In 2001, Suzan-Lori Parks was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation as a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called genius award). Topdog/Underdog was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in drama, making Parks the first African American woman to be so honored. Her work continues to place her at the forefront of the American theater, as she continues to develop haunting plays for the stage.
Parks in Topdog/Underdog tells her most linear story in a traditional way. In her earlier work—including Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (pr. 1989, pb. 1995) and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (pr., pb. 1990)—she explodes dramatic traditions. The tradition of providing a play with a beginning, middle, and end makes its way into her later works, such as In the Blood (pr. 1999, pb. 2000) and Fucking A (pr. 2000, pb. 2001), and is firmly realized in Topdog/Underdog. In her essay “Elements of Style” (1995), Parks writes I don’t explode the form because I find traditional plays “boring”—I don’t really. It’s just that those structures never could accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me.
Even though Lincoln, the older brother and so-called topdog, bears a connection to The Founding Father in The America Play (pr. 1993, pb. 1995), in that both are presidential impersonators at a side show, the resemblance goes no further than the choice of career. Lincoln is a fully realized human being, not a vestige or emblem. By the same token, Booth bears some resemblance to Monster, Hester’s illegitimate son in Fucking A, but Parks’s “underdog” perpetrates evil actions because he is far too human, rather than a monster who defies all humanity. It is logical, then, for Topdog/Underdog to take a more traditional form than Parks’s earlier works.
Thus, Parks in this play moved away from her earlier experiments to explore the possibilities of traditional drama. However, in an interview included in the...
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