Compiled by John Michael Verrall
“Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to ‘make’ history – that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, disremembered, washed out, one of my tasks as a playwright is to – through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life – locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.” -Parks, “Possession”
By fusing events, texts, and accounts from recorded history with the imagined voices of neglected ancestors, Parks attempts to rewrite history as we know it.
“their song is a play – something that through production actually happens – I’m working theatre like an incubator to create ‘new’ historical events. I’m re-membering and staging historical events which, through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history. Theatre is an incubator for the creation of historical events – and, as in the case of artificial insemination, the baby is no less human.” -Parks, “Possession”
Parks hopes that her re-remembrance of historical events can inform conventionally accepted forms of history. One particularity of her work is her incorporation of extremely detailed endnotes throughout The America Play. In doing so, she both acknowledges and challenges conventional forms of historical scholarship. They also act as a call to the reader/actor/designer/director to investigate her source documents through the lens of her play.
“The more I think about plays, I think plays are about space. Plays are about space to me… I think that one of the things that led me to writing plays is the understanding I have inside about space, because I moved around so much when I was younger. And I think somehow that sort of helped along the process. Maybe it’s just the pageant of people through my life. You know, all the strange people not connected to any one backdrop.”
Space figures heavily in The America Play. The replica of the Great Hole of History in which the play takes place is an abstract invention that seems to represent the space enveloping the experiences of the forgotten throughout American history. Moving often as a child gave Parks a nuanced understanding of spaces that allows her to imagine them divorced from conventional environments and reincorporated into a dreamscape.
“Sometimes if you have nothing else to balance you, you have to create a surface like a painter would. A surface on which you can build the foundation of the play. Some people use an idea, which I think is a false surface… [Music is] a kind of structure, so it sort of creates a surface. That is why I steal from them all. I do. I steal a lot from those musicians because they have a great structure.” (317)
The rhythm and musicality of Parks’ work is demonstrated by the structure and content of The America Play. Repetition complicates the reader and viewer’s understanding of the lines when studied in relation to surrounding text, inspiring further study and consideration. Even the stage directions (particularly the inclusion of the “[Rest]” or Pause throughout the play) highlight the effects of music on her writing.
“Why does everyone think that white artists make art and black artists make statements?”
John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” the song Parks credited with helping her complete her play Venus:
Parks, Susan-Lori. Interview by Shelby Jiggetts. “Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks.” Callaloo 19.2 (1996): 309-317
Larson, Jennifer. Understanding Suzan-Lori Parks. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1-8. Print.