Parks, Suzan-Lori

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Suzan-Lori Parks

Personal

Born 1964, in Fort Knox, KY; daughter of Donald (a college professor) and Francis (a college administrator) Parks; married Paul Oscher (a blues musician), 2001. Education: Mount Holyoke College, B.A. (English and German), 1985.

Addresses

Agent—c/o Author Mail, Theatre Communications Group, 355 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017.

Career

Playwright. Guest lecturer, Pratt Institute, New York, NY, 1988, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1990, and Yale University, New Haven, CT, and New York University, both 1990 and 1991; playwriting professor, Eugene Lang College, New York, NY, 1990; writer-in-residence, New School for Social Research, New York, NY, 1991-92.

Awards, Honors

Mary E. Woolley fellowship, 1989; Naomi Kitay fellowship, 1989; grant, Rockefeller Foundation, 1990; grant, New York Foundation for the Arts, 1990; OBIE Award, Village Voice, 1990, for Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, and 1996, for Venus; National Endowment for the Arts Playwrighting Fellowship, 1990 and 1991; Whiting Foundation Writers Award, 1992; Ford Foundation, grant, 1995; Lila-Wallace Reader's Digest Award, 1995; CalArts/Alpert Award in Drama, 1996; PEN-Laura Pels Award for Excellence in Playwrighting, 2000; Guggenheim Fellowship, 2000; John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 2001; John Gassner Playwright Award, 2002; Pulitzer Prize for drama, 2002, for Topdog/Underdog.

Writings

The Sinner's Place (play), produced in Amherst, MA, 1984.

Betting on the Dust Commander (play; produced in New York, NY, 1987), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1990.

Greeks (play), produced in New York, NY, 1990.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole World (play), produced in New York, NY, 1990.

Anemone Me (film), 1990.

Pickling (radio play), 1990.

The Third Kingdom (radio play), 1990.

Locomotive (radio play), 1991.

Devotees in the Garden of Love (play), produced in Louisville, KY, 1991.

The America Play: And Other Works (The America Play produced in New York, NY, 1991), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1995.

Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (play), Sun and Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1995.

Girl 6 (film), 1996.

Venus (play), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1997.

In the Blood (play), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 2000.

Red Letter Plays, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2000.

Topdog/Underdog (play; produced at Joseph Papp Public Theatre, then on Broadway at Ambassador Theatre, New York City, 2002), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2002.

Getting Mother's Body (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2003.

Sidelights

Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002, becoming the first black female playwright to be awarded the prestigious award. After winning the prize, she told Angeli R. Rasbury on the Women's eNews Web site, "As the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize [for theater], I have to say I wish I was the 101st."

Plays by Parks include Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom and Topdog/Underdog. The latter play opened at the Off-Broadway theater Joseph Papp Public Theater and later moved to a Broadway house. It was for this play that Parks won the Pulitzer. It is also the first play with more than one actor by a black woman to run on Broadway since for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange opened in 1976.

A Military Childhood

Born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, Parks traveled a lot as a child; her father was a military officer and was stationed at different posts around the United States. She said of her childhood on the Web site of the publisher Bedford St. Martin's, "I've heard horrible stories about 12-step groups for army people. But I had a great childhood. My parents were really into experiencing the places we lived." She began writing at an early age, in the fourth grade writing a newspaper with her sister and brother called the Daily Daily, which they typed up in the attic of their house.

After living in a total of six states, Parks's family moved to Germany when Parks was in high school. She later described this as an important event in shaping her voice as a playwright. Since her parents enrolled her in the local German school system, rather than the school set up for the children of American military personnel, Parks had to learn German. This gave her a valuable perspective on her native language, English, that was to inform the dialogue she would later write for her plays.

Parks attended college at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she majored in both English and German. There, while a sophomore, Parks took a creative writing class taught by one of the United States's most highly regarded African-American authors, James Baldwin. Baldwin, after hearing Parks read her work, encouraged her to pursue writing plays as a profession. It was the first time that anyone had suggested that to her, and it was a major turning point in Parks's life. As she later described the event to People, the suggestion was "like a kiss on the forehead to ward off all evil." She later told the Christian Science Monitor's Iris Fanger, speaking of Baldwin, "He believed in me before I believed in me."

Parks wrote her first play before she left college. Called The Sinner's Place, it "was probably done in a basement room," Parks later told Rasbury of Women's eNews. Parks graduated from college in 1985 with Phi Beta Kappa and cum laude honors. She briefly moved to London, England, where she studied acting, and then relocated to the United States's theater capital, New York City. There, while working a day job as a legal assistant, she devoted most of her energies to writing plays.

Early Plays in New York

The next work that Parks had produced was a play called Betting on the Dust Commander. Produced in 1987 in a Brooklyn bar, the show had no budget, and even required Parks herself to purchase chairs for the minimalist set. Her second produced play, called Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, had a higher profile, and earned Parks recognition from the New York Times as the most promising playwright of the year. The play also earned Parks an OBIE award in 1990 for best Off-Broadway play. This play takes place in 1865 on the day that slaves in America were declared free, and it calls for black actors to perform the roles with their faces painted white.

In 1996, Parks again won an OBIE award, this time for her play Venus. Venus gives a fictional account of the true story of Saartji Baartman, a South African Khoi-San woman who was brought to Britain in 1810 and exhibited as a sideshow attraction as the "Venus Hottentot." Venus follows Baartman through her escape to Paris, France, where a doctor falls in love with her, and then makes plans to dissect her after her death. The play was produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival under the direction of Richard Foreman, one of New York's best-known avant-garde theater directors, and it was warmly received in the press.

Parks's work deals with, among other subjects, race relations in the United States, tapping historical figures and movements for added depth. Parks also considers the musicality of language, attempting to capture the English language as it is spoken on the street, giving it a stylistic spin to create a kind of spoken poetry. She told Fanger in the Christian Science Monitor, "I've been writing plays for 20 years, and I've been experimental in lots of different ways. My plays aren't stylistically the same. Just being an African-American woman playwright on Broadway is experimental. As far as I know, there [are] four of us: Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, and now me." Speaking of her play Topdog/Underdog, she added, "It's also experimental as a woman to write a play that just involves two men and to write it so well that people think a man wrote it."

Speaking of her work in American Theatre, critic Shawn-Marie Garrett said "Parks has dramatized some of the most painful aspects of the black experience: Middle Passage, slavery, urban poverty, institutionalized discrimination, racist ethnographies. Yet even as her plays summon up the brutality of the past, they do so in a manner that is, paradoxically, both horrific and comic—irresistibly or disrespectfully so, depending on your point of view."

Although her work often addresses the strained relations between black and white Americans, Parks has said that race is not the primary focus of her work. Speaking on the subject, Parks told Rasbury on the Women's eNews Web site, "The real jungle is the jungle within, just empowering [our]selves. It's not just about racism in the world. It's not the only battle that African-American people have to fight." Once African-Americans realize this, said Parks, "then we can go out into the world and fight…a better battle. But if we are just concentrating on what the white man is doing, that's pulling focus. We [have] got to focus on our own stuff in addition to him, but we really have to focus on our own stuff. That's the way to move forward most effectively."

Describing her writing process in an article she published in the journal Theater, Parks said, "I don't have readings of my plays before I have a good idea of what the play is. Sometimes artistic directors will plan a reading when they hear the writer has completed a first draft." She continued, "There are writers who enjoy thrashing out their plays in the workshop process. I do most of my writing at home, on my own. This has made me slightly unpopular on the workshop circuit."

In July of 2001, Parks married Paul Oscher, a blues musician. They had met in 1998, when they were introduced by a mutual friend. "It was love at first sight," Parks told People. Also in 2001, Parks won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" of $500,000. On winning the award, Parks told Mel Gussow of the New York Times, "It was a vote of confidence for what I've been doing. My husband, Paul, gets to call me Queen, Your Majesty, at least for a day. But I've got to get to work again." She said that she would use the grant to write more plays; the money would allow her to turn down more lucrative film and television work that nevertheless was less satisfying to her.

Broadway Success

Parks opened her first Broadway play, Topdog/Underdog, on April 7, 2002. The play, which features two characters, brothers played by Jeffrey Wright, and rap star Mos Def, had finished a run the year before Off-Broadway, with Wright and Don Cheadle in the cast. The show opened to rave reviews in its Broadway production at the Ambassador Theatre. The Christian Science Monitor's Iris Fanger called the play "a cross between a hip-hop riff and a Greek tragedy; as entertaining as the former and as gripping as the latter." Ben Brantley of the New York Times hailed it as a "dizzying spin" on the Cain and Abel story. In the play, said Brantley, "Brotherly love and hatred is translated into the terms of men who have known betrayal since their youth …and who will never be able entirely to trust anyone, including (and especially) each other."

Topdog/Underdog features two brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Lincoln is a former street scam artist who works in an arcade shooting booth dressed as Abraham Lincoln, allowing spectators to take turns shooting at him with cap pistols. His brother Booth makes his living as a shoplifter, and he ridicules his brother's efforts to go straight, trying to entice him back to a life of petty crime. The play takes place in the run-down tenement they share, where their drinking and quarrelling leads to a violent end.

This play, Parks told Elizabeth Farnsworth on the PBS news program NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, was one of the easiest of her then fifteen plays to date to write. "I've written plays that have taken six, seven, eight years, you know, eight, nine, ten, 12 drafts. Andthisone…tookthree days."

The day after the play opened on Broadway, Parks got word that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. "I'm happy!" she told Entertainment Weekly's Daniel Fierman and Gregory Kirschling soon afterward. "My head is going to swell so big I won't be able to get out of a cab! But can't let that happen. I gotta write tomorrow."

Parks told People that she gets the most satisfaction as a playwright from watching people attend her shows, especially people who normally do not spend a lot of time in the theater. Speaking of the Broadway production of Topdog/Underdog, she told People, "I love seeing the old hard-core theatergoers and the kids who have their baseball hats backward. We've got all kinds of people sitting there loving the play, and that's the most exciting thing."

Publishes First Novel

In 2003 Parks published her first novel, Getting Mother's Body, a story set in 1963 and featuring a sixteen-year-old girl named Billy Beede. When Billy finds herself pregnant by an older, married man, she decides she needs to raise enough money to have an abortion. But the only way to do so is to dig up her late mother's body and retrieve the jewelry she was reportedly buried in. Together with her uncle Teddy, a one-time minister, and one-legged aunt June, Billy travels from rural Texas to Arizona in a stolen pickup truck to find her mother's grave. A critic for Publishers Weekly praised the novel's "easy grace and infectious rhythms." Karen Valby, reviewing the book for Entertainment Weekly, explained: "A master of pitch and mood, Parks occasionally veers off her novelistic course. Her story struggles a bit to find its stride; for all the brilliant scenes, the connective tissue sometimes lacks thrust." But Beth Kephart in Book found that "there's jazz and spunk in the writing here, tremendous humor that ultimately yields to tenderness." Vanessa Bush in Booklist concluded that "Parks offers a collection of exuberantly loony characters, longing for better lives and a means of realizing their meager dreams."

If you enjoy the works of Suzan-Lori Parks, you might want to check out the following books:

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, 1959.

Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror, 1992.

Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem, 1975.

Asked to talk about her works in progress by the Village Voice's James Hannaham, Parks responded, "I'm one of those writers who develops the piece long before developing the vocabulary with which to discuss it. 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."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

American Theatre, October, 2000, p. 22. Bomb, spring, 1994.

Book, January-February, 2003, "The New Multi-tasker: Suzan-Lori Parks," p. 44; May-June, 2003, Beth Kephart, review of Getting Mother's Body, p. 78.

Booklist, May 1, 2003, Vanessa Bush, review of Getting Mother's Body, p. 1581.

Callaloo, spring, 1996, Shelby Jiggetts, "Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks," pp. 309-317.

Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2002.

Drama Review, fall, 1995, Steven Drukman, "Suzan Lori Parks and Liz Diamond: Doo-a-Diddly-Dit-Dit," pp. 56-75.

Entertainment Weekly, April 19, 2002, p. 68; May 9, 2003, Karen Valby, "Drawl She Wrote: In Her Debut Novel about a Downtrodden Texas Family, Suzan-Lori Parks Spins Dialogue into Gritty Poetry," p. 80; May 23, 2003, Troy Patterson, "Drama Queen: Suzan-Lori Parks Has Won a Pulitzer. She's Down with Oprah. And Now Her First Novel Is Scoring Raves," p. 44.

Essence, July, 2002, Deborah Gregory, "Suzan-Lori Parks: The Scribe Makes History as the First Black Woman Playwright to Win a Pulitzer," p. 73.

Jet, November 12, 2001, p 36.

Library Journal, March 15, 2003, Ellen Flexman, review of Getting Mother's Body, p. 116.

Modern Drama, spring, 2002, Greg Miller, "The Bottom of Desire in Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus, "p. 125.

New Republic, April 13, 1992, p 29.

New York Times, October 24, 2001, Section A, p. 14; April 8, 2002.

Oprah Magazine, May, 2003, "Suzan-Lori Parks's Aha Moment," p. 64, and Francine Prose, "Caution: Buried Mother Up Ahead," p. 186.

People, June 3, 2002, pp. 143-144.

Publishers Weekly, May 19, 2003, review of Getting Mother's Body, p. 54.

Studies in the Humanities, June-December, 2001, Jacqueline Wood, "Sambo Subjects: 'Declining the Stereotype' in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World," p. 109.

Theater, summer-fall, 1990, Alisa Solomon, "Signifying on the Signifyin': The Plays of Suzan Lori Parks," pp. 73-80; Volume 29, issue 2, 1999, pp. 26-33.

Time, February 19, 2001, p 62.

U. S. News and World Report, May 12, 2003, Kenneth Terrell, "She Dug Her Mom," p. D16.

Village Voice, November 3-9, 1999.

Vogue, June, 2002, pp. 144-145.

ONLINE

Online NewsHour,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (October 9, 2002), "Pulitzer Winner for Drama."

Women's eNews,http://www.womensenews.org/ (October 9, 2002), "Pulitzer Winner Parks Talks about Being a First."*

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