We don’t have much time. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and I have been talking for 10 minutes, and the batteries suddenly run down on my tape recorder. She has to get back to the Public Theater to give notes before a run-through of her new play, In the Blood.
Originally titled Fucking A, her riff on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter hits the stage on November 2, directed by David Esbjornson. When I press playback, our discussion of her background sounds something like this: “[Fast tape like chipmunk chatter]… born in Kentucky… [extra slow voice]… Dad… [unintelligible]… military so we traveled around a lot… [chipmunks]… Germany for four years… [tape speedfluctuating, making voice unstable]… went to Mount Holyoke… English and German literature… [chipmunks]… hung out in London… [unintelligible]… then I came to New York… [chipmunks].”
The mechanical problem seems appropriate to the playwright, whose linguistic and historical rejiggerings have produced modern avant-garde Obie-chow such as The America Play (1993) and Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990). Like the warped sounds on my tape player, a Suzan-Lori Parks play changes the shape of history and squeezes elusive new meanings from it.
Fortunately, we’re just outside the Astor Place Kmart, and Parks has some ghetto-fied inspiration. “Let’s just open a pack of batteries and use them, walk around and talk, and pay for them on the way out,” she insists. I have a question for Parks, something about abstraction, Black artists, and freedom, but I can’t quite spit it out. Whether she knows it or not, Parks belongs to a group of young, intellectual New New Negroes (too antisocial to call a “movement”)-including artists Fred Wilson, Glen Ligon, and Kara Walker, playwright Robert O’Hara, and performer Nancy Giles, among others-who flip stereotypes into tragicomic jokes about oppression and/or slavery, ironically claiming and rewiring all those ridiculous yet pervasive myths about Black people.
This group’s peculiar, mischief-making spirit-especially Parks’s comically twisted characters-somehow echoes the Mannerists, who gleefully took the piss out of High Renaissance pomposity by painting long-necked Madonnas and distorted harpies. Parks’s the Foundling Father (from The America Play) is a Lincoln-impersonating brother who makes his living by reenacting the President’s assassination for paying customers. In The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1992), characters with names like “Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork” and “Old Man River Jordan” gossip about the extinction of African American men in explosive, ontologically hysteric exaggerations of Black English. “Where’s he gonna go come to now that he gonna go gone on?” cries one of them. Parks, with humor and insight, wriggles free of political straitjackets and thumbs her nose at real racisms, too. But what I really want to hear her explain is, What makes that shit so funny when it shouldn’t be?
Parks, all doe eyes and dreadlocks, won’t sit down. “I have to cruise,” she says. “It’s relaxing.” So I trail her through the upper floor of the department store (housewares, men’s clothing) as she speaks in very shamanistic terms about her writing process. “I’m one of those writers who develops the piece long before developing the vocabulary with which to discuss it,” she tells me. “My plays are much larger and more intelligent than I am. If I can reach out my hand like this, that’s the limit of my physical grasp. The knowledge that is inside my plays can reach miles, hundreds of thousands of miles.”
Though it seems high-concept to use Hawthorne’s classic as a stepping-stone for the tale of Hester La Negrita, a black woman on welfare with five children of varying parentage, Parks insists it wasn’t that simple. Naturally, the play began as a joke. In fact, it reads like a long, disjointed Richard Pryor routine, equal parts hilarity and social criticism. “I was rowing a canoe with a friend, and I said, ‘I’m going to write a play called Fucking A,’ ” Parks confesses. “Ha ha ha, we laughed. We got back to shore, and I thought, ‘Not a bad idea.’ It was not, ‘Oh, let’s see what happens when we modernize Hawthorne and blah blah blah.’ Jung would say that there are no mistakes, that my subconscious was saying, ‘What would happen if you did something with The Scarlet Letter?’ But I didn’t even know I was thinking it.” (The importance of the canoe goes unexplained.)
“I had trouble writing the play at first,” Parks says. “At one point, I decided to change all the characters’ names and cut Hester out. I’m like, ‘Yo, bitch, you’re outta here. You’re standing in my way.’ I cut her and pushed her off to the left. Dangerous, dangerous. ‘Cause that’s where the Foundling Father appeared from, from the left. But I thought, ‘Now I’m free, I can go about writing my Fucking A.’ Then Hester said, ‘So what about the play I’m in?’ and I’m like, ‘Bitch, you’re not in a play.’ And she said, ‘Oh yes I am!’ Then it was like, bleahugh! In the Blood was my alien baby, because it leapt out of my chest, you know-the writing of it was that strong, painful, and scary.”
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.