Suzan-Lori Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1963 (or by some accounts, 1964), the daughter of Donald and Frances Parks. Donald was a career army officer, and Frances was a university administrator and storyteller. Upon retirement from the service, Donald earned a doctorate and began a second career as a college professor.
The young Parks began writing novels at the age of five. The Parks family moved a great deal during her childhood as a result of her father’s army career. She lived in six states before the family was transferred to an army base in Germany. Regarding her life as “an army brat,” she says: “I’ve heard horrible stories about twelve-step groups for army people. But I had a great childhood. My parents were really into experiencing the places we lived.” She graduated high school in Germany, choosing to attend a traditional German school rather than the base high school provided by the American government. “In Germany,” she remarked during a 1993 interview, “I wasn’t a black person, strictly speaking. I was an American who didn’t speak the language. I was a foreigner.” Parks notes that spending time in a different country had an impact on her as a writer. In a 1996 essay in Grand Street magazine, she wrote, “Places far away like Timbuktu, like France, like Africa, they draw us out like dreams. The far-away provides a necessary distance, a new point of reference, a place for perspective.” In a way, spending her adolescent years abroad helped prepare her for a United States, which, during the 1990’s and beyond, has become both intrigued and confused by the concepts of multiculturalism.
In 1985, she received her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College with majors in English and German. While at Mount Holyoke, she wrote a short story called “The Wedding Pig” for a class she was taking with author James Baldwin. While preparing the story for class, she realized that the people from the story were with her, “not telling the story, but acting it out—doing it. It was not me, 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.” She “performed”...
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One of Suzan-Lori Parks’s distinguishing features is her unique approach to capturing “black English.” Brustein, in his essay “What Do Women Playwrights Want?” writes,Parks deconstructs language as a means of establishing the place of blacks in recorded history . . . It is refreshing indeed to come upon an African American play that values poetry over realism.
The compilation of an impressive body of work before her fortieth birthday speaks well for the future not only of Suzan-Lori Parks but for the American theatrical scene as a whole. This writer and many others await with great anticipation Parks’s next spurt of creativity, whether it be for stage, page, or screen.
Suzan-Lori Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1963, the daughter of a career army officer. She spent her early childhood in several cities across the United States and lived in Germany, where she attended high school. She began writing short stories as a third grader and continued to focus on prose writing until her undergraduate years at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. There, she met the distinguished author and essayist James Baldwin, who recognized her gift for dialogue and suggested that she explore drama.
Parks wrote her first play, The Sinner’s Place, in 1984 as a student at Mount Holyoke. Though she earned an honors citation for her work, the college’s theater department refused to stage the play. Parks graduated with honors in 1985 and moved to London for a year to study acting. Betting on the Dust Commander, her first play to be produced in New York City, debuted in 1987. Two years later, Parks received an Obie Award for Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, and The New York Times named Parks the most promising playwright of 1989.
Following the successful production of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World at the Brooklyn Arts Council’s BACA Downtown Theatre in 1990, Parks produced her next two plays, Devotees in the Garden of Love and The America Play on smaller stages in Lexington, Kentucky, and Dallas, Texas,...
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