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” the characters as part of the workshop, and Baldwin, who recognized her talent for dialogue and the dramatic, suggested that she try her hand at writing for the stage. She paid attention to his suggestion.
With his advice in mind, she completed her first play, The Sinner’s Place (pr. 1984), during her senior year at Mount Holyoke. Even though The Sinner’s Place earned her honors within the department of English, the theater department refused to stage it partly because the play required actual digging on stage, the directors saying, “You can’t put dirt on stage! That’s not a play!” In a 1996 interview, Parks referred to her initial effort as “only a first try at writing” and that the play “had all the things in it that I’m obsessed with now. Like memory and family and history and the past . . . a lot of dirt on stage which was being dug at.” The Mount Holyoke experience was modified a bit when Mary McHenry of the English department gave the budding playwright a copy of Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (pr. 1962). This play, along with the work of Ntozake Shange, informed Parks of the possibilities of the stage to tell the kinds of stories that she held in her head. With Kennedy, Shange, and Samuel Beckett informing her work, along with fiction writers...
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William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, she determined that she could do anything she wanted with language, character, and plot. In a 1995 interview, she said, “I’m fascinated with what they were allowed to do, I guess. What Joyce allowed himself to do, what Beckett allowed himself to do, and Woolf . . . what they got away with.” Following her Mount Holyoke undergraduate training, Parks traveled to London, where she studied acting for a year, and returned to the United States to study briefly at the Yale School of Drama.
While at Yale, Parks met Liz Diamond, a director who has since worked as a close collaborator. At age twenty-eight, her second play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, was produced in 1989 in Brooklyn by BACA Downtown and not only received an Obie Award but also drew the attention of theater critic Mel Gussow of The New York Times; he called her “the year’s most promising playwright.” Following this success, she worked briefly at the Yale Repertory, which produced three of her plays, before she moved on to the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theatre, which produced her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Topdog/Underdog in 2001.
From the stage, she turned her attention to film, writing Girl 6 (1996) for Spike Lee and an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1998 novel Paradise for Harpo, Oprah Winfrey’s production company. In 2003, she published her first novel, Getting Mother’s Body, adding yet another phase to her developing career. In 2001, she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, firmly establishing her as one of the premier American writers. Before his death in 1987, Baldwin referred to Parks as “an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.”
In 2005, she lived in Venice Beach, California, with her husband, musician Paul Oscher, and taught at the California Institute for the Arts.