Suzan-Lori Parks has spent much of her life occupying liminal spaces. Her father, Donald Parks, was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and often moved the family from base to base. Parks lived in several places throughout her childhood, including Fort Knox, Kentucky (her birthplace) and West Germany, where she spent her junior high school years. Living abroad was a formative experience for her, giving her the distance needed to reassess her identity as an African American woman. “‘In Germany,’ she told an interviewer in 1993, ‘I wasn’t a black person, strictly speaking. I was an American who didn’t speak the language. I was a foreigner’” (Garrett). Because she had difficulty spelling, her high-school English teacher advised her to stop writing and study something else in college.
Parks attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. She intended to study chemistry, but would soon change her plans. She took a course on creative writing led by James Baldwin. Baldwin was a prolific African American author who has written a number of influential novels and essays on subjects related to black identity. He was very active during the Civil Rights Movement, befriending and collaborating with such social justice titans as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Baldwin was a vocal advocate for equality and social justice until his death in 1987. She credits his class with inspiring her to begin writing plays.
As she was writing a story called “The Wedding Pig,” she felt as if the characters she was writing about were “standing right behind me, talking. Not telling the story, but acting it out-doing it. It was not me” (Garrett). From then on, all of her stories and plays would be driven by the voices of her characters. In Baldwin’s class, she wrote stories that were meant to be read aloud, and would perform them during each workshop. It was Baldwin who first encouraged Parks to write plays. Shortly thereafter she wrote her first play, The Sinner’s Place, which was awarded honors by the English department and paradoxically snubbed by the theatre department due to its unusual structure and subject matter. Parks later said that it “had all of the things in it that I’m obsessed with now. Like memory and family and history and the past” (Garrett). This fascination with reanimating historical events and reshaping them to include marginalized narratives would soon inspire her to write Imperceptible Mutabilities, and later on, The America Play.
Imperceptible Mutabilities premiered at the baca Downtown Theatre in 1989. The play explored themes relating to black life from slavery to the present. It was her avenue to greater notoriety, and she was subsequently presented the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 1990. She went on to write The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World in 1990, another play that tackled the subject of race in America in a novel and unapologetic light. The America Play premiered in 1994, a product of both her life experiences and her need to incorporate the lost voices of history in her plays.
In subsequent years, Parks went on to write variety of plays including Venus (1996), In the Blood (1999), Fucking A (2000), and Topdog/Underdog, the last of these earning her a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002 (the first African American to do so). Topdog/Underdog incorporated many of the same themes of The America Play, especially identity and race in American society. She also wrote a series of plays for each day of the year, 365 Days/365 Plays (2006-2007), as well as her first novel Getting Mother’s Body (2003) and multiple screenplays.
For Parks’ livestream episode of Watch Me Work in the lobby of The Public Theater in New York, please click on the link below:
For “The Topdog Diaries”, a documentary about the conception of Topdog/Underdog, please watch the video below:
Als, Hilton. “The Show-Woman.” New Yorker. 30 Oct 2006: n. page. Web. 3 Mar. 2014. <http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/30/061030fa_fact2?currentPage=all>.
Larson, Jennifer. Understanding Suzan-Lori Parks. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1-8. Print.
Shawn-Marie Garrett. “The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks.” American Theatre 17.8 (2000): 22-26+. ProQuest. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
By John Michael Verrall