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.