Parks, Suzan-Lori 1964–
Suzan-Lori Parks 1964–
Suzan-Lori Parks is a playwright who is known for her avant-garde and provocative plays. While Parks’s plays reflect her experience being a black female existing in a white male-dominated world, her plays are by no means about being black. She writes about issues that affect all people, but the story is told from a black perspective, not as a minor subplot contained within a white story. She has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including two Obies, two NEA grants, and in 2001 was awarded a “genius grant” given each year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In addition to writing stage plays, Parks has also written screenplays for Spike Lee, Disney, and Jodie Foster. According to Shawn Marie Garrett, assistant professor of theater at Barnard, contributing editor of Theater magazine, and writer for American Theater, Parks has “indisputably altered the landscape of American drama and enriched the vocabulary of contemporary playwriting and theater practice.”
Parks, who was born in Kentucky in 1964, began writing novels when she was five years old. Her father was a colonel in the Army and Parks was an “Army brat” who moved often while growing up. She lived in six different states and as a teenager, she lived in Germany which was an experience that offered her a different perspective on her identity. As a black person living in Europe, she was treated first as an American-not primarily as a black person. Parks attended Mount Holyoke College, where she had the opportunity to take a writing class from James Baldwin. In 1983, Parks was writing a short story, The Wedding Pig, when she realized that during her writing process, her characters were right there—in the room, outside of herself, each speaking their own parts. She also felt that her stories were meant to be read out loud, and, when she did read them, Parks would play or act out each part. Observing her unique style, Baldwin identified Parks as a writer who was meant to be a playwright. As a senior in college, Parks finished her first play, The Sinner’s Place. Although the play was rejected for production because is was considered to be too “dirty,” Baldwin, impressed with Parks, said she was “an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.” Baldwin’s words were prophetic.
Parks was also encouraged by Mary McHenry, a member of the English department at Mount Holyoke, to keep writing plays. McHenry introduced Parks to Adri-
Career: Drama studio, London, 1986; Guest lecturer, Pratt Institute, New York, 1988, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1990, and Yale University, New Haven, CT, and New York University, 1990, 1991; playwriting professor, Eugene Lang College, New York, 1990; writer-in-residence, New School for Social Research, New York, 1991-92.
Awards: Obie, 1990; National Endowment for the Arts, Playwriting Fellow, 1990 and 1991, Whiting Writers’ Award, 1992; W. Alton Jones Grant Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, 1994; Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, 1995; Obie, 1996; Guggenheim Fellowship, 2000; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur genius grant, 2001; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 2002.
Address: Agent— Wiley Hausam, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York, 10019.
enne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, a play that demonstrated to Parks the way in which one could do “anything on stage.” Parks had already learned from reading James Joyce, Virginia Wolfe, and William Faulkner that one could push the limits with language and say just about anything, but after reading playwrights such as Kennedy and Ntozake Shange, Parks knew how to write daring and challenging plays. In 1989, just four years after she graduated from college, the New York Times named Parks the “Year’s Most Promising Playwright” following the production of Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, which won an Obie Award in 1990.
Parks emerged into the American theater scene during the late 1980s, a period of time in which American theater and its sponsors, specifically the National Endowment for the Arts, was diversifying and reconfiguring its criteria for grants and sponsorship. For Parks, the timing could not have been better—as an extremely talented up-and-coming African American playwright, she was considered “in.” Despite her popularity as a playwright, Park’s plays are not often produced at theaters that are devoted to staging plays by African Americans because they are considered experimental and unfamiliar. Parks realizes that her plays are not for everyone and that they are “like complex carbohydrates nourishing but difficult to digest,” according to American Theatre.
In her “historical plays” Parks speaks from a collective consciousness and dramatizes the most painful experiences. Her use of symbolism, and allegory, plus her creative use of language allow her to present those painful moments as, paradoxically, horrible and comical at the same time. Shawn Marie Garrett suggested in American Theater, ” History for Parks is not necessarily a progressive experience, or even a set of finished events that can be divided and dramatized by decade. The pain of the past that has never passed is precisely what sharpens the bite of her wicked satire.”
Known for her linguistic creativity, Parks, according to actress Pamela Tyson, “does incredible things with language. She does the same thing with her work that Shakespeare does with his text. You can’t have a lazy tongue. You have to open your mouth, you have to articulate … you have to be melodic, you have to have colors and levels and intonations, and she allows you to use your entire instrument.” Garret explained, “like Ntozake Shange … she crafts a theatrical poetry that bears the same relation to black dialectical forms that, for example, Joyce’s language bears to the speech of the Dubliners he heard and remembered.” In short, Parks’s plays are demanding on many levels.
Because the theater gathers so many people together at one specific time and place, Parks thinks that the theater is the perfect place to “make” history. Some critics have called her a revisionist, others have called her a deconstructionist, but either way, Parks’s plays are provocative and while her plays sometimes offend some members of the audience, it is hard to determine who still stay and give a standing ovation and who will get up and leave after the first few minutes. After writing several historical plays, Parks began to write about the present and future. “The dead are finally leaving me alone!” Parks declared in American Theatre, whatever the time period all her plays share a key element, “The yearning for salvation: that particular kind of salvation that only the theater, of all the art forms, can offer.” In 2002 Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for the Topdog/Underdog. It was the first Pulitzer for Drama awarded to an African-American female.
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, 1989.
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, 1990.
The America Play, 1993
In The Blood, 1999.
Fucking A, 2000.
American Theatre, October, 2000, p 22; December, 2001, p 10.
Jet, November 12, 2001, p 36.
The New Rupublic, April 13, 1992, p 29.
The New Yorker, October-November, 1998, p174.
Time, February 19, 2001, p 62.
Vogue, June 2002, pp. 144-145.
A&E Interview, www.daily.umn.edu/as/Preint/Issue34/interview
Philadelphia City Paper, September 11, 1997, www.wilmatheater.org/press/1997_0911
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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