The Art of Theater No. 18
There are few living writers—and fewer playwrights—as celebrated, cited, and studied as Suzan-Lori Parks. In three decades, Parks has become a staple of both the American theater and university syllabi, with a body of work that includes nineteen works for the stage— including a reboot of Porgy and Bess and a cycle of 365 short plays—widely read essays on style and form, three films, a novel, and a TV series inspired by the life of Aretha Franklin. She has received any number of honors and recognitions, including the MacArthur Fellowship and the Windham Campbell Prize. In 2002, she was the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for her play Topdog/Underdog (2001).
Parks was born in 1963 in Fort Knox, Kentucky, the second of three children. Her family, guided by her father’s military career, moved frequently, perhaps most consequentially to West Germany, where she spent four formative years and became fluent in the language. This bilingualism may be why she’s always lived at such an innovative and interesting remove from language itself, and perhaps also why she had a difficult time with spelling, which led a high school English teacher to dismiss her early dreams of becoming a writer. But Parks found the affirmation she needed at Mount Holyoke College, where she abandoned a major in chemistry for a life in letters at the encouragement of English scholar and critic Leah B. Glasser. Initially insecure and uncertain about the right form for her—fiction, poetry, songwriting—she was nudged toward the theater by none other than James Baldwin.
From essentially the outset of her career, Parks has been feted as a genius of the form. After a brief but interesting apprenticeship fashioning short works in “the bars and the basements” of late-eighties downtown New York, she broke onto the scene with Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989). A wild, epic, genre-scrambling fantasia on themes of Blackness, Americanness, history, surveillance, language, and family, her first full-length play went on to win an Obie Award (she has now received four). This work, coupled with her next play, Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990), heralded the arrival of a critical new voice in theater and cleared the ground for new themes and modes of expression on the stage. Parks’s innovative deployments of dramatic techniques find inspiration in the Modernism of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, the jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and the experiments of the off-off-Broadway pioneers Sam Shepard, María Irene Fornés, and Adrienne Kennedy; with these eclectic forebears she has staked new claims for artists of all colors and shapes to embrace multiple aesthetic legacies of radical work regardless of so-called gender, racial, and ethnic boundaries.
This interview, much like a Suzan-Lori Parks play, moved through many forms across the span of years: a jovial breakfast at a French bistro near her home, only a table over from her husband, Christian, and their young son, Durham; a more formal back-and-forth at a palatial studio in the Park Avenue Armory; and finally, in the throes of the pandemic, a couple of dishy gabs over “the Zooms.” Throughout it all, her generosity never waned.
A Broadway director once described Parks to me as “kind of our version of a rock star,” and in person she comes across as just that—ageless, wise, confident in her gifts, and strikingly free in her sense of self. Our conversations moved pleasantly between stretches of excited playfulness and wistful revelation, when it seemed that even she was cracking open some long-neglected chest of memories for the first time in a while. Parks claims that her creative process has always been more about listening than speaking, but more often than not this interviewer found himself struck by the ease with which she could toss off a casually elaborate metaphor in the moment or the speed at which she could turn a thought or idea into a better version of itself. Her mind is ever open but always, it seems, at work.
What’s your relationship to the finished “product” when you’re working? Is it—the play or whatever—a thing you’re building in real time, or do you feel that the thing is already in there and your job is clearing away dirt?
It’s like what “Michelangelo” said, right? He’s working with the marble and taking away everything that’s not the sculpture.
Everything that’s not David.
Right. And let’s put Michelangelo in quotes, ’cause was he really the one who actually said that? But, anyway, the idea still holds. I feel that whatever I’m writing exists already. Maybe that’s because of a glitch in the space-time continuum and when I write I’m actually putting my living self behind the present moment in time. Like I’m following something through the woods. Eyes open. Ears open. Heart open. And I’m following a path that is sometimes behind me. Now I’m sounding like one of my characters. That’s what the Foundling Father as Abraham Lincoln in The America Play (1993) is talking about. He’s following in the footsteps of someone who is behind him. There is a strange relationship between writing and history and time, and I don’t think it is what we think it is. Or how we perceive it. There’s more to it.