Suzan-Lori Parks 1964-
American playwright, screenwriter, and novelist.
Innovative and occasionally controversial, Parks is one of the most highly acclaimed African-American woman playwrights in contemporary theater. Her use of “rep & rev” (repetition and revision) to re-examine and reconfigure eurocentric historical episodes is lauded for providing an afrocentric history and identity—elements that are largely missing from the eurocentric historical record. Parks uses language reminiscent of African-American dialects and vernacular to give multiple meanings to the spoken word and expose the hidden message behind the dialogue of her characters. Often depicting and exaggerating black stereotypes, Parks draws attention to their invalidity and the ignorance upon which they are based. Parks's plays are noted for their originality, non-linear progression of time, poetic dialogue, political and social agendas, and depiction of the search for identity.
Parks was born in 1964 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Because her father was a colonel in the U.S. Army, the family relocated frequently during her childhood. After graduating from a German high school, Parks enrolled at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where she studied under James Baldwin. Baldwin appreciated Parks's talent and recommended that she begin to write for the stage. Her first play, The Sinner's Place (1984), helped her receive honors for her English degree but was rejected for staging by Mount Holyoke because it was too innovative for the drama department. After receiving dual degrees in German and English in 1985, Parks further honed her playwriting skills by studying acting in London and attending the Yale University School of Drama. She produced Betting on the Dust Commander in 1987 and Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom in 1989. The latter work not only earned her an Obie Award for the best off-Broadway play of 1989, but also prompted Mel Gussow of the New York Times to declare Parks “the year's most promising playwright.” Parks's subsequent awards have included a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1989, a New York Foundation for the Arts grant and a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1990, an Obie for her play Venus (1996), a PEN-Laura Pels Award for Excellence in Playwriting in 2000, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2000, and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2001. Her play Topdog/Underdog (2001) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002, making Parks the first African-American woman to receive the award. Parks has taught at many colleges and universities, including Yale, University of Michigan, and New York University. She is currently the director of the California Institute of the Arts performance program. Parks continues to writes plays, screenplays, and, most recently, novels. Her first novel, Getting Mother's Body was published in 2003.
Major Dramatic Works
Since her first play, The Sinner's Place, Parks has demonstrated a passion for searching for knowledge, history, and identity. The stage in The Sinner's Place was to be covered in dirt, an innovation that Mount Holyoke's drama department refused to accommodate. Betting on the Dust Commander is largely about family relations, upheaval and movement. This second play has been attributed to Parks's constant relocation during childhood. Parks gained critical and popular attention with her third production, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, a tetralogy of four short plays—Snails, The Third Kingdom, Open House, and Greeks. In Snails a white naturalist disguises himself as an exterminator so he can “bug” the home where three African-American women live, thereby gaining insight into the actions of these women in a non-white-influenced surrounding. Through this “study” the women lose identity and respect and become objects to manipulate and examine. The Third Kingdom re-enacts the Middle Passage across the Atlantic from Africa that many slaves endured at the beginning of their captivity. In lieu of the dearth of known history from these subjugated people, Parks provides memories and cultural references that create a new, solid history for African Americans to follow. In Open House Blanca, a former slave, is dying and her memories are being stolen from her—symbolized by continuous tooth extractions—linking her loss with African Americans' loss of culture, identity and voice. In Greeks Parks further elaborates on the assertion that African Americans have an unsure link with their past and therefore have a difficult time understanding their present. Parks continues to search for an African-American past in her fourth play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990). In this play, the main character, Black Man with Watermelon, is continually beaten, enslaved, and killed, yet always returns to the stage to tell his story. Parks highlights the importance of “telling the story” as a way to fight the negation of African Americans, whose literary silencing during the years of the slave trade has rendered their story almost forgotten. In The America Play (1993), Parks again brings dirt onstage. The play's setting is described as “the great hole of history” and centers on the Foundling Father, a black man who resembles Abraham Lincoln, who re-enacts the President's death as a sideshow act. The repeated death resembles that in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and, as in previous plays, the characters in The America Play are searching for clues to their identities. Foundling Father's wife and son dig in the sand around the great hole for clues to the truth, and they uncover objects that suggest that many accepted truths are in fact lies and distortions based on perception. Parks continues the sideshow atmosphere in Venus, a play based on the life of Saartjie Baartman. Baartman was an African who was brought to Europe during the Victorian era and put on display as the Venus Hottentot because of her African physical features. After her death, a scientist removed her buttocks and genitalia, which were displayed in a Paris museum well into the twentieth century. In Venus Parks rewrites this history, refusing to let Baartman be a docile pawn in her own life. She makes Baartman an accomplice in her fame and destiny. Venus is a willing participant and receives financial rewards for her work. She uses her African “otherness” to obtain wealth and love, thereby causing modern audiences to rethink the seeming nonparticipation of Africans in their own history. Parks explores Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in two plays, In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000). In In the Blood, Parks's Hester is a woman who lives under an overpass with her five multi-ethnic, illegitimate children. The play stresses that identity and culture are becoming increasingly difficult to discover and claim, a condition that leads to disillusionment and diaspora. Hester is abandoned and ill-treated by society and her lovers, and the play ends in tragedy. For Fucking A's Hester the “A” stands for Abortionist. This play too ends in tragedy as Hester's son, who was a sweet youth, has become a violent and brutal man. In Topdog/Underdog two brothers, named Lincoln and Booth, struggle to succeed in life. Lincoln once ran a three-card monte scam but has decided to earn his living by honest labor. He becomes an actor at the local arcade, impersonating Abraham Lincoln and re-enacting Lincoln's death. Booth decides to earn money by learning Lincoln's card tricks and setting up his own three-card monte business. The brothers argue frequently, culminating in Booth murdering Lincoln over a card game. Although there are similarities in themes and characters between Parks's earlier plays and her later works, the deaths in these later plays, unlike those in Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, are true deaths for the characters, and their exits are final.
Critical reception to Parks's plays has been largely favorable. Although some commentators charge that she reinforces racial misconceptions with her use of stereotypical language and gestures, most reviewers contend that Parks's over-the-top depiction of stereotypes lampoons these misconceptions and makes a farce out of the underlying prejudices that drive stereotyping. She is applauded for her attempts to fill in the gaps of African-American memory and history, and for her refusal to rely on the eurocentric history that has been dominant for centuries. Her innovative use of language and staging is praised by audiences and reviewers alike. Shawn-Marie Garrett maintains that Parks “has already indisputably altered the landscape of American drama and enriched the vocabulary of contemporary playwriting and theatre practice.”
The Sinner's Place 1984
Betting on the Dust Commander 1987
*Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom 1989
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World 1990
Devotees in the Garden of Love 1992
The America Play 1993
The America Play and Other Works (plays) 1995
In the Blood 1999
Fucking A 2000
Anemone Me (screenplay) 1990
Pickling (radio play) 1990
Locomotive (radio play) 1991
Girl 6 (screenplay) 1996
Getting Mother's Body (novel) 2003
*This work is a tetralogy of short plays: Snails, The Third Kingdom, Open House, and Greeks.
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Criticism: General Commentary
SOURCE: Garrett, Shawn-Marie. “The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks.” American Theatre 17, no. 8 (October 2000): 22-6.
[In the following essay, Garrett explores recurrent themes in Parks's plays and illustrates Parks's use of repetition, lampooning, language, and visual cues to highlight political, historical, and racial inaccuracies.]
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...
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SOURCE: Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. “Reconfiguring History: Migration, Memory, and (Re)Membering in Suzan-Lori Parks's Plays.” In Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism, edited by Robert L. McDonald and Linda Rohrer Paige, pp. 183-97. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Brown-Guillory examines Parks's use of repetition, revision, and relocation to create an African-American historical identity. Brown-Guillory also notes that many of the themes of the tetralogy Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom are further developed in Parks's later plays.]
Since the mid-1980s, the two-time Obie Award-winning Suzan-Lori Parks has revolutionized Black women's theater tradition with her plays. In some ways, Parks's plays resemble the mutative and vertiginous stage poetry of Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) and of Sonja Sanchez's Sister Son/ji (1969), both of which experiment with language and theatrical space and, in effect, reconfigure the boundaries of the American stage. Parks extends Sanchez and Kennedy's experiments with language and form in an attempt to challenge a very conventional, conservative, and impenetrable American stage. Her plays call for a theater that will embrace theoretical artists, namely playwrights like herself who wish to offer audiences the possibility of multiple meanings in...
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Criticism: Imperceptible Mutabilities In The Third Kingdom (1989)
SOURCE: Solomon, Alisa. “Signifying on the Signifyin': The Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks.” Theater 21, no. 3 (summer-fall 1990): 73-80.
[In the following essay, Solomon studies the role of language and communication in the four plays of Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom and investigates the political and racial overtones of Parks's works.]
As part of the Manhattan Theater Club's “Downtown/Uptown” festival last spring, Suzan-Lori Parks's Greeks shared a bill with a play by Jeff Jones. Like other artists in the three-week festival—among them Holly Hughes, Mac Wellman, Susan Mosakowski, Richard Elovich—Parks is part of the BACA Downtown-P.S. 122 circuit, and her work, though no doubt heard of (having been praised by Mel Gussow in The New York Times) had never been seen north of 14th Street. During the festival, audience members reportedly walked out in droves on some of these evenings. More than one participating writer told me that an MTC staff person assured them, “We like your work; it's our audience that hates it. The festival is a way of thinning out our over-sized subscription base.” Indeed, the festival had a strangely confrontational, if not downright hostile feel to it. Artists said they felt put on the defensive, and audiences—well, bombarding an artistically conservative crowd with nine experimental pieces in a marginalized little festival is not...
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SOURCE: Diamond, Liz. “Perceptible Mutability in the Word Kingdom.” Theater 24, no. 3 (1993): 86-87.
[In the following essay, Diamond analyzes Parks's experiments with language, casting, and non-linear time in her plays, particularly Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.]
The poetic imagination, while not entirely absent from the American stage in recent years, makes its appearance fitfully. Most often, it appears either in that watered-down version of Romanticism called lyric realism, where simile rather than metaphor rules, or in the guise of a North American magic realism, a pale version of its Latin cousin, with just enough strangeness to arouse our imaginations before drying up and leaving us parched as before. But in the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks, poetry, the radical condensation of meaning in form, is everywhere present. From the intimate, ironic portrait of a marriage in Betting on the Dust Commander to the operatic grandeur of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Parks reclaims the stage as rightful home to a poetry that celebrates the theatrical possibilities of both word and image.
In Parks's work, poetry is an improvisational art, a jazzy interplay of language and meaning that relies on a strategy Parks calls “rep and rev”: the sensual and densely meaningful wordplay of repetition and revision. Her words are actors,...
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Criticism: The Death Of The Last Black Man In The Whole Entire World (1990)
SOURCE: Rayner, Alice, and Harry J. Elam, Jr. “Unfinished Business: Reconfiguring History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.” Theatre Journal 46, no. 4 (December 1994): 447-61.
[In the following essay, Rayner and Elam survey the methods Parks employs in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World “not only to challenge and re-write history, but to right history.”]
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks burst onto the American stage in September of 1990. Critics hailed the play as a work of “astounding power,”1 and as a “brilliant compression of black rage and hope.”2 Parks was crowned “theatre's vibrant new voice,”3 an “indigenous theatrical talent” and “the most promising playwright of the year.” At the same time, Mel Gussow said her play was “as recondite as it is elliptical”4 while another reviewer complained that “the vivid dreams behind Parks's rigorously condensed method often clot the perspective. Her work can be obtuse … [making] connections that are, at best, allusive.”5 The implication here is that the lack of clear meaning and obvious references are somehow at odds with “astounding power” and “brilliant compression of rage and hope”—that the play is powerful in spite of its...
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SOURCE: Wood, Jacqueline. “Sambo Subjects: ‘Declining the Stereotype’ in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.” Studies in the Humanities 28, nos. 1 & 2 (June-December 2001): 109-20.
[In the following essay, Wood examines Parks's use of characterization and speech in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World to destabilize and refute black stereotypes.]
The focal presence of stereotyped characters in Suzan-Lori Parks's second play1The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World causes discomfiture as well as a sense of alienation in its readers/spectators. And this is not a surprising response. The grotesquerie of stereotype can be both debilitating and destructive, creating, as Frantz Fanon argues, an individual who is an “object in the midst of other objects[,] sealed into that crushing objecthood” where “consciousness of the body” could be nothing else but “an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage” (Black Skin 109, 110-112). Fanon concludes that the resulting psychological damage of stereotyping leaves blacks in particular unable to cope in a reasonable way with the demands of society since “white civilization and European culture have forced an existential deviation on the Negro” (14). Ultimately, such positioning causes automatic pathological responses concerning black...
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Criticism: The America Play (1993)
SOURCE: Ryan, Katy. “‘No Less Human’: Making History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 13, no. 2 (spring 1999): 81-94.
[In the following essay, Ryan explores the sexual, racial, and political overtones in The America Play and considers Parks's use of language, repetition, and absences to subvert white-based and white-written history.]
We stand to-day at the national center to perform something like a national act—an act which is to go into history.
Frederick Douglass spoke the above words on 14 April 1876 in a speech to commemorate the Freedmen's Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. The statue, financed by African-Americans, depicts a kneeling black man, shackles broken, looking up at Abraham Lincoln who holds the Constitution in his right hand and extends his left over the head of the former slave. Lincoln looks straight ahead. In Beware the People Weeping (1986), Thomas Turner reinforces this representation of the bowed and grateful African-American: “the response of one group of people to the assassination was particularly touching—that of the blacks, to whom Lincoln had been the Emancipator, Father Abraham.”2 Douglass did not participate in the adoration or mythologizing of Lincoln as Father...
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SOURCE: Elam, Harry, and Alice Rayner. “Echoes from the Black (W)hole: An Examination of The America Play.” In Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater, edited by Jeffrey D. Mason and J. Ellen Gainor, pp. 178-92. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Elam and Rayner detail the process that the characters in The America Play use to replace the “hole” in their African-American history, culture, and identities with reconstructed memories and afrocentric ideas to create selves and a past that are “whole.”]
In the summer of 1994, the Disney Corporation considered building an American history theme park in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb close to the nation's capital. Many American historians opposed the plan, citing the inability of a theme park to capture the reality of American history and the inappropriateness of a Disney park as a location for the racial violence and oppression in that history. In August 1994, the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post became a forum for a debate on the propriety of housing a slavery exhibit in the proposed park. William Styron, author of the controversial Confessions of Nat Turner, wrote:
Visitors to any Disney extravaganza do not go seeking emotional upheaval; they go chiefly for fun and entertainment and they want quick jolts of these things. I...
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Criticism: In The Blood (1999)
SOURCE: Elam, Harry J., Jr. “The Postmulticultural: A Tale of Mothers and Sons.” In Crucible of Cultures: Anglophone Drama at the Dawn of a New Millennium, edited by Marc Maufort and Franca Bellarsi, pp. 113-28. Brussels: Peter Lang, 2002.
[In the following essay, Elam compares the growing multi-ethnicity of American culture with the diversity and the identity issues of the characters in Cherrie Moraga's The Hungry Woman and Parks's In the Blood.]
“We are in a postmulticultural time,” or so the student said assuredly. It was October 2000, and I was visiting a class on issues of diversity and social change in drama at the University of Minnesota, discussing concerns arising from August Wilson's now famous address to the Theatre Communications Group Convention in January 1996, when the student made this remark. It stuck with me. Because of our academic affinity for “posts” (postindustrialism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, post-postmodernism), “postmulticulturalism” seemed the perfect addition. Why the postmulticultural? Certainly the current politics of race in America demand new classifications and correspondingly compel new representations of race within the theater. Multiculturalism, the concept of embracing racial difference, that “defined the 1990s,” no longer seems sufficient to engage the new dynamics of race in America. As an article in the New...
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Criticism: Topdog/Underdog (2001)
SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Robert Brustein on Theater: A Homeboy Godot.” New Republic 226, no. 18 (13 May 2002): 25-6.
[In the following excerpt, Brustein expresses a mixed opinion of Topdog/Underdog. While he applauds the performance of Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln, he regards Mos Def's portrayal of Booth as incoherent.]
I was on the committee that gave this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama to Suzan-Lori Parks for Topdog/Underdog. This play was not my first choice for the award. It is far from Parks's most ambitious writing. But, as an admirer of her previous work, I was content to endorse the decision of the majority. Prizes often go to the lesser achievements of good playwrights whose better stuff had been previously ignored.
Visiting the production a few weeks later, I was glad that I had read the script first. Watching it cold might have made me register a dissent. It's not that George C. Wolfe's production—a transfer from the Public Theater downtown to the Ambassador Theater on Broadway—is lacking in power or imagination. It has a lot of both, plus a syncopated dissonant rhythm that makes it sound like the theatrical equivalent of the modern jazz that Wolfe uses for scene transitions. What the evening often lacks is comprehensibility.
One of the two actors, Jeffrey Wright, gives a truly brilliant performance—subtle, focused, deep, truthful....
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Basting, Anne Davis. Review of Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Theatre Journal 49, no. 2 (May 1997): 223-25.
Provides a brief synopsis of Venus and expounds on the play's themes of captivity, desire, voyeurism, and the immediacy of the past.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Aroun the Worl’: The Signifyin(g) Theater of Suzan-Lori Parks.” In The Theatrical Gamut: Notes for a Post-Beckettian Stage, edited by Enoch Brater, pp. 189-208. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Focuses on Parks's use of language and symbolism to remediate historical inaccuracies and voids.
Bernard, Louise. “The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.” African American Review 31, no. 4 (winter 1997): 687-98.
Examines Parks's attempt in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World to reclaim and remember true African-American history and culture without European interference. Bernard particularly centers on Parks's use of African-American dialects and the influence of jazz and blues on the movement of the play.
Bryant, Aaron. “Broadway, Her Way.” Crisis 109, no. 2 (March-April 2002): 43-5.
Provides a brief biographical sketch of Parks and an...
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