Suzan-Lori Parks Drama Analysis
“I am obsessed with resurrecting,” Suzan-Lori Parks explained in a 1996 interview, “with bringing up the dead . . . and hearing their stories as they come into my head.” Parks has often described the characters she creates as independent beings, as voices that relate their stories to her. Rather than writing them into existence, Parks allows the characters to speak themselves into being. Drawing on history, myth, and fantasy, she populates her plays with conventional and unconventional characters whose stories excavate the past in order to expose the truths and misconceptions about African American and American history. “Every play I write is about love and distance. And time,” she explained in 1994. “And from that we can get things like history.” She elaborates further in her essay “Possession,” collected in The America Play and Other Works. “Through each line of text, I’m rewriting the Time Line—creating history where it is and always was but has not yet been divined.”
Language plays a vital role in this creation of history. Using what she calls “rep and rev” (repetition and revision), Parks often employs language as a musical refrain, with characters repeating phrases throughout her plays, the repetition of which adds different shades of meaning. In Topdog/Underdog, Booth rehearses his three-card monte street routine, addressing his imaginary audience: “Watch me close watch me close now: who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-the-red-card?” As the words recur at various points in the play, they take on the quality of a chant, or a chorus that signifies the building tension between the brothers.
The question of identity in Parks’s drama, as self-awareness and the identification of an individual within a group, is of central importance. As characters attempt to identify themselves, they must destroy the false identities and histories that have been attributed to them. In Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, the characters Mona, Chona, and Verona, whose names have been changed to Molly, Charlene, and Veronica, meditate on the apparent mutability of their characters. “Once there was uh me named Mona who wondered what she’d be like if no one was watchin,” Mona/Molly says. The Foundling Father of Parks’s The America Play, whose setting is the Great Pit of History, is obsessed by Abraham Lincoln and decides to reenact his assassination in a traveling show. Like the character of Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog, who earns his living by reenacting Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in a local arcade, the Foundling Father is a captive of history.
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom
Rather than separating her first major play into traditional acts, Parks creates four separate stories that provide a nonlinear and sometimes surreal look at aspects of the African American experience in her Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.
“Snails,” the first section of the play, looks at a contemporary group of women who possess two names, one they have chosen and another that has been imposed on them. The second section, “Third Kingdom,” re-creates the tragic Middle Passage, through which enslaved Africans journeyed on their way to America, and the details of which are narrated by characters like Kin-Seer, Us-Seer, and Over-Seer. “Open House,” the third section, depicts the life of Aretha Saxon, a black servant/slave in the household of the white Saxon family. Aretha’s departure from the family is occasioned by the removal with pliers of all of her teeth. The play’s final section, “Greeks,” is a modern interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), with Mr. Seargant Smith in the role of Odysseus. Hoping to earn “his Distinction” in the army, Seargant Smith spends most of his life away from his family, who await his return and the honor he...
(The entire section is 1631 words.)