Some playwrights are quiet, retiring introverts whose work expresses the things they can’t say in everyday conversation. Suzan-Lori Parks is not one of those playwrights. Indeed, to speak to her, as I did recently over Zoom, is to feel like you’re already in a play, and that the energy that flows through her body into her conversation and into her body of work—a still expanding universe that includes dozens of scripts for stage and screen—is a precious resource produced by an eclectic, electric mind and soul. Lest that sound like a natural process that happens without her agency or shaping intelligence, suffice it to say that Parks has crafted some of the most artful and affecting stage works of the past 30 years: from experimental tone poem (The America Play) to Brechtian allegory (Fucking A, now in a revival at Portland, Ore.’s Shaking the Tree Theatre) to masterful two-hander (Topdog/Underdog). She has also been uncannily productive, launching not only the historic 365 Days/365 Plays project but, to register the shock of the early Trump administration, 100 Plays for 100 Days.
Parks is about to channel her otherworldly energy into several new vessels. Three are world premieres: At New York’s Public Theater, where she’s the resident playwright, she’ll appear in Plays for the Plague Year, a theatrical concert at Joe’s Pub (Nov. 4-27), and she’s adapting the 1972 reggae film The Harder They Come with co-directors Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo (to open there in winter 2023). And currently running at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater is Sally & Tom, a new play about a theatre company staging a controversial drama about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, which is likely to appear at the Public as well (it’s billed as a co-production).
Meanwhile, opening on Oct. 20 on Broadway is a revival of Topdog/Underdog, starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins, and directed by Kenny Leon. Topdog, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, remains her most popular and most frequently produced work (it showed up on our lists in 2003), and handily qualifies as a modern classic. Still, as I found out in our recent interview, it is not a play she considers an immutable monument. All plays are living documents, in a sense, but Parks’s possibly more than most.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You’ve got a really busy season coming up, so there’s a lot to talk about. I first want to ask about Plays for the Plague Year, in which you’ll actually be onstage as part of the work. Is that a first?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: You know, all the world’s a stage, bruh, so I’ve appeared in my own work for 59 years, right? But yeah, this is the first time in, like, a real production. I was in Father Comes Home From the Wars, the very first incarnation back in ’08 or ’09—I was the musician on the side, playing the accompaniment, but I wasn’t acting.
So you’re acting in Plays for the Plague Year?
“Acting”—let’s use air quotes. The other performers say, “Oh, you’re such a good actor.” I’m not acting; I’m being myself. They’re acting.
Well, you certainly have experience being in front of people, even writing in front of them.
That’s right. We’re building on that.
And it’s called Plays, but I get the sense, since it’s at Joe’s Pub, that it’s got a lot of music.
It’s got 23 songs I wrote, music and lyrics. There would have been more, but we had to cut a few. It’s like a musical play, a theatrical concert—I’m sure that, you know, scholars and whatnots will have language to describe what it is. People who are watching it are going, “I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t know what it’s called.” And I’m like, “It’s called Plays for the Plague Year.”
Speaking of musicals, there’s also The Harder They Come. At what stage is that project?
We are in a workshop right now at the Public—the three-week workshop where you make all the biggest decisions. I have three songs in that show, three originals. I pulled many from the original soundtrack, as well as Jimmy Cliff’s beautiful catalog and some other classics, like “I Can See Clearly Now,” and laid them in the book, but there were a couple of places where we needed a really specific song. Tony and Sergio were like, “We need a song for this moment to address exactly what is going on.” So I was like, “I’ll just write one.”
I want to get to Sally & Tom, but let’s talk for a moment about Topdog/Underdog. That was a breakthrough play for you in many ways, your first to go to Broadway, and now it’s back. When you look back on it now, does it feel at all like a different writer, a different person, wrote that? Does it still sound like you?
Does it sound like me? Fuck yeah, it still sounds like me! It sounds like me, declaring to the world, “This is who I am.” But, I mean, every play is like that for me. A lot of people who had fallen in love with Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, and were like, “Oh, we get you now,” then they saw The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, which was me saying, “Well, actually, do you get me now?” And then I’m doing The America Play: Do you get me now? There’s always panic, like I’m going through some kind of—my son is 11 now, so puberty is a subject I’ve got on my mind—some kind of development. People are like, “We loved you years ago, now what are you doing?” And I’m like: I’m growing.
I noticed that Paul Oscher, your first husband, who helped inspire Topdog, died last year from COVID.
Were you still close to him?
Oh, yeah. We got divorced in ’09, something like that, but we would talk like every week; he would send me things in the mail, like, “Hey, girl, I found this guitar I think you might like.” He had moved to Austin, and I remarried. Christian Konopka—I say my husband’s name because often Christian is referred to as Paul online, and no, not all white men look alike. The reason why Plays for the Plague Year doesn’t end after a year—it starts on the 13th of March 2020, and I could have finished it on 13th of March 2021, but I kept writing. And I do believe that I was stretching my arm to include Paul; he wasn’t sick on the 13th of March, but I could feel something changing. I had to keep writing to make sure he was included in the beautiful banquet.
It sounds like Plays for the Plague Years is a bit like 365 Plays or 100 Days, the product of short daily writing. Do you think of these all as different modes you go into—like, “Now I’m doing my daily-play writing, and next I’m working on my big history play”?
Well, light is a particle and a wave. I will just note that I was writing Plays for the Plague Year while I was show-running Genius: Aretha, this ginormous TV thing, while I was also working on The United States Versus Billie Holiday. I was birthing those two epic stories about those two amazing, iconic women, and I was doing my little daily plays thing on the side. I was like: Shit, I gotta keep this real, I gotta hold on, and just do my daily showing up, my daily presence. So yeah, there are different modes at the same time,
So we were talking about Topdog. I don’t know what else to say about it, except to add that I didn’t see it on Broadway, but in L.A., with Larry Gilliard Jr. and Harold Perrineau. They killed it.
Well, like I told Yahya, Corey, and Kenny on Day One of rehearsal: It’s written for brothers to shine. That was my intent. It wasn’t necessarily, “You know, I’m gonna write a play today” to do that—no, no, no. But every time I look at it, and every time I see it onstage, and every time I think about it, I think: Oh, that was what it was for. I mean, I’m singing the song. That’s what I do. I sit in rehearsal, and I’ll shout at the stage when they’re onstage. I’ll be like, Sing the song, brother, sing the song! Because they’re singing a song of the spirit, the song of the soul, for all of us to enjoy that communion, but specifically for Black men to sing this song. So I’m thrilled to hear—like, I was in L.A., and some brother who worked in some department store, fancy, he was running across the plaza in Culver City, wherever it was, and I’m like, “Lord, have mercy, where’s this man going?” And he’s, “Miss Parks, Miss Parks—I was in Topdog!” So yeah, the transmission is happening.
That play has been produced a lot. When you go back to a play, do you take another look at it and change things? I know someone who worked at the Signature said you did a bunch of stuff with the new staging of The Death of the Last Black Man when it was part of your season there.
It’s interesting how institutions think of “a bunch of stuff.” I mean, I’m doing a lot of rewriting and working on Sally & Tom right now that I would call a bunch of stuff. With Topdog, 10 years ago, when I did the revival at Two River, there were some lines here and there, and on Broadway we finally cut a piece of text that wasn’t ever working. A producer might call that “a bunch of stuff.” It’s all perspective. I tweak some stuff.
So have you done some tweaking on the new Topdog?
Things like noticing: “Oh, gee, Lincoln wakes up in his costume, and then it happens again? We only need to do that once.” At the first rehearsal, we see the set, and I’m like, “Kenny, what’s that over there?” He’s like, “It’s a sink.” And I go, “Kenny…” And he goes, “I know—I know in the text it says, ‘We don’t got no running water, you don’t got no sink.’” And I’m like, “Kenny, do you want a sink?” He’s like, “Yeah, ’cause I got an idea.” So I just cut a line. So now it goes, “We don’t got no running water.” But they have a sink and the sink is used brilliantly. So now, ever after, the play can have a sink if the production so desires. You know, we’re flexible like that.
Speaking of rewriting and the rehearsal room, I was delighted to find that Sally & Tom is a backstager, about the production of a play about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.
Is that what they call it? A backstager—I like that.
But apart from the TV projects you mentioned, you haven’t really written about showbiz, what goes on behind the curtain, before.
You’re right. Though you could say that Topdog/Underdog is about what goes on behind the curtain. They’re aware of a certain performative aspect of their lives. “Every day, I leave my shit at the door, and this shit is hard.” But they’re not aware that they’re aware of it.
There’s a playwright character in Sally & Tom, Luce, and she says some things I could imagine might be true of you, like, “I wouldn’t have written a play like this 10 years ago.”
Well, I didn’t. So yeah, I could say that about myself. I wouldn’t have written a play like this 10 years ago. That’s true.
To put a finer point on it, there’s also a line where Luce says, “I wanted to reach a wider audience, to get my work out there for real.” And I wonder if those are words you’ve ever said, either to yourself or to a colleague or producer. Like, “These experimental plays are fine, but now I want to go to Broadway”?
Great question, bro. I once had a conversation with somebody who said, “I want my plays done in every theatre,” and I was like: Huh, I actually never thought that. But I have said to myself: I want to be as good as I can be at what I do. Right?
We’re sort of dancing around the big topic here, which is the historical relationship of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. You’ve riffed on history before, and literally written plays set in it. What drew you to this story in particular?
You know, your basic Black woman, American person, in love with great writers, questioning, what’s up with American history? Sally and Tom have been on my mind for a long, long time. And you know, man, I love old stories, mythic stories, epic stories. That’s my jam. The story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is one of those Great American stories.
Sure. It’s also a bit of third rail, as it goes straight to issues of enslavement, sexual consent, race, the nation’s founding—a lot of hotly contested stuff in there.
You could say third rail, or you could say lightning rod, a bit of a conductor. It’s an opportunity to develop our skills at having a nuanced conversation about deep and perhaps difficult things. I think we are lacking in that area these days, where hot take is the way to go more often than not, where you cancel somebody if they look at you wrong. I do think that while all that anger or reaction is very justified—I mean, I’ve been Black my whole life, and if people think, “Oh, she’s not angry,” think again, motherfucker, think again, as Lincoln would say—I also very much highly value and continue to hone the ability to have a nuanced conversation about what we call in Plays for the Plague Year “the difficult things.” What do we make of the difficult things? And so, just to develop those muscles. Because if we don’t use those muscles, if we don’t exercise those muscles, and develop the ability to have a real conversation about things that were traumatic to the likes of me, or the likes of you, or the likes of whomever—to have those conversations is the stuff that makes civilization.
To piggyback on that, people go, “Why are you interested in trauma-based stories? Shouldn’t it all be Black joy?” Okay, good question. And one of my answers to that might be: I read somewhere recently that archaeologists found some sort of skeleton who had had a bone broken, and that leg had been mended. So caring for those who have been wounded is one of the first evidences of civilization. We can reach back to someone who has been traumatized, whether they’re living or dead, and bring them along and hold them in the palm of our hand, like, in my understanding of spirituality, the creator does. We can care for them, and not just turn a blind eye because they make us feel bad. You know what I mean? We can show care for them. If we can demonstrate care for those who have experienced trauma, that is how we become human.
So it’s a conductor. It’s a third rail, which can conduct us to some beautiful questions, and some conversations that might be difficult to have, but we need to have them.
I don’t know if you know Thomas Bradshaw’s play Thomas and Sally, but that was picketed when it ran at Marin Theatre Company a few years ago because it was perceived as romanticizing the relationship between a 44-year-old white enslaver and a 14-year-old Black girl he considered his property.
Thomas Bradshaw is a fine writer, but I’m not following in anybody’s footsteps in terms of subject matter. And I’m not familiar with that controversy, but I’ve heard about it.
The larger question is about consent. Obviously, you want to take the conversation beyond where many folks think it should stop, which is to say that what Jefferson did to Sally Hemings was rape, period; there’s no “love story” or ambiguity there to speculate about. Obviously your play contends with that point of view, but also says more.
It sure does. Maybe it was all rape and Stockholm syndrome, as they say in the play, or, as Sally says at the end: “Maybe it wasn’t rape, or maybe it was, and maybe that’s all it was.” But what do we do now? What do we do with me being who I am, and you over there being yourself, and now we have to deal with each other? The play is not just about what happened to them back then; it’s about the way we live now, and how we understand what happened to them or wrestle with it or work through it, and how we’re still working through it today.
Even that’s a simplification of the play, because it’s also about who gets to stand in the light; about who gets to be onstage; about making space. I tell people, the more I write, the more I realize I write to make space. I don’t write to show off my linguistic gymnastics. I write to create space. Silence and space for people to be, for humans to be human.
It’s demonstrated in the writing of the play, which tells me everything. I wrote a speech for Jefferson first. By the time we get to the end of the play, Sally has her very beautiful monologue. And then, during the workshops this past summer, [director] Steve Broadnax was like, “I think James Hemings could have more than the one little speech he gets.” So I went home and wrote him two pages of a speech, which is one of the most beautiful speeches I’ve written. And I tell you, I would not have been able to hear the song of James Hemings as depicted in the play if I had not given ear and heart and soul to the song of Thomas Jefferson, and had I not given ear and heart and soul to the song of Sally Hemings. Do you see what I mean? What do we open ourselves up to if we don’t just say, “We have nothing to talk about, it’s just rape”? We’d be closing ourselves off from some riches that I need to go and get. That speech of James Hemings is one of those beautiful riches that the play has, that I’ve made space for, because I opened my heart to some really difficult shit.
Speaking of making space, there’s a whole generation of writers you helped pave the way for, particularly young playwrights like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Jackie Sibblies Drury, and Aleshea Harris, who challenge received notions about what a “Black play” can be.
Right, I wrote an essay about that. It’s funny, we were laughing about that very question in rehearsal, and someone looked up, “What is the Black play?” online, and of course, it goes to an essay by Suzan-Lori Parks, and I’m like, “Oh, shit, maybe we should just read that.” Because yeah, I spent some time thinking about that. In music they say, you play who you are. They don’t say, “Be confined to address specific themes in a certain way.” We need to continue to be expansive in our understanding.
One of my favorite features in American Theatre ever was your interview with August Wilson. It wasn’t a passing of the torch, exactly, but it felt like a lovely cross-generational exchange, and I just wonder if you feel the same toward succeeding generations of writers.
I’m thrilled; I’m so proud and excited about all the new writers. They’re doing Vietgone here at the Guthrie, and some of the actors are hanging out with us during breaks, and going on and on about how much they love the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, and those aren’t Black folks. It’s the influence I have on everybody. I don’t see myself as passing the torch—you know me, I’m funny about language. I’m sharing the fire. I’m here; I still got shit to do. Just like Kenny Leon in rehearsal is sharing the fire, just like August, or certainly James Baldwin, when he was my creative writing teacher, shared the fire. I didn’t feel like he was “passing the torch.” Also, there’s another phrase, “I’m standing on your shoulders, queen!” Don’t stand on my shoulders. Walk in my company. I love when people walk in my company, walk the road that I helped pave, or the path that I helped clear, along with August and Ntozake and Amiri Baraka and Alice Childress and Lorraine, all these people. We’re still clearing the path.
I just have one more question: How do you manage to do as much as you do? In any line of work, your productivity would be staggering. What’s your secret? Lots of coffee?
It’s not coffee—prepping for Plays for the Plague Year, I’m working with this wonderful singing teacher, and he was like, four months ago, “Quit coffee.” I think show running, which I did first on Genius: Aretha, prepared me to do three world premieres and a Broadway revival at same time. It has prepared me to work at the highest level and aim toward excellence. Also, I’m very clear now, more than ever, on my mission: I am working to create what I told the cast of Sally & Tom I call sacred agents, agents of the sacred. They were like, “Whoa, that’s heavy.” And I’m like, “But it’s fun too, right?” So we’re all out there singing the song. I am working with some great people: Niegel Smith, Kenny Leon, Steve Broadnax, Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo. Lileana Blain-Cruz and I are working on a new project. So I feel like I’m surrounding myself with love, and through that comes a huge amount of energy. I don’t have an assistant or answer my emails or phone calls. I might not be as fast as I could be. But I deeply love what I’m doing.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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