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Innovative and sometimes controversial, Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the most highly acclaimed African American playwrights working in contemporary theater. Her use of ”rep & rev” (repetition and revision) to re-examine and reconfigure historical episodes is lauded for providing an ”Afrocentric” history and identity—elements that are largely missing from the ”Eurocentric” historical record. Often depicting and exaggerating black stereotypes, Parks draws attention to their invalidity and the ignorance upon which they are based. In 2002, she became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for her play Topdog/Underdog (2001).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1964, the daughter of Donald and Francis Parks. At the time of her birth, the United States was becoming more deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Vietnam had been divided into a Communist North and noncommunist South in the mid-1950s, but Communist efforts to gain control over all of Vietnam continued. In the early 1960s, the United States began to provide military aid to South Vietnam, hoping to stop the spread of communism. Though unpopular, the war in Vietnam continued until the early 1970s. Approximately 58,000 American soldiers and over two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were lost in the conflict.
Parks began writing at an early age, but because Parks’s father was then an officer in the U.S. Army, the family moved frequently in her childhood. She lived in six different states before moving to Germany. There, she attended a German public high school. Parks credited her European experience with giving her a different, valuable perspective on her identity. For the first time in her life, she was identified as an American, not an African American.
Encouraged to Write Plays
After graduating from high school, Parks entered Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she studied under the celebrated author, James Baldwin. Baldwin appreciated Parks’s talent and encouraged her to begin writing 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 the play called for the stage to be covered in dirt. The drama department refused to accommodate the request.
Parks earned her B.A. in German and English from Mount Holyoke in 1985, then briefly studied acting at the Drama Studio in London before moving to New York City, where she worked as a legal assistant. She wrote two more plays, Betting on the Dust Commander (1987) and Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989). The former focuses on family relations, upheaval, and movement, while the latter is a tetralogy of four short plays about African American identity. Imperceptible Mutabilities was produced Off-Broadway, winning an Obie Award and recognition of Parks as a significant up-and-coming playwright.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Parks continued to receive significant awards and honors. In 1989, she was given a National Endowments for the Arts grant. In 1990, Parks received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts grantee and the Rockefeller Foundation, and she wrote her first screenplay, the short Anemone Me (1990). She also continued to produce original plays, including The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990) and The America Play (1993). Parks’s play, Venus (1996), based on the life of Saartjie Baartman, won the playwright her second Obie Award. That same year, Spike Lee directed her screenplay Girl 6.
As the century turned, Parks was again honored with major fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 2000 and a MacArthur Foundation ”genius grant” in 2001. Her plays were also innovative as she explored Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) in two plays, In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000). Parks’s play, Topdog/Underdog(2001), focuses on two brothers who struggle to succeed in life. In 2002, the play was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Wrote First Novel
While Parks was reaching the pinnacle of her career, she and other Americans were dealing with a devastating act of terrorism in the United States. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked a number of commercial airliners, and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people lost their lives in the attacks and unsettled American society in the years following the event.
In 2003, Parks moved to a new genre, publishing her first novel, Getting Mother’s Body. Well-received by critics, it is set in West Texas, where she spent part of her youth. The novel focuses on a sixteen-year-old girl named Billy Beede. When she finds herself pregnant by an older, married man, she decides she needs to raise enough money to have an abortion. To do so, she enlists the help of an aunt and an uncle, then travels to Arizona to dig up her late mother’s body and retrieve the jewelry with which she was reportedly buried.
Two years later, Parks co-wrote the script for a television movie, the adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which aired on ABC. In 2007, she co-wrote the screenplay for the film, The Great Debaters and wrote the musical, Ray Charles Live!, which debuted at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007. In 2008, Parks became writer-in-residence at the Public Theater in New York, and began a stint as a visiting professor at New York University. She also continued to write plays, screenplays, and novels.
Works in Literary Context
As a playwright, Parks is known for her wildly experimental plays that featured linguistically creative dialogue and provocative, historically-based subject matter. Her plays are often noted for their originality, non-linear progression of time, poetic dialogue, political and social agendas, and depiction of the search for identity. She employs 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. Parks’s lyrical, creative dialogue is often compared to jazz and hip-hop. As a writer, Parks was influenced by her mentor, James Baldwin; other authors, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner; and her experiences as an African American woman, both in the United State and abroad.
African American Identity
Throughout her plays, Parks often touches on issues related to African American identity. She explores such subjects as the loss of identity, the creation of new identities, and what identity really means. The Third Kingdom, a short play included in Imperceptible Mutabilities, re-enacts the Middle Passage from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean, 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 another short play that makes up Imperceptible Mutabilities, Open House, a former slave named Blanca is dying, and her memories are being stolen from her—symbolized by continuous tooth extracations—linking her loss with African Americans’ loss of culture, identity and voice. Her fourth play, The Death of the Last Black Manin the Whole Entire World, centers on the character, Black Man with Watermelon, who 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. The characters in The America Play are also searching for clues to their identities. The wife and son of the main character, Foundling Father, dig in the sand around ”the great hole of history” for clues to the truth about issues like identity. The objects they uncover suggest that many accepted truths are, in fact, lies and distortions based on perception.
Use and Abuse of Women
In a number of Parks’s plays, she depicts the use, abuse, and degradation of women—primarily African American—and how they subvert and overcome this circumstance. While some of these women are objectified and have their humanity stripped away, a few turn the tables. In Snails, one of the short plays in Imperceptible Mutabilities, 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. While Open House is primarily about African-American identity, Parks uses a female protagonist, Blanca, who undergoes much pain to symbolize this loss. More concretely, the focus of Venus is a real-life woman who was used by European society. In reality, Saartjie Baartman was an African brought to Europe during the Victorian era and put on display as Venus Hottentot because of her African physical features. In the play, Parks rewrites history, refusing to let Baartman be a docile pawn in her own life. She makes Baartman an accomplice in her fame and destiny as Venus becomes a willing participant, and receives financial rewards for her work. Baartman uses her African “otherness” to obtain wealth and love. In both In the Blood and Fucking A, Parks explores ideas about women brought up in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which focuses on the condemned Hester Prynne. In In the Blood, Parks’s Hester is a woman who lives under an overpass with her five multi-ethnic illegitimate children. Hester is abandoned and ill-treated by society and her lovers, and her story ends tragically.
Works in Critical Context
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. Reviewers often applaud Parks 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 has also been praised. Parks’s history-heavy work has been called provocative, demanding, challenging, controversial, experimental, and avant-garde.
Like many of her plays, Parks’s Topdog/Underdog was well-received in both its Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Iris Fanger called the play ”a cross between a hip-hop riff and a Greek tragedy; as entertaining as the former and as gripping as the latter.” Ben Brantley of the New York Times hails Topdog/Underdog as a ”dizzying spin” on the Cain and Abel story. In the play, Brantley wrote, ”Brotherly love and hatred is translated into the terms of men who have known betrayal since their youth . . . and who will never be able to entirely trust anyone, including (and especially) each other.” In the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Hurwitt concluded, ”As an almost naturalistic, two-character one-set drama of wounded sibling rivalry, Topdoglooks pretty conventional compared with the fractured plots and poetically complex language of Parks’s earlier works. But the complex interweaving of social, imagistic and emotional metaphor beneath its surface makes Topdog as richly provocative as it is undeniably powerful.”
Getting Mother’s Body
Parks’s first novel, Getting Mother’s Body, was generally as acclaimed as her plays. Publishers Weekly praised the novel’s ”easy grace and infectious rhythms.” Karen Valby in Entertainment Weekly noted, ”A master of pitch and mood, Parks occasionally veers off her novelistic course. Her story struggles a bit to find its stride; for all the brilliant scenes, the connective tissue sometimes lacks thrust.” But Beth Kephart in Book found that ”there’s jazz and spunk in the writing here, tremendous humor that ultimately yields to tenderness.” Booklists, Vanessa Bush concluded that ”Parks offers a collection of exuberantly loony characters, longing for better lives and a means of realizing their meager dreams. ‘ ‘
- Geis, Deborah R. Suzan-Lori Parks. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
- Brantley, Ben. ”Not to Worry Mr. Lincoln, It ‘ s Just a Con Game. ‘ ‘ New York Times (April 19, 2002): B2.
- Bush, Vanessa. Review of Getting Mother’s Body. Booklist (May 1, 2003): 1581.
- Fanger, Iris. Review of Topdog/Underdog. Christian Science Monitor (April 12, 2002).
- Frieze, James. ”Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom: Suzan-Lori Parks and the Shared Struggle to Perceive. ‘ ‘ Modern Drama (1998): 523-532.
- Hurwitt, Robert. ”TopdogIs Worthy of Pultizer. San Francisco Chronicle (April 9, 2002): D1.
- Kephart, Beth. Review of Getting Mother’s Body. Book (May-June 2003): 44.
- Review of Getting Mother’s Body. Publishers Weekly (May 19, 2003): 54.
- Smith, Wendy. ”Words as Crossroad: Suzan-Lori Parks. Publishers Weekly (May 12, 2003): 37.
- Solomon, Alisa. ”To Be Young, Gifted, and African American. ” Village Voice(September11, 1989): 99-102.
- Valby, Karen. ”Drawl She Wrote: In Her Debut Novel about a Downtrodden Texas Family, Suzan-Lori Parks Spins Dialogue into Gritty Poetry. Entertainment Weekly (May 9, 2003): 80.
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