“I say you’re either part of the problem or part of the power — what do you want to be?” asserts Suzan-Lori Parks. “Art is a force for cultural change.”
The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright has recently returned to New York from London, where she was rehearsing Father Comes Home From the Wars, her Civil War drama inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. Now she sits at a table at her favorite Greenwich Village diner, coffee cup in hand, paused mid-sentence. The pause doesn’t last long. It’s one of many throughout our conversation, each like a rest between musical phrases. When she continues, it’s to clarify her point: “But it’s a big culture and a lot of things need work.”
Like culture and its problems, Parks’s plays, which have been staged professionally since at least the late Eighties, resist easy categorization. They are at once explicitly political and psychologically complex. Consider The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, which opens in revival October 25 at the Signature Theatre, where Parks is this season’s Residency One Playwright, an honor previously bestowed upon David Henry Hwang, Sam Shepard, Paula Vogel, and August Wilson. Racially provocative, the play assails stereotypes: Two hyper-symbolic leads — Black Man With Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick — experience multiple deaths over the course of centuries, revealing how African-American history has been contorted, oversimplified, or left completely out of America’s historical narratives. Its rapid dialogue between characters — eleven in all — sounds more like scatting than conversation as it coheres into a helix of half-words and jazz-tinged utterances:
Black Woman: How uhbout uh hen leg?
Black Man: Nothanks. Justate.
Black Woman: Just ate?
Black Man: Thatsright. 6 by 6 by 6 Thatsright.
When the play premiered at BACA Downtown in 1990, the set featured gravestones and a large watermelon that Black Man would pick up and polish like a boot. Parks eagerly explores images that other playwrights steer clear of.
Set to a score that draws from jazz and African motifs, the play is also an intimate tale of grief and mourning, an examination of how music and storytelling can be used to form cathartic reconnections with one’s past. Frequently, Black Man’s memories (“I jumped in thuh river without uh word. My kin are soppin wet”) are picked up and elaborated on by others (All: “Thuh river was roun as thuh worl was. Roun”). In these moments it’s as if they share a hope that their recollections might make known, if only for a moment, a wisp of their ancestors’ unrecorded history.
In 2016 in particular, these themes of connection still resonate. “It’s actually a great time in our culture,” says Parks. “We’re asking ourselves what we mean to each other. And, yeah, sometimes the answer is ‘you’re nobody.’ There are people getting shot in the street for doing absolutely fucking nothing, while other people who are deemed more promising are getting slapped on the wrist for committing a horrible crime. So we’re dealing with stuff, but [at least] we’re asking questions.”
Though Parks acknowledges that her plays speak to America’s present-day race problems, she’s wary of her work being reduced to a thesis statement. “Some writers choose an issue, paint it all one color,” she says, “and that’s fucking boring.” She also argues that such simplistic messages give a false representation of what life is actually like. “It’s true that African-American history has moments of tragedy and contention. But if you slow it down, you find this field of possibility where all things can happen.”
Parks’s ability to perceive life’s complexities has certainly contributed to her success as a dramatist — critics have long praised her plays for their layers of meaning and genre-crossing structures. But that success may also be rooted in received wisdom from her father. Born at Fort Knox in Kentucky, Parks was told repeatedly to “work your luck,” a mantra meant to remind her that good things happen to people who work hard for them. It’s a mantra, she says, that helped her father, a black man who came of age in the segregated 1940s and ’50s, build a successful career in the Army.
As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, Parks found her hard work earning the attention of James Baldwin, who was teaching there at the time. He read her stories and encouraged her to become a playwright. Two years after graduating in 1985, she staged her first professional play in New York City. Four years later, she won her first Obie, for Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Kingdom, a poetic condemnation of the culture’s leering fascination with black bodies. Four years after that she won her second, for Venus, which premiered at the Public Theater in 1996.
Parks has maintained her relationship with the Public ever since. In 2001, the downtown theater staged Topdog/Underdog, about two African-American brothers named Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth; the play won her the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making her the first African-American woman to receive that award. Today, she serves as the Public’s Master Writer Chair and stages free performances at the theater called Watch Me Work, in which Parks sits at a table in front of an audience while she works on her latest writing project. Audience members are encouraged to bring writing projects of their own to create a shared work space. At the end of each performance/writing session, Parks spends fifteen minutes answering audience members’ questions about her approach to writing and art more generally. She likes to discuss, too, the relation between audiences and what they witness on the stage.
Parks acknowledges that Watch Me Work irked critics when it premiered: “They were like, ‘Who does she think she is?’ ” But the critical blowback has had little effect on her willingness to continue: She’ll revive the project this fall, and most likely, audiences will continue to join her. It’s become something of a master class for those in attendance.
Part of the instructive power of theater, says Parks, is a function of its geometry. “When a child is small, so much of what they understand of the world is received through information given to them by their primary caregivers,” she explains. “And they receive that information by looking up at them at this angle.” She puts down her coffee cup and tilts her hand to roughly forty-five degrees. “That angle is powerful; it shapes our world. It becomes the basis of our belief system. Now, when you sit in most theaters and look up at the stage, it’s at a similar angle. The people onstage are telling you how the world is, and it’s important to provide opportunities for people to see themselves reflected.”
The act of looking is especially complicated in Venus, the second of her plays to be produced by the Signature this season. Premiering April 25, it’s based on the tragic, true-life story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, a black woman living in nineteenth-century South Africa who was lured to England and forced to exhibit her naked body in a freak show. One of its most fascinating scenes runs through intermission. The house lights come up, and a character called Baron Docteur encourages the audience to leave before he conducts an excruciating analysis of Sarah’s body.
As I ask the playwright about this moment, a waiter with musical notes tattooed around his forearm stops to ask if we’d like more coffee. Parks eyes his ink: “Hey man, are you a musician?” He nods, saying that he plays the guitar but isn’t very good. “But you’re getting better all the time, right?” she asks. He smiles and nods enthusiastically before walking away. When she turns back to me, she’s smiling too. “Here’s the thing,” she says. “I don’t confine my [political] activities to my work. I make sure each interaction is part of [my] political statement — I’m going to treat everyone with kindness.” Her answer is indirect, but then so are her plays.
It seems there are infinite opportunities for Parks to demonstrate kindness to others, or at least to create new art with them. When I ask about future projects, she lists jamming with her band, Sula and the Noise, whose music she describes as “urban folk” (and who will play September 19 at the Signature launch party), and writing a script for a new show on Amazon. (She worked on the adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for ABC in 2005.) I offer that it must be difficult to manage so many projects at once, but she brushes my concern away with a wave. “I’m just glad that I can employ people and give [audiences] some things to think about for a few minutes,” she says. She falls into one of those pauses. And then: “Or maybe even for a long time.”