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.”