional “play development.”) Baldwin’s suggestion inspired her to complete her first play, The Sinners’ Place, during her senior year, and a small-college territorial battle ensued. The play earned Parks honors in her English major even as it was rejected for production by the theatre department on the grounds that “You can’t put dirt onstage! That’s not a play!”
Dirt Onstage would turn out to be something of a theme for Parks, who has gone on since her Mount Holyoke days to become one of the most intriguing and challenging young playwrights of the contemporary American stage. Even The Sinners’ Place, though “only a first try at writing,” she said in a 1996 interview, “had all of the things in it that I’m obsessed with now. Like memory and family and history and the past.” And, of course, “a lot of dirt on stage which was being dug at.” In her subsequent history plays, Parks’s process, as she describes it, was one of digging and listening—for action, characters and words—rather than of trying to shape them from the outside according to the more familiar dramaturgical model that “cleanly ARCS,” as she wrote in a later essay. But then, a play that “arcs” moves, whether with dread or anticipation, towards an inevitable future. Parks’s history plays, by contrast, try to make contact with an unknown past, and so require a different process, a different structure—and, yes, occasionally, dirt. “I’m obsessed with resurrecting,” she said in an interview published around the time of the appearance of perhaps her most provocative play, Venus, “with bringing up the dead…and hearing their stories as they come into my head.”
The blow of Parks’s early rejection at Mount Holyoke was softened somewhat when Mary McHenry of the college’s English department slipped Parks a copy of Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro. Along with Ntozake Shange, who devised the “choreopoem” as theatre text, the adventurous Kennedy showed Parks that she could do anything she wanted on stage. Parks had already learned from her favorite fiction writers, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, that she could do anything she wanted with language, and that character and feeling needn’t be sacrificed at the high altar of formal experimentation. “Surface difficulty, daring, order, inventiveness and passion—writing should have all of these,” Parks says. But mostly (and characteristically) Parks approved of these great modernist writers’ chutzpah: “I’m fascinated with what they were allowed to do, I guess,” she told an interviewer in 1995. “What Joyce allowed himself to do, what Beckett allowed himself to do, and Woolf…what they got away with.”
From the beginning, Parks wanted to dare as much, to offer as much to her audiences as these writers offered to their readers—and to get away with it. Unlike many young writers, she was also up to the challenge. In his evaluation of her performance in his class, Baldwin described Parks as “an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time”—and this was before she’d had a single play staged or an essay published. Given her ambition and her admiration for “difficult” writing, only one question remained: Were American theatres and their audiences ready to dare as much for her?
Sometimes courageous, sometimes cowardly, always embattled, the American theatre, at the moment Parks emerged, found itself smack in the middle of the so-called “culture wars” and the battle over the reconfiguraton of the National Endowment for the Arts. Within the theatre, debates raged (and still rage) about how multiculturalism should work, not just in theory but in practice. By 1989, the year Parks had her first professional production, black playwrights and actors and “nontraditional” casting practices were mostly “in”; black directors, designers and administrators were, and still are, mostly “out.” Despite the increasing diversification of the American repertoire in the decade since then, there persists in many quarters a mentality, however well-meaning, that ghettoizes African-American drama, and in so doing oversimplifies its formal variety and implies that white and black theatre (and by extension white and black history) have nothing to do with each other: they remain separate but unequal.
Separatism has frequently cropped up as both a white and a black utopian dream. Parks, more than any other recent writer—more than August Wilson or other polemicists “fired,” as Wilson has written, in the “kiln” of the ’60s—shows, mostly through her sense of humor, exactly how and why trying to make black history a minor subplot of a white story is laughable. Or laughable and painful, to be more precise: a stinging joke with real-world consequences, like the joke of “scientific” racial classification itself, a perverse fiction made fact in the 19th century by misinterpreters of Darwin, “proved” through phrenology and other invented sciences, written as history, and then denounced in the early part of the century by African-American intellectuals. More recently, though, race, as well as gender and ethnicity, have been reworked into the more individualistic politics of “identity”—a word to conjure with at the time Parks was building her reputation.
Parks’s appearance on the theatrical scene seemed to jibe perfectly with the American theatre’s changing policies in the ’90s: its 11th-hour grant proposals emphasizing its dedication to multiculturalism, its suddenly overriding priority to rescue its ever-sinking bottom line by reaching out to “new” audiences. Yet this seemingly perfect timing turned out to be a mixed blessing. Indubitably, Parks’s career took off fast. Her second play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, written in 1989 when Parks was 28, received ecstatic reviews when it debuted at the Brooklyn experimental outpost BACA Downtown. It won her an Obie, and Mel Gussow of the New York Times left Brooklyn so impressed he called Parks “the year’s most promising playwright.” Since then, Parks has benefited from numerous grants and has become an artistic associate of the Yale Repertory Theatre, which has produced three of her plays, including two premieres. She now has an artistic home at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, which has housed three of her plays so far and will produce another, Topdog/Underdog, this season.
All richly deserved. Yet the love affair between Parks and the American theatre has, like most love affairs, been complicated. Words like “diversity” and “multiculturalism” sound good in publications, but the truth is, many theatres are still afraid to take what they consider to be financial risks and often assume, a priori, that audiences will bristle at unfamiliar or marginal work. “Marginal”: a code word for formally experimental or “culturally specific” plays. According to marketing departments, Parks’s are both.
The “surface difficulty” and “daring” of Parks’s first two history plays, Imperceptible Mutabilities and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, did appeal strongly to a small yet unpredictable assortment of theatre artists, audiences and critics who could see how Parks was inventing new ways of shaping dramatic character and structure, and could hear the originality and feel the physical impact of what she was doing with words. “Her voice has already made a difference on our stage,” dramaturg Laurence Maslon of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., told a reporter in 1993. “If we can’t hear her, there’s nothing wrong with her voice, just something wrong with our ears.” “She sits all alone amongst her generation, peerless,” Parks’s fellow playwright Han Ong maintained the next year, at the time of the premiere of Parks’s third history play, The America Play. Six years on, and four plays later for Parks, few would argue with his assessment. No one of her generation has yet approached the level of her contribution.
Yet Parks has never been well cast in the narrow role the American theatre has wanted, and perhaps still wants, her to play. The daughter of an army colonel, Parks grew up across six different states and spent a long stretch of time, her junior high school years, in Germany. There, she both learned German and gained a critical, estranging perspective on language itself, and therefore also on identity and culture. “In Germany,” she told an interviewer in 1993, “I wasn’t a black person, strictly speaking. I was an American who didn’t speak the language. I was a foreigner.” Like Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and so many other African-American artists, Parks was changed by spending time outside of race-obsessed America. “Places far away like Timbuktu, like France, like Africa,” she wrote in a 1996 essay for Grand Street, “they draw us out like dreams. The far-away provides a necessary distance, a new point of reference, a place for perspective.” Forced separation and the longing for home, for the missing, for the distant and the dead, pervade her writing; Part Four of Imperceptible Mutabilitieseven centers around a black army sergeant separated from his family. Yet reducing this recurring motif to psychology or biography obscures the more important matter of how it works as a formal principle: Parks’s is a drama of longing and echoes. “Every play I write is about love and distance. And time,” Parks said in 1994. “And from that we can get things like history.”
Hers is not a drama of polemics—she has sounded this gong over and over again, in nearly every interview she has given. In 1990, she asked in a post-show discussion: “Why does everyone think that white artists make art and black artists make statements?” In 1992, she told an interviewer: “I don’t write headlines…People say the black experience is X, and usually the X is the sorrows and frustrations and angers of people who have been wronged. That’s all we get to write about. That’s the black experience. Well, that’s very important, but it’s not my thing.” In 1994: “I just don’t respect ‘politically correct’ writing.” In 1995: “In theatre we have more simplistic forms of representation that are still held up as examples of the best kind of theatre that black people can involve themselves in. It’s just a long road, a long, dumb, road.”
Nor have audiences escaped her critique: “They only want something simple,” she complained in 1995, but acknowledged, “I know my plays aren’t for everybody.
For her part, Parks doesn’t write with a specific, or indeed any, theatrical audience in mind. In her 1994 essay “Possession,” Parks quotes Baldwin describing “the leap” he had to make to commit himself to “the clear impossibility of becoming a writer, and attempting to save my family that way.” For Parks, too, the leap required faith, especially considering that the family she writes about extends far beyond living relatives to embrace those same “60 million and more” to whom Toni Morrison dedicates her novel Beloved—the historical masses of the African diaspora.
“If I said that ‘I write for the audience,'” Parks admits in “Possession,” “I would be lying. I write for the figures in the plays.” “Figures”: gesturing toward history, symbol and silhouette, and finally toward poetry, the term suggests that Parks writes as much for her love of language as for the people who have led to her plays. Yet the two categories, speakers and words, also frequently merge, especially in the history plays that launched her career, for both are living vessels through which the dead can speak. Parks’s use of the term “figures” also makes sense considering that until they are performed, dramatis personae are only words, words, words. Yet because, as Parks writes, “words are so old, they hold,” and have “a big connection with the what was.” Like actors, they perform; they have an electric life of their own.
“I write because I love black people,” Parks has said. “That in itself will take me a long way”—a prospect that should give anyone interested in American theatre a feeling of hope. The history plays that brought Parks national renown in the present are borne back ceaselessly into the past, because for her the past is a matter, literally, of flesh and blood.
“Who am I?” she asked herself—and the question was not rhetorical—in an interview in Bomb magazine with Han Ong: “It’s the question at the very center of every one of my plays. Who am I? I’m not just Suzan-Lori Parks, 30 years old. It’s all those who came before me, because my family comes from all over.
4. Love & Distance
In Imperceptible Mutabilities, The Death of the Last Black Man, The America Play and Venus, Parks has dramatized some of the most painful aspects of the black experience: Middle Passage, slavery, urban poverty, institutionalized discrimination, racist ethnographies. Yet even as her plays summon up the brutality of the past, they do so in a manner that is, paradoxically, both horrific and comic—irresistibly or disrespectfully so, depending on your point of view. A character called “Black Man with Watermelon” from The Death of the Last Black Man tells the audience how he’s been electrocuted, lynched, chased by slavecatchers and their dogs…yet doggedly, he himself keeps reappearing, a bit like the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. His description of being lynched frankly invites the audience to laugh and feel sick at the same time: “Swingin from front tuh back uhgain…Chin on my chest hangin down in restin eyes each on eyein my 2 feets. Left on thuh right one right one on thuh left. Crossed eyin. It was difficult to breathe. Toes uncrossin then crossin for luck.” In Liz Diamond’s production of the play at Yale Rep in 1992, the actor who delivered these lines had a rope tied to a tree branch dangling from his neck.
“I’ve had people roll up my scripts and shake them in my face,” Parks told a writer in 1993, even before the premieres of her two most controversial plays, The America Play and Venus. These two plays challenge conventional thinking by Parks’s insisting that the stories of Africa, America and Europe have been inextricably interwoven through cultural borrowing and exchange, as well as subjugation: a warp and woof of violence and suffering, yes, but also of “love and theft” (to borrow the title of a book about minstrelsy by Eric Lott). In The America Play, a man who is presumably black (though Parks says the play could be done with an all-white cast) named “The Foundling Father” has always been told that he bears a “strong resemblance” to Abraham Lincoln. So he develops an obsession with the “Great Man,” learning all of Lincoln’s famous lines and the minutiae of his murder at Ford’s Theater. The Foundling Father loves Linconalia so much that he leaves his wife and son to go out West and play the role of Lincoln in a penny sideshow. Like the Venus Hottentot, who in Venus rises from her own tawdry sideshow to become the mistress of the French scientist who will eventually abandon her and then dissect her body after she dies, the Foundling Father “falls in love with the wrong person, falls in love with the wrong dream,” as Parks says.
Parks has always resisted the directives of the force she and other experimental African-American artists quietly call the “colored police”—artists and critics who insist the community should offer positive role models through its art and “keep it real.” Instead, Parks wraps her dramas around losses so great that they defy the directive to “keep it real,” to remain within the boundaries of realism, a form towards which African-American drama has often turned to escape the painful distortions of minstrelsy. The losses Parks has theatricalized are the losses of humanity, dignity and life; of place, time, culture and family; and finally of a rightful place in World History—the kind of history that gets written down and taught in schools.
Yet her methods make some in the African-American theatre community uncomfortable, and, significantly, Parks’s plays are rarely produced at theatres exclusively devoted to the production of African-American drama. A plan to print a symposium on Parks’s work in Theater magazine in 1993 had to be scrapped because the editors could not find African-American critics willing to go on record with their opinions. Though several invited critics said they admired Parks’s talent, they objected, in essence, to her politics. Her tendency to attract predominantly white audiences and directors sparks further questions in some minds about whether she is speaking to or for the African-American experience.
But Parks’s plays simply differ from representations of “black life” (and Parks would insist that “black lives” is more accurate) that aim to be “realistic.” Parks shows that history is and always has been as much enemy as ally to the collective memories and shared secrets of a black people jettisoned into a white world. Both American and European histories have tended to excise their black parts or to hide those parts behind larger-than-life, shadow-casting, white symbolic surrogates (like Abraham Lincoln, the Great Man who “freed the slaves,” single-handedly). For Parks, written History can ultimately serve as only a partial record of the black experience, which has been passed down as much through expressive forms as written ones. Moreover, traditional theatrical forms could not accommodate, as she writes, “the figures which take up residence inside me.”
Because theatre itself is an event that allows people to gather at a specific place in time, it is “the perfect place to ‘make’ history,” Parks reasons—to fill in the gaps in the story of African-America by “staging historical events which, through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history.” Yet only one of Parks’s history plays, it turns out, is even loosely based on what 25 years ago might have been confidently called “historical fact,” and that one, Venus, takes considerable liberties. The others are pure poetic invention, sometimes celebratory, sometimes sexy, sometimes cruel, always playful, often hilarious. They also leave room for ambiguity concerning their characters’ choices: there is a stubborn refusal on the part of the playwright to romanticize the experience of oppression. The characters struggle and suffer, but are also always viewed through the lens of a pervasive, sometimes absurdist, sometimes tragic, sense of irony. They rarely “do the right thing.” They are not heroes or saints, facing racism with the calm dignity of martyrs; nor are they hapless victims, caught up in forces beyond their control; nor are they instigators of civil disobedience. Human folly—whether black or white—is never smoothed over in Parks’s plays with the balm of sentimentality. The experience of oppression is not ennobling, and the oppressor, rather than being fetishized or demonized, is often simply absent. The immediate experience of Parks’s characters is more like that of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who sees history not as an arrow or a spiral but as a boomerang, for which one had best “keep a steel helmet handy.”
Yet Parks’s figures are nothing if not resilient; their very resilience makes a mockery of history’s boomeranging violence as well as its even more ominous interludes of silence. And Parks’s dramaturgy, negotiating and balancing political commitment, irony and play, ultimately engineers its own boomerang effect: Parks’s audiences, whatever their backgrounds, travel through her theatre’s repetitions and revisions to arrive at an understanding that they, too, must count themselves among history’s dupes. Parks challenges audiences to test with her the theory that seeing more deeply into our shared history is partly a matter of looking closer and longer. She takes her audiences through double- (and triple-) takes, asks them to observe what changes and what remains the same over the span of historical and performance time, and to take nothing at face value—particularly not the language through which history exerts its force.
For Parks, what’s come before is still and always with us—all of us. It’s in our collective memories, in our gestures, in our genes, in our rituals and habits, and most of all, for Parks, in our words, with their “fabulous etymologies [and] thrilling histories.” Her theatre of history, then, unlike August Wilson’s, is a space of simultaneity. History for Parks is not necessarily a progressive experience, or even a set of finished events that can be divided and dramatized by decade. The pain of a past that has never passed is precisely what sharpens the bite of her wicked satire.
“How dja get through it?” is the opening question of Imperceptible Mutabilities. “Mm not through it,” comes the answer.
It’s a dialogue that might tiptoe around survivors of trauma, as well as writers and performers; but in Parks’s fluid writing, that “it” might also stand in for the performance in progress, for history—even for Parks’s own writing process and her now-burgeoning career.
Racism, sexism and the pseudo-sciences that continue to circulate around them—social Darwinism, bell curves, “theories” of evolutionary psychology; historical positivism and the philosophical tradition that props it up; even the horrors of Middle Passage, lynching, minstrelsy, stereotypes: Others have denounced these histories, tried to exorcise them, tried to move beyond them. Parks makes them look both murderous and ridiculous, a strategy that has also been employed by novelists such as Ishmael Reed and Charles Johnson, and visual artists such as Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles—all of whom have also received praise and criticism in equal measure for their cockeyed, comic views of black history.
But Parks also feels a responsibility to “those who came before” and takes it seriously. Her plays, she has said, are like complex carbohydrates, nourishing but difficult to digest, and for some, even to watch. Her figures have names like “Black Man with Watermelon,” “Black Woman with Fried Drumstick” and professions like “digger” (a word which, as it echoes through The America Play, can’t help but summon up its charged, ghostly rhyme). “Come on inside and allow her to reveal to you the Great and Horrid Wonder/ of her great heathen buttocks,” cries a carnival barker called “The Mother Showman,” introducing the star of Parks’s Venus. “Thuh Missing Link, Ladies and Gentlemen: Thuh Venus Hottentot:/ Uh warnin tuh us all.” Venus is the one in the spotlight, being described as subhuman, but the discomfort is felt equally by the spectators, who can’t take their eyes off her.
The most successful productions of Parks’s plays have approached her dense language in the same manner in which she creates it: by digging into it (and “digging” it) rather than by layering on meanings or inventing startling juxtapositions. These latter approaches, handed down from modernism, are still common—habitual, perhaps?—in much contemporary experimental theatre, but they don’t work well for Parks’s plays, which are already so mutifaceted that they require simplicity above all in their staging.
Actors lucky enough to test out their vocal instruments on one of Parks’s literally breathtaking flourishes know her writing comes from the gut, not the head. Parks dances and plays music as she writes; she practices karate and yoga and has a physical presence that can fill a whole room, whether or not she is speaking. “She does incredible things with language,” the actor Pamela Tyson, who has appeared in two of Parks’s plays, told an interviewer in 1992. “She does the same thing with her work that Shakespeare does with his text. You can’t have a lazy tongue. You have to open your mouth, you have to articulate…you have to be melodic, you have to have colors and levels and intonations, and she allows you to use your entire instrument.”
Parks does not write any kind of realistic version of African-American speech for her black characters. Instead, like Ntozake Shange before her (though in a different style), she crafts a theatrical poetry that bears the same relation to black dialectal forms that, for example, Joyce’s language bears to the speech of the Dubliners he heard and remembered. Meanwhile, Parks’s spelling, which can make her plays look impenetrable on the page, is part of a tradition in African-American letters of deliberately damaging and reshaping written English. Shange writes that African-American writers have to take English “apart to the bone/ so that the malignancies/ fall away/ leaving us space to literally create our own image.” Parks’s approach is more playful, and the dangers (as well as the pleasures) of image-creation are major themes of The America Play and Venus.
Parks’s extraordinary theatrical language—which includes such “foreign words and phrases” (as she calls them) as “ssnuch” (“a big sniff”) and “do in diddly dip didded thuh drop” (“a fancy yes”)—was first heard in a production of her play about marriage, Betting on the Dust Commander, which Parks herself directed in 1987 at a space called the Gas Station in the East Village of New York City. Then Imperceptible Mutabilities caught the attention of the playwright Mac Wellman, who passed the script along to Liz Diamond, a director he knew who liked unconventional work. But few know that it was Diamond who convinced Parks that an early draft of Imperceptible Mutabilities needed “connective material” and might work better as a tetraptych than as a triptych. Parks’s responded by faxing new text to Diamond from the MacDowell colony, where she was in residence. “This poetry started coming through the fax machine,” Diamond says. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—and it was a first draft!” This poetry would later become the “Third Kingdom” and “Third Kingdom (Reprieve)” sections of the play.
Diamond would go on to direct three of Parks’s other plays at various other theatres. Parks and Diamond’s collaboration was rewarding for both, and Parks credits Diamond with teaching her much of what she now knows about theatrical production—its compromises, rewards and risks. From the beginning, both emphasized that they wanted to pursue separate paths as well as work together. With The America Play, however, the collaboration between Parks and Diamond came to a rather sudden end.
The America Play, under Diamond’s direction, was the first of Parks’s plays to transfer from Yale Rep to New York’s Public Theater. Disastrous box-office receipts, walkouts and mixed (but mostly negative) critical reactions may have been behind the decision to replace Diamond as director when the show moved to New York. Some of the same publications that favorably reviewed Parks’s first two history plays skewered The America Play. The New York Times‘s Vincent Canby approved of “the handsome supportive physical production” of The America Play at the Public, but worried, paradoxically, that it somehow “lessened the playwright’s obligation.” If the play were truly great, he concluded, “it could be played with as much effect in the middle of an ordinary living room.” Parks herself also had objections to the production, though hers were the opposite of Canby’s. She felt that the set by Riccardo Hernandez—which represented the “Great Hole of History,” where the play takes place, as a vast, glossy, empty white space—didn’t lessen so much as undermine the playwright’s intentions by emphasizing the theoretical over the theatrical. Today, she says simply that the play “was much simpler than the [premiere] production made it out to be.”
It was also dirtier. The power and permanence of theatre for Parks, and its distinctiveness from other literary forms, lies in its unseemly obsession with unearthing hushed-up secrets, performing what’s been buried or hidden away, revealing the carnal, physical body, and getting its hands (yes) dirty—in front of an audience, as part of a ritualized, shared event. Parks refers, for example, to the character of Brazil from The America Play as “the kind of guy who scratches his crotch when he knows you’re looking. This is not the shiny, happy, well-intentioned, loving family that the production presented. It missed the weird gaps and silences of family life.”
But if The America Play‘s audiences were denied its unseeemly aspects, Venus‘s audiences were confronted with unseemliness head-on, despite the idiosyncratic—and ultimately for Parks, disappointing—handling of the production by New York’s well-known avant-garde playwright and director Richard Foreman. Venus examines the historically true story of a 19th-century African sideshow freak named Saartjie Baartman who was billed as the Venus Hottentot. Parks fancifully presents the character as a full-blown diva looking for money and stardom, who enjoys wearing towering wigs and having her buttocks perfumed. Baartman’s is a dangerous story to tell, and many African-American audience members and critics were nervous, even angry, about the way Parks told it. Perhaps the harshest criticism came from the scholar Jean Young, who wrote a reaction to the play for African-American Review entitled “The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus.”
Yet sitting in the midst of Venus‘s premiere at Yale Rep, it was impossible to guess who would walk out after 15 minutes and who would rise at the end to give a standing ovation—and this is nearly always the case with Parks’s productions. Having followed and observed them for a number of years in a number of cities, often informally interviewing spectators who’ve left either frustrated or enthralled, or sometimes both, I have observed only one consistency in audience reaction to Parks’s plays: It cannot be broken down by race, age, education, income or any of the other usual “predictors.” Parks has always insisted, though often her producers have not, that “talking about a ‘woman writer of color’ is a trap. It’s why there are ‘slots’ for certain kinds of plays in every season. Who believes this kind of thinking is going to sell tickets? All it does is limit the theatre, and underestimate the audience, in every possible way.
6. The Living
Parks’s work has changed radically in the three years, and three plays, since Venus. Her new works—Topdog/Underdog, In the Blood and Fucking A—do not look backwards, towards the catastrophes of history, but forwards, towards individual and psychologically motivated acts of violence that (unlike in the history plays) take place onstage. Her new dramatic structures owe more to Aristotle than to Gertrude Stein. Most important, “All the people are alive!” Parks says, with a palpable sense of relief. “The dead are finally leaving me alone! I built shrines for them, and the shrines were the plays, and now they’re happy.” Because her plays are now populated by characters rather than figures, Parks’s dramatic poetry experiments less with “imperceptible mutability” and indeterminacy than with Brechtian dialectics: after all, as she says, “the dead speak their own kind of language, different from that of the living, and different depending on how long they’ve been dead.” Yet all her plays, she insists, share one vital quality: “the yearning for salvation: that particular kind of salvation that only the theatre, of all the art forms, can offer.”
Thanks to her sometimes difficult experiences in production, Parks has even started writing stage directions—a device she previously eschewed as a “pissy set of parentheses,” a poor substitute for injecting “action in the line.” Finally, she has also begun to try her hand at directing: She directed a series of readings of her plays at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, and last November directed the premiere of Fucking A in collaboration with the young experimental acting company Infernal Bridegroom at Houston’s Diverseworks Theatre. The history plays have formed “the foundation,” Parks says, for her new plays, and probably for her work to come.
“The experience of those plays, looking back, is like waking up from a dream—like breaking the surface of the water from the underside,” she says. “You go way down, you’re holding your breath, you’re seeing strange things…and then you come up, and the pressure’s intense. It’s like being born. But now the plays are different. Mothers killing children in In the Blood! The brother against the brother in Topdog/Underdog! The servant decapitating the master in Fucking A!”
Topdog/Underdog, a two-man play whose characters are named Lincoln and Booth, comes “right out of the subject matter of The America Play,” Parks says. “But while I envision The America Play taking place in a vast void, Topdog is set in a seedy, furnished room. One thing that hasn’t changed is my love of vulgarity! In Topdog, one of the characters jerks off to ‘fuck books’—dirty magazines—he keeps under his bed. And Fucking A, a play about a woman who is an outcast (in this case, an abortionist), was built on the foundation of Venus.”
Topdog/Underdog is also unique in that Parks wrote the play practically in one sitting. Her history plays, by contrast, took her a minimum of three years each. But this doesn’t mean that writing is getting any easier for Parks: she spent four years and countless drafts trying to produce her first play after Venus, ending up with two plays instead: Fucking A and In the Blood. The latter she refers to as her “alien baby”—it burst out of Fucking A, which at the time was a huge, operatic work with 52 scenes and a parade of floats, among other extravagances. Yet Parks discovered her “alien baby” by her usual methods: talking to and listening to her characters. “I sat down with one of the characters and said, ‘What’s wrong?'” The character, who later became Hester in In the Blood, responded, “‘Well, first of all, my name is wrong. Then I have to tell you what play I’m in.'” Within 10 minutes, Parks says, she had started her newest play.
Parks has judged history, but history has not yet judged her. Whatever is still to come, she has already indisputably altered the landscape of American drama and enriched the vocabulary of contemporary playwriting and theatre practice. Her influence can already been seen in recent plays by Robert O’Hara and Mac Wellman, among others, and in the renewed interest in historical themes and 19th-century texts on the contemporary New York stage. Over the summer she received a prestigious award from the writer’s organization PEN celebrating her as America’s most important “mid-career playwright,” and this fall she will be heading up the dramatic writing program at California Institute for the Arts.
Eleven years into her turbulent, extraordinary career, Parks herself is more confident and certain about what she wants than ever. Or rather, as she puts it, she has learned that she knows “what the play wants,” both on the page and in production—and is willing to fight for it. “Knowing what the play wants and needs is what gets it on the page in the first place. Playwriting for me, is torture—but relatively speaking, it’s the easy part. In the rehearsal hall, things are more complicated. Especially with a director you respect. Directing is a craft unto itself, and it’s hard. But nobody knows what the play wants better than I do.”
Shawn-Marie Garrett is an assistant professor of theatre at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is writing a book on the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks.