Funnyhouse of a Negro

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks Goes Hawthorne with 'In the Blood'

The more she speaks of the intuitive nature of her process, the less justified I feel asking my burning question. "What is it about abstraction?" is as articulate as I get, adding that the query has something to do with the perception that abstraction in art is seen as white territory, since Black artists are under so much pressure from both the living and the dead to include "uplifting" content in their work. (The paradox being that white abstract artists took their inspiration from African art.) Parks slam-dunks me with this one: "I have never tried to 'use' abstraction. People actually ask me if I write 'regular' and then 'jazz it up'-it's ridiculous." Dag. I ain't never gon' get nowheres with that approach.

Finally, as the 24-second clock runs out, I metaphorically steal the ball from her team and chuck a Hail Mary. "Why is it so goddamn funny to blackify whiteness?" I ask. "For example, artist Robert Colescott painted a mural called George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware. I think that's hilarious. Or in your work, there's the Foundling Father, or Hester La Negrita herself. Is it just funny because I know I'm not supposed to laugh? What is that?"

Parks takes a pause and a deep breath. "The America Play is as funny as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware because on one hand we're erasing a historical moment, and on the other hand we're fucking with it. Both of those together, not just fucking with it, not just saying, 'I denounce this moment, and American culture.' We're saying, 'Let's play!' It's like when Black folks-or any folks-play with language. There's a great joy in it. You embrace your American English, and yet you fiddle with it. It's fun. Yeah, it's fun! There's also a little bit of sadness in it because of all the other things. But it's basically funny in a very deep and profound way that makes you think about 9 million things. As you fuck with it, it fucks back. But it's not just painful or meaningful. People reduce it, people forget how much fucking fun we're having. It's not all about pain-by saying it's all about pain we deny ourselves the pleasure. By saying it's all about a certain group pushing down another certain group, we deny ourselves an existence that occurs without the presence of any other group."

I glance nervously at the tape recorder. It's still running. And without distortion, flutter, or chipmunks. On the way out, she reminds me to pay for the batteries.

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