Suzan-Lori Parks Essay - Critical Essays

Suzan-Lori Parks American Literature Analysis

Parks has written an essay titled “Elements of Style,” which contains her personal concept for developing plays for the stage. In this essay, she refers to her “characters” as “figures which take up residence inside me,” figures that do not fit inside the more traditional forms or “the naturalism of, say, Lorraine Hansberry.” Regarding her style, she writes, “As a playwright, I try to do many things: explore the form, ask questions, make a good show, tell a good story, ask more questions, take nothing for granted.” She bases her new form on repetition and revision.Repetition: we accept it in poetry and call it “incremental refrain.” For the most part, incremental refrain creates a weight and rhythm. In dramatic writing it does the same . . . it’s not just repetition but repetition and revision. And in drama change, revision, is the thing.

As an author’s note to her published plays, Parks provides a schematic to assist the reader in understanding her methodologies. The following is taken from the published version of Venus:In Venus I’m continuing the use of my slightly unconventional theatrical elements. Here’s a road map. (Rest) Take a little time, a pause, a breather; make a transition. A Spell An elongated and heightened (Rest). Denoted by repetition of figures’ names with no dialogue. Has sort of an architectural look: The Venus The Baron Docteur The Venus The Baron Docteur This is a place where the figures experience their pure true simple state. While no action or stage business is necessary, directors should fill this moment as they best see fit. [Brackets in the text indicate optional cuts for production.] (Parentheses around dialogue indicate softly spoken passages (asides; sotto voce).)

Add to these characteristics Parks’s unusual approach to writing dialogue (many critics refer to her accomplishment as poetry) and it is clear that she is revolutionizing the theater of the future.

Not all of her critics have viewed Parks favorably. Several African American reviewers have taken issue with her perceived skewed vision of the black experience. Even though Parks has dealt in her work with such African American issues as the middle passage, mistreatment in and by Western culture, and contemporary ghetto life, she has been chastened by a number of African American scholars. In her essay “The Re-objectification and Re-commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus” that appeared in the Winter, 1997, issue of African American Review, Jean Young writes, “Parks’s slippery interpretation of the historical record surrounding the tragedy of Venus (Baartman) is in and of itself a tragedy.” Parks responded to such criticism in a postperformance discussion led by Alisa Solomon. She said:It’s insulting when people say my plays are about what it’s about to be black—as if that’s all we think about, as if our life is not about race. It’s about being alive . . . Why does everyone think that white artists make art and black artists make statements?

In her essay, “An Equation for Black People Onstage,” Parks writes,There is no such thing as THE Black Experience; that is, there are many experiences of being Black which are included under the rubric. Just think of all the different kinds of African peoples.

Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom

First produced: 1989 (first published, 1995)

Type of work: Play

Winner of the Obie Award as best Off-Broadway play in 1989, this work employs poetry, indirection, metaphor, and persistent repetition to convey the horror of the slave trade. The play makes the loss of more than nine million African lives unaccounted for during the slave trade era immediate and personal.

Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom won for Parks her first Obie Award as the best Off-Broadway play of 1989 and led theater critic Robert Brustein to call her “a most unusual addition to the growing ranks of female playwrights.”

Filled with “figures” rather than characters, the play deals obliquely with the slave trade when more than nine million Africans went missing. Written in what director Liz Diamond calls wonderful poetry, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom defines contemporary and traditional dramaturgical methods while using indirection, metaphor, and persistent repetition to convey the horror of the slave trade and its impact on the lives of those who either experienced it or followed it. Shawn-Marie Garrett in her essay “The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks” writes:Parks has dramatized some of the most painful aspects of the black experience . . . . 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.

Parks’s opening question and answer provide a ringing tribute to the nature of what is to follow:Charlene: How dja get through it?

Molly: Mm not through it.

As the first of her four plays which “re-member” history, Parks is exploring her love of language in a fashion that reflects her profound influences provided by Gertrude Stein, Woolf, Joyce, and most especially Beckett. Diamond, her long-time collaborator, stated in a Fall, 1995, interview published in TDR:The first time I read a Suzan-Lori Parks play, I flashed to Wittgenstein, not Gertrude Stein. There seemed to be a utilitarian focus to Parks’ words—a surgical intensity—that belied her play’s surface impression of hypnotic languor. Surely this is what Wittgenstein meant when he spoke of language games, I thought, and the contingencies of various meanings in languages’ various contexts, words having uses and not mere definitions, family resemblances of certain words, etc. Wittgenstein believed that the philosopher’s task was to bring words back from their metaphysical usage to their everyday usage, and Parks’ drama seems to play between the boundaries of both.

As Diamond notes, Parks’s drama has more in common with jazz than with the dramaturgy which preceded it.


First produced: 1996 (first published, 1997)

Type of work: Play

With eighteenth century Europe as backdrop and racial stereotyping as subject, Venus relates the story of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman known throughout Europe as “The Hottentot Venus.” Baartman is offered in public display because of her “abnormal” body parts in a play which won for Parks her second Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play of the year.

With a cast of four and a chorus of five, thirty-one scenes, and a number of original songs, Venus—the true-life story of Saartjie Baartman, the Venus Hottentot—is brought to life by Parks; she...

(The entire section is 2886 words.)