05 October 2009

How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks

by Kirk Woodward

[From time to time, I may ask friends to contribute a “guest post” to ROT, and this column by a writer and theater artist I’ve known for many years is the first one. Kirk Woodward is a playwright and director, among other accomplishments, and I have mentioned his children’s plays recently. Kirk’s scripts are available through his own website, http://spiceplays.com/index.html. Suzan-Lori Parks, of course, is one of our most interesting and successful playwrights. She is currently the Master Writer Chair at New York’s Public Theater where the world première of her newest play, Snake, directed by James Macdonald, will open on 3 March 2010. ~Rick.]

We can learn a great deal about a playwright by seeing how the writer presents a single kind of activity in the course of a series of plays. For example, I recently had the opportunity to trace the subject of food and eating habits through the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks, and in the process learned a lot both about her plays, and about the possibilities of playwriting itself. Parks is a terrific playwright. If you’re not familiar with her, you should know for starters that her writing isn’t like that of a conventional playwright. Her scripts even look different on the page; words are frequently written out just as they sound, and she uses dramatic techniques that few others use. (She provides a handy glossary of her techniques in each volume of her plays.) If you want to read about her, an excellent book is Suzan-Lori Parks by Deborah Geis (University of Michigan Press, 2008), and McFarlane Press has announced a collection of essays on Parks edited by Philip Kolin for 2010. Meanwhile, read her plays, or, even better, see them. Among the better known are Venus and Topdog/Underdog, the latter of which won the Pulitzer Prize and enjoyed a substantial run on Broadway.

(NOTE: Parks’ two most recent plays are not included in this piece. Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 8) was performed at the Public Theater in June 2009, and Snake is scheduled for the Public’s 2009-2010 season.)

Starting with one of Parks’ earliest plays, there aren’t many instances of food and eating in the short play Betting on the Dust Commander (1987), but they’re telling. “Dust Commander” was a race horse that the character Lucius bet on. He and Mare (in the context of the play, her name is a pun) discuss the horse races and much more about their relationship, using a device, repetition, that Parks is particularly fond of. She reuses similar events or sections of dialogue repeatedly throughout a play, and each time their significance changes a bit. Eating, itself, is a repetitive act, of course. But what strikes me most about the subject of food in Commander is that when Lucius talks about a church lady who used to sell him food and drink, he doesn’t say that she sold something generic – “soda” – or that she distributed one of the big brands like Coca-Cola or Pepsi; he says that she sold RC Cola, a drink strongly associated with the American South. This closely observed and realistic detail helps anchor a superficially spacey play in a concrete reality.

Then, in the monologue play Pickling (1988), Miss Miss, the one character in the play, links her past and present through food. Almost at the start of the play she talks about an ice box – it’s been a long time since people in the United States used ice boxes – but she has replaced hers, not with a refrigerator, but with jars she uses to try to bottle (“pickle”) the past, something she’d love to be able to do. Miss Miss also tells us that she no longer can keep milk cold, that is, life-sustaining; instead she keeps powdered milk in a jar, which she can, she hopes, “rise up from the dead” for visitors, if she has any, which doesn’t seem likely. In these few deft strokes Parks uses the subject of food to link for Miss Miss her past, her present, and a future that, sadly, has minimal hope in it. Parks makes it clear that you can’t “bottle” life, whether past, present, or future.

That’s not all Miss Miss has to say about food. She remembers Charles, a lifeguard, in her memory a gorgeous physical specimen, coming by her house once a day to eat a beet – “he loved you,” she says to herself, “for your beets.” Presumably she could replace the beets he ate with more beets, like the peach cobbler she says she can replace when it gets “rubbery,” but nothing lasts forever and when the “eighteen Thursdays” of eating beets eventually come to an end, all that’s left for her is the collection of jars that represent her memories. So the act of eating, in this poignant play, carries considerable emotional depth.

Parks wrote a longer one-act play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, in 1986-1989, and in it food actually introduces the play. In the first scene, while Molly is talking about being expelled from school, Charlene fixes breakfast, an activity that Chona picks up in a later scene (eggs and, later, peach cobbler, a repetition of the food in Pickling). What’s important here, though, isn’t the food itself but the absent-minded way it’s prepared; eating is background, unnoticed, rather than an important event in itself. We will see Parks return to this idea.

But in Mutabilities Parks also uses two characters to make larger points about the act of eating. One of them, Shark-Seer (notice the extravagant names, another Parks trademark), says that “our flesh is edible tuh them fish”– in other words, we are in danger of being “eaten” or destroyed in a mindless way (by fish that presumably act by instinct) just as we, in this society, mindlessly eat. And the Naturalist, speaking directly to an audience presumably attending a lecture on social behaviors, uses the metaphor of not particularly nourishing food to tell us, “The great cake of society is crumbling.”

Then in a play called The Death of the Last Black Man In the Whole Entire World (1989-1992), Parks brings the theme of food front and center through the frankly stereotypical names of the major characters. The “last black man” of the title, doomed to repeat his death over and over, is named Black Man With Watermelon, and other characters include Black Woman With Fried Drumstick, Lots of Grease And Lots Of Pork, Yes And Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread, Ham, and Prunes and Prisms. The soul food names remind us how long stereotypes last in America. Despite advances in relations between races, despite years of efforts to deepen understanding among peoples, the names of the characters slam the persistence of stereotypes in our faces. It’s safe to say that numerous white Americans would recognize race as a subject of the play just by hearing the names of the characters, and would probably feel shock at having their deep-rooted prejudices so blatantly named.

If we look at the first scene in Last Black Man, following the “Overture” of the play, we see how Parks gives food mythic status. The Black Man is welcomed from his “resurrection” or rescue from death with food – a chicken dinner. On the other hand, when the crowd was watching his execution, from which it is claimed he escaped, “Folks come tuh watch with picnic baskets.” In the third scene, food becomes an image of triumph and survival: “Our crops have prospered” . . . “Our one melon has given untuh 3.” Food perhaps even survives death: Black Woman With Fried Drumstick claims that chickens still grow feathers and give eggs after they’re dead. On the other hand, to make sure we don’t think Parks is indulging in easy optimism, destruction is just as continuous: “Eggs still break.”

Devotees in the Garden of Love (1991) is about rituals of love, so it presents food and eating mostly in the form of table settings. There are ways, the characters say, that things are done and ways that they are not – social rituals. So the character Lily says, “I taught you your basics. How tuh lay uh table. How tuh greet uh guest. Thuh importance of uh centerpiece.” She refers to a meal as “uh mess” in the military sense of the word, that is, as an orderly feeding, but the word also suggests the contradictory meaning of “messy.” In this simple word Parks shows our social rituals as barriers against confusion and chaos. Parks, then, uses incidents of food and eating introduced in a simple and natural way to underline the great complexity of love, particularly its function as a barrier against confusion and chaos.

The America Play (1990-1993) is the first of Parks’ two plays to be produced so far in which a character impersonates Abraham Lincoln at the moment of his assassination. Lincoln’s assassination, of course, represents a huge tearing apart of the continuity of this country’s life. Appropriately, eating in The America Play is presented in the form of an interrupted event, in which the Foundling Father tells how the Lesser Known would “leave his wife and child after the blessing had been said” due to being “summoned between the meat and the vegetables.” The disruption of the national fabric leads to the memorializing of history in fragmented ways. George Washington is remembered primarily by his wooden teeth, and the land now called America was once covered by the sea like “uh dried scrap of whales blubber,” just fragments of historical reality. There aren’t many references to food in The America Play, but even these few directly relate to the upheaval of national life that is the subject of the play.

Then the remarkable play Venus (1995-1998) uses food to highlight the difference between the genuine and the spurious. Venus tells the story of a young African woman in the nineteenth century uprooted from her home and exhibited as a curiosity in Paris, where she dies. The play is full of “performances” of many kinds, some of them identified as such (the carnival-like display of the Venus, and a play-within-the-play), some of them not (the ways people present themselves to each other). When we first see the Venus in England, for example, the Brother brings her food and water with a “show” of real concern. Moments later, he is groping her. His pretense of caring is a “performance” in the sense that it is spurious, not genuine.

In the same way, in the play, real food gives way to substitutes for nourishment in the Venus’s life, like alcohol, which speeds her death. Even more to the point is chocolate. The Venus is chocolate-colored, “Coco candy coloured,” and audiences bring her chocolate. Truthfully, the Venus likes chocolate, and there is no reason she shouldn’t, since chocolate stands for love and for luxury, a fact she expounds on in the “Brief History of Chocolate” she delivers late in the play: “it has become the practice / to present a gift of chocolates when professing Love.” The Venus in fact becomes quite a connoisseur of chocolates, able to list the most exotic treats, and she enjoys them. Her affection for the sweet is paralleled by the young man’s gift of chocolates to his sweetheart in the play-within-the-play “For The Love of The Venus.”

Unfortunately chocolate, regardless of its delicious taste and association with love, is not truly nutritious, though it may provide the illusion of nutrition, and its effects begin to tell on The Venus. The Baron Docteur, who is besotted by her but knows she’s getting sick, sends her chocolates in spite of himself. Ultimately the “civilized” luxury of exotic sweets contributes to the early death of the Venus. While the play-within-the-play that bears her name ends in the triumph of love, she herself ends up literally dissected at the hands of a civilization that has failed to protect and nourish her. The elegance of the formal play is the pretence, but her death is the reality.

“Chocolate is a recognized emotional stimulant,” the Venus lectures, but that is as close as she comes to understanding her situation. However, the actual audience of the play knows better, because Parks uses eating habits to demonstrate that there is no substitute for genuine caring. The Venus essentially dies from indifference to her plight. Pretending to care for our fellow human beings – even by feeding them chocolate – can’t substitute for genuine love. The reality is that we need real food, nourishing food, in order to survive, but we need spiritual as well as physical food. We can say we “love” chocolates but “love” for each other is quite a different thing, not based on pleasure and on self-indulgence but on the ability to see each other as real people. It is the failure of that vision on the part of the “audience,” as well as of the people close to her, that dooms The Venus.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ two “red letter plays” In the Blood (1998-2001) and Fucking A (2000-2001), called “red letter” because they’re inspired by Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, relate food to poverty and hunger. Hester, the central character in both plays, is desperately poor. In the first scene of In the Blood, Hester promises her young children, named Bully, Trouble, and Beauty, that she’ll give them the “soup of the day,” an elegant phrase that ignores the reality that her soup is only water plus whatever she’s able to put in it. “Dinner” is framed by a fight among the children. To divert them, Hester describes the soup as though it’s a fabulous meal. We see that she uses imagination to charm the children, but we also recognize that few if any of the ingredients she names – carrots, meat, oranges, pie, “mash potatoes,” diamonds – are actually in the soup. Her son Jabber notes that Hester doesn’t even eat the soup – she gives it all to her children, as she says later, so “They wont starve.” She’s doing the best she can, even though, as she notes, “I promised the kids cake and ice cream.”

The Reverend D, who got Hester pregnant, tries to steer her toward the welfare department with the promise of a hot meal. Hester demands money from him, but her focus keeps shifting back to food: “Theres so many things we need. Food. New shoes. A regular dinner with meat and salad and bread.” Welfare, a character, promises a hot meal too, but her description shows how far Hester’s world is removed from an organic idea of eating: “You cannot simply – live off the land. If yr hungry you go to the shelter and get a hot meal.” Welfare brags of how well fed she is – “Comes from a balanced diet. Three meals a day. Strict adherence to the food pyramid,” an image of a much better life, and she reminds Hester of the time she had her to her house in the afternoon and used teacups, a detail reminiscent of the rituals of table setting in Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.

The specifics of these episodes are so organic to the play, and so telling, that Parks doesn’t need to announce to the audience that the family is poor, or that poverty is having a terrible effect on the children and on their mother, or that the departments that administer welfare are far removed from the real needs of people. Those observations are all embedded in the fabric of the play, particularly in the way it presents food and eating.

Fucking A, the other Hester play, shows the influence of Bertolt Brecht in its use of inserted songs. The proposal song “A Meat Man Is A Good Man To Marry” explicitly and hilariously links food and love: “With me yr mate, every day we’ll have steak,” Butcher sings, and he proposes marriage to Hester, who puts him off, because food is not everything, as we have seen earlier when Hester visits her (she thinks) son Jailbait in prison. Hester hopes to warm his heart with food – Jailbait says, “Yr looking at me like you wanna eat me up” – but he devours the food without any sign of affection for her, despite her feeling for him. When Hester writes him, she uses food to try to warm his heart – “Next year we’ll be picnicking. We’ll have meat and cheese and wine and bread and apples.” The lack of food is a dreadful incentive for action. When Monster robs Hester, he demands food as well as money. Worst of all, Jailbait went to jail for stealing food – “He was only hungry! He stole some meat and she seen him . . .”

That eating, under these circumstances, might be a communal, soul-nourishing activity on its own is out of the question. Conditions for the characters in the play are so desperate that every action – even the search for love – is really just another part of a desperate effort to survive.

Topdog/Underdog (1999-2002) is the second play by Suzan-Lori Parks in which a character makes a living as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, reenacting the moment of Lincoln’s assassination. In the same way that the play features two brothers, named Booth and Lincoln, it also frames its plot with two dinners. Like the two brothers, one dinner is scrappy and thrown together, the other almost elegant. The first consists of Chinese food that Lincoln has brought home. This meal is prepared by others; it’s served casually and eaten offhandedly; its contents (meat and “skrimps” – shrimp) are nourishing enough, but are also the subject of disagreement between the brothers, both of whom wanted the “skrimps.” The meal, in other words, is a dysfunctional event – the food is disconnected from the brothers, and the brothers from each other.

Because the meal is Chinese food, it contains “fortunes,” slips of paper in fortune cookies that claim to point to the future. The futures of both Booth and Lincoln, who both live marginal lives, are uncertain, and their “fortunes” ambiguous. Booth’s tells him to “Waste not want not,” which seems almost insulting for someone scraping out a tenuous living. Unfortunately he will later literally “waste” his brother, and then wish he had not. Lincoln’s fortune says simply, “Your luck will change,” and, sadly, it does.

The second meal, in the next to last scene of the play, is quite different. From the stage direction it almost seems that the meal might be the first in Parks’ plays that functions as a genuinely positive event: “. . . a table with two nice chairs. The table is covered with a lovely tablecloth and there are nice plates, silverware, champagne glasses and candles.” Booth has set up the “romantic” dinner for Grace, who hasn’t yet arrived. Nothing, though, works smoothly. Lincoln arrives home unexpectedly; he correctly assumes that Booth stole the lovely elements of the table setting; Grace never arrives; and when Lincoln begins to show off his superior Three Card Monte skills, Booth knocks everything off the table and it becomes the setting for a slight-of-hand trick that will eventually lead to real tragedy.

Although the second meal is as close to a genuinely nourishing event as any meal in the plays of Parks we have examined to this point, circumstances have already guaranteed that it will not go well. Between the first and second meal, there are several references to food and eating, none of them encouraging. Lincoln uses the expression “bringing home the bacon” when he has money; the expression is a commonplace, but it also implies that food is important only because of its link to money. Booth makes a similar connection between food and sex when he describes how Grace “eats up the food I’d brought like there was no tomorrow and then goes and eats on me.” In both instances food is important because of its connection to another objective (money, sex). On neither occasion is eating either physically or emotionally nutritive. The characters in the play, Parks shows us, always have their minds on something else, whatever that something else may be.

Then in 2002-2003, Suzan-Lori Parks took up the challenge of writing a play every day for a whole year, published as 365 Days /365 Plays. About fifty-seven of these short plays, or about one out of every six, have some sort of reference to food. Of those fifty-seven, food and eating are integral to the stories of about half, including one block of four plays (May 20 and 22-24).

Some of the plays in the collection, though by no means all, recapitulate themes or situations from earlier plays. “Pig Meat Farming Man” brings to mind the Meat Man in Fucking A, but here the association of food with sex is even more explicit (he has no money, but “he puts his bacon up on my plate every night, you know what I’m talking about”). “Everybody’s Got An Aunt Jemimah” makes the same use of racially stereotypical character names (in addition to Aunt Jemimah, Uncle Ben is also invoked) as The Death of the Last Black Man In the Whole Entire World, but with more humor and less anger. Also as in Last Black Man, “Better Than Chitlins” links soul food with the imminent death of a character.

Parks’ familiar theme of food as a means to some other end is repeated in “Fries With That,” where the characters barely notice the fast food of the title, and in “The Legend of Wilgefortis,” where the King gorges himself with not necessarily nutritious food (“Brown Bag Surprise”), like the Venus’s chocolates. As in the “scarlet letter plays,” the primacy of hunger is recognized in “Mason Jar Genie,” in which the most important wish anyone in the play can make is for a ham sandwich, and in “House of Cards,” where a man courts a woman by using a head of cabbage.

Among new themes, “Chicken Wings” makes the act of eating a conscious one: the Dad dissects the process of eating so much that he makes the Son decide he has to leave home. In “Veuve Clicquot,” a condemned man orders his last meal with gusto, “trying to enjoy myself is all.” A chorus of the women he has murdered contrasts his attitude with the hard lives that ended with their deaths, and at the end of the play his guilt begins to overwhelm him. The motif of the condemned criminal continues in “The Executioner’s Daughter,” but here the executioner is the condemned’s mother (Freud would surely identify with this plot), who worries about whether the doomed prisoner had a good last meal. In “Coney Island Joe’s” the long line of food stores is something to pass by on the way somewhere else, but the song of the Pretty Waitress raises the possibility – unresolved in the play – that the Lonesome Man just might not pass by, or be passed by, an opportunity for love.

Among other variations on the food theme, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Part 5)” is a title that Parks referenced again for her play that opened at the Public Theatre in New York in 2009. Joe, the father who returns from the wars, wants his meat raw, although, being re-socialized, he accepts it well-done. The setting is sitcom elegance from the early 1960s. The title of “The Good Cook of Szechuan” is a clear reference, not to another play by Parks, but to Brecht. However, where Brecht’s central character in The Good Woman of Szechuan struggles to be “good” in an evil society, the “good cook” turns out to be evil – a rapist – leading to the observation that “Goodness in one area / Does not translate into goodness in another.”

The title’s punning reference to Chinese food in “The Good Cook” (the cook may both be from Szechuan, and cook Szechuan food) demonstrates that Parks can be quite funny, and in particular two other pieces from 365 Days illustrate her sense of humor. The title character of “Proust’s Cookie,” an unusual sort of muse – the cookie that once inspired Proust – demonstrates the fickle nature of the artistic process, since a character in the play gets no inspiration from the cookie at all. Finally, “The Worst” contains a pun on “wurst” that presumably couldn’t be stretched to much greater length, but certainly is funny as it is.

If the subject of this piece is “How America Eats,” how does Suzan-Lori Parks answer the question, and what does her answer tell us about ourselves? We’ve seen that she answers the question not in one, but in many ways. The richness of her use of patterns of eating in her plays shows her remarkable ability to fill a single moment of a play with many kinds of associations; she is not limited to just one theme or two. In an overall sense, though, we can say that Parks uses food and eating patterns to illuminate a theme of disassociation or displacement. We in our society, Parks suggests, are disassociated from the food we eat, and in the same way we are disassociated from each other. Our displacement may be geographic, in the same way that the Venus is removed from her native land and dragged to the spurious world of Paris, and as countless people were dragged from Africa into slavery in the western hemisphere. Or we may be disconnected from each other by racial stereotypes, as she so powerfully demonstrates in Last Black Man. Or we may be displaced from normal, useful life by poverty, by pretense, by greed, by crime, or by broken relationships of many kinds.

Parks suggests that although there is truth in the popular saying that “you are what you eat,” it may be more important to say, “You are how you eat,” and the way we eat in America, she suggests, is distractedly, half-heartedly, with our minds somewhere else, our fragmented attention indicating our fragmented lives. A truly communal meal nourishes the individual soul and the collective soul of the community, as well as the physical body. Parks, by contrast, shows us meals that cannot be said in any sense to nourish the soul or the community, and of course as a result the physical body may suffer as well.

But if Parks takes our eating habits with utter seriousness, she doesn’t leave us without hope. After all, she has taken the trouble to hold her mirror up to our lives, and the richness of her imagination, the complexity of her dramatic technique, and the humor that survives the gloom all suggest the possibility of transcending the limitations she so forcefully presents in her varied and penetrating analysis of the ways we eat.

[Kirk Woodward is Artistic Director of Troupe of Vagabonds, a children’s theater company for which he has written several plays. He is also a preacher, a rock musician, an acting teacher, and a technical writer and project manager for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.]


  1. On Friday, 5 Sept., the New York Times reported that Suzan-Lori Parks had been awarded the 2014 Horton Foote Prize for her new play, 'Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3),' recognized for promising new American play. The play, about a slave who must make decisions about participating in the Civil War and the consequences of his choices, is scheduled to première at New York's Public Theater in October and then transfer to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January 2015.

    Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for 'Topdog/Underdog' in 2002, will receive $15,000 for the award. The Foote Prize, given every other year for excellence in American theater, was established in 2010 to honor Foote, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of 'The Trip to Bountiful' and Oscar-winning screenwriter of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' who died in 2009.


  2. On Tuesday, 24 February 2015, the New York Times published the following announcement:

    "The critically acclaimed epic play 'Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)' by Suzan-Lori Parks has won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for a theatrical work inspired by American history, the stewards of the award announced Monday. A check for $100,000 will also go to Ms. Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the drama 'Topdog/Underdog.'

    "'Father Comes Home' depicts sacrifices and soul-searing moments in the Civil War through the eyes of a slave, Hero, who goes off to fight with his plantation master and, with echoes of 'The Odyssey,' eventually returns to his loved ones as a transformed man. Ms. Parks is now working on Parts 4 through 9 of 'Father Comes Home,' which will follow descendants of her Civil War characters.

    "'Father Comes Home' was produced at the Public Theater last fall and is running through Sunday [1 March] at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. The winner was announced by Columbia University and Jean Kennedy Smith, a sister of Mr. Kennedy who established the prize to honor him."