31 January 2011

A Playwright of Importance

By Kirk Woodward

[Some years ago, while I was doing some research on the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for a university scholar, I compiled a chronology of the writer’s works, including her stage, film., and TV scripts and her novel. The purpose of the list at the time was just to make it easier for me to keep track of the material I was finding for my client, Philip C. Kolin, who was collecting published interviews Parks had given. When that job was finished, I gave Dr. Kolin the chronology in case it proved useful for his work, and last year he asked me if he could use it as back matter for his new book, a collection of essays about Parks he was editing. I agreed, and this fall, that book, Suzan-Lori Parks: Essays on the Plays and Other Works, was published.

[Recently, Kirk Woodward, who has an interest in Parks’s plays—he wrote “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” which I published on ROT on 5 October 2009—proposed writing a review of Dr. Kolin’s book for the blog. Since my contribution to Suzan-Lori Parks is so minor, I didn’t see any conflict with running a review on ROT, so I agreed. I think you’ll find that Kirk’s discussion of the book and its essays is interesting even if you don’t already know Parks’s work. I’m pleased to share his thoughts with ROT readers. ~Rick]

Suzan-Lori Parks is widely recognized as one of today's outstanding black women playwrights, but I believe she is more than this. If this were a scholarly article I would have to couch my opinion in objective, academic terms, but since it's not, I can simply say what I think: I consider Parks not (or not just) an outstanding African American writer, but a member of the top rank of American playwrights, along with Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams.

I would say that Parks is "one of the big boys" except that a "big boy" is exactly what she is not – she is definitely not "one of the boys," and if she is a "big" playwright, then she is so in a way that differs significantly from that of her famous predecessors.

One of the problems with trying to determine the ultimate rank of contemporary writers is that we may be responding to their transient resonances within our own culture rather than to their fundamental and lasting values. As a result, ordinarily at least a generation has to pass before it's possible to say for certain what sort of lasting value a writer has. (For example, the real nature of the later work of Tennessee Williams, who died in 1983, is only now coming into focus.)

We face this difficulty with Parks, who is very much our contemporary. I may be evaluating her purely in terms of today's cultural norms. So my estimation of Parks's worth may well seem preposterous to future generations, but I'm happy to make the case for her stature now and take my chances with posterity, which won't care much what I think anyway.

Helping me and others to make the case for Parks as a major playwright is a new collection of essays, Suzan-Lori Parks: Essays on the Plays and Other Works (McFarland and Company, 2010), edited by Philip Kolin, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and an authority on the work, among others, of Tennessee Williams himself. Kolin, in other words, knows the top rank of American drama when he sees it. Kolin frames Parks's career in an introductory essay, "Puck's Magic Mojo: The Achievements of Suzan-Lori Parks."

Kolin has collected a total of twelve essays, two interviews, and a production history assembled by Rick, who you may be aware is the proprietor and chief author of this blog. The material in Kolin's book helps not only to underline the stature of Suzan-Lori Parks as a major playwright, but to define in exactly what sense this is so.

How might Suzan-Lori Parks be considered to be a major playwright? Since I've dropped the names of O'Neill, Miller, and Williams, we might begin by considering how her work stacks up against the work of those three writers. However, in that case all we would be doing would be considering, not her own value, but the relation of her work to Long Day's Journey, Salesman, or Streetcar – a very different question.

Parks is her own kind of playwright. (For an excellent look at the wide range of contemporary female black playwrights, see Kolin's Contemporary African-American Women Playwrights: A Casebook, published by Routledge in 2007). In an essay I wrote on "Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks" for this blog (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2009/10/how-america-eats-food-and-eating-habits.html) I said that "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."

If anything I understated the case. So the reader familiar with printed versions of plays by O'Neill, Miller, and Williams may have to do a bit of work before being able to read the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks with ease. Of course the best way of encountering any of these playwrights is not to read their plays, but to see them. On stage too, though, Parks is a startling writer – not that she can be relegated to some obscure corner of the avant-garde. In Kolin's book Jochen Achilles discusses her Broadway success Topdog/Underdog (2001), which won the Pulitzer Prize, in his essay "Does Reshuffling the Cards Change the Game? Structures of Play in Parks's Topdog/Underdog." That play succeeded as a fairly straightforward, linear story, while still, as Achilles demonstrates, embodying a remarkable depth of meaning.

A number of the essays in Kolin's book help us find our way through some of the possibly unfamiliar aspects of Parks's dramaturgy. Jacqueline Wood, in "'Jazzing' Time, Love, and the Female Self in Three Early Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks," carefully steps through Betting on the Dust Commander, Pickling, and Devotees in the Garden of Love to demonstrates how Parks plays with and bends, or "jazzes," aspects of time and history, particularly as modified and distorted by memory. Kolin carries the theme even further in an essay titled "'You one of uh mines?' Dis(re)membering in Suzan-Lori Parks's Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom" on the way Parks "challenges the imperatives of white history by recreating, and rewriting, black history through performance" in which history and the past are bent and shaped almost as though they were physical entities.

Nicole Hodges Persley, in her essay "Sampling and Remixing: Hip Hop and Parks's History Plays," compares two of Parks's plays to hip hop music, which in its use of the processes of sampling and remixing provides metaphors for the way Parks writes. Shawn-Marie Garrett leads us through the decision-making process behind one stage production in "'For The Love of the Venus': Suzan-Lori Parks, Richard Foreman, and the Premiere of Venus," and in so doing helps us to see the kind of dramatic possibilities Parks offers in her plays. "A Parks Remix: An Interview with Liz Diamond," conducted by Shawn-Marie Gabbrett, provides a view of Parks from the perspective of one of the most important directors of her plays.

A useful way to examine a playwright's work is to trace a theme throughout the oeuvre. In Kolin's volume, Jon Dietrick's essay "'A Full Refund Aint Enough': Money in Suzan-Lori Parks's Red Letter Plays" traces the theme of money in the two produced Parks plays (In the Blood and Fucking A) that derive their ancestry from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Christine Woodworth, in "Parks and the Traumas of Childhood," examines the way Parks presents the family, and in particular, children and the stresses of childhood, in her plays.

The essays I have briefly noted here take us a long way toward understanding the nature of the dramaturgy of Suzan-Lori Parks. What still may not be so clear is why I should claim that Parks is, not just a good playwright, and certainly not just a "black" playwright, but an important playwright with general significance. Recognizing once again that it really is much too soon to make a judgment about the ultimate value of the works of a playwright who is so very much with us, let me support my claim by making three points.

First, the model for greatness in playwriting has changed. Through the years in which O'Neill, Miller, and Williams wrote their most famous plays, the basic Western model of a play – the basic metaphor for a play – was the Greek temple. This model, of course, demonstrated the enormous influence of Aristotle's Poetics on many future generations of drama critics. A play, the model says, works just like a Greek temple does – through its correct proportions and the interrelationships among its elements.

Playwriting teachers consciously or unconsciously taught this model. The crasser ones presented it as a sort of recipe. One of the results of this calculated approach was the famous "well-made play," a sort of machine of a play that created effects based on a thoroughly calculated plot.

Since roughly the 1950s, a new model of playwriting has slowly replaced the old. (The most famous and perhaps most outstanding product of this new model, Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett, was first staged in 1953.) The new model may be symbolized by the Mississippi River. There's a great central channel to the river, and certain boats navigate it regularly. These may be compared to the Broadway play. But the Mississippi is much more than just its central channel. It's also the large and small streams that feed into it; it's the flood plains and the water that sometimes overflows; it's the delta and the delta land, the cities and villages along the shores, the recreational boats and house boats and rafts and docks, the gambling boats and floating casinos . . . .

Today, in other words, we see plays take many shapes, with many kinds of forms determined by many kinds of functions. One shape of play no longer fits all. Parks goes so far as to claim that she doesn't try to plan her work at all. In "An Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks" by Shawn-Marie Garrett, Parks talks about not asking "what's the next right thing to do? I'm not even thinking about that . . . it's just 'Ahhhh!'" Jennifer Larson, in "Suzan-Lori Parks's 365 Days/365 Plays: A (W)hole New Approach to Theatre," writes about the remarkable play cycle that resulted from Parks’s determination to write a play a day for a year based entirely on whatever idea presented itself each morning.

My claim, then, is that if we are to estimate Parks's stature as a writer, we have to abandon our assumptions that a great play must resemble Death of a Salesman or Oedipus Rex. It may; or it may not. Greatness is not the result of following a formula.

Second, everybody has to write about something. Parks is black, and she writes extensively (although not exclusively) about the black experience, in ways noted throughout the essays in Kolin's book. Some may be tempted for that reason to pigeonhole her as "a black playwright." To do so is to confuse subject and theme.

The characters in Shakespeare's plays, no matter where his plays are set, are Elizabethans. This fact, though, has never hindered others from immersing themselves in his plays. I am not saying that the themes of race and history in Parks's plays don't matter; I am saying that all worthwhile plays, even apparently abstract ones like some of Beckett's, take us through the specific to the general. In the words of the eighth century Chinese poet Li Po:

That art is best which to the soul's range gives no bound:
Something besides the sense, something beyond the sound.

So third, I claim for Parks that:

She shows us the soul's range. I don't mean for a minute to minimize her role as a black playwright. I only want to emphasize that she leads us to open our eyes, minds, hearts, souls, in ways new to us. Rena Fraden, in her outstanding essay, "Everything and Nothing: The Political and Religious Nature of Suzan-Lori Parks's 'Radical Inclusion,'" demonstrates how Parks's works reach as high and as wide as their author can manage. Parks gives us history, but she also expands and explodes history.

"Parks," Fraden writes, "like God, or Shakespeare, creates worlds and characters to populate them." The source of her stature among the highest rank of our playwrights, I believe, is not that her intentions are so large – we know what is paved with good intentions – but that she lives up to them so well. The reader who needs a further example of the reach of Parks's scope might want to read Glenda Dicker/sun's essay "Demeter, Persephone and Willa Mae Beede: Suzan-Lori Parks Gets Mother's Body" an almost dizzying tour through an astonishing wealth of sources, allusions, and themes.

It will be fascinating to see how Parks's work progresses. She has done a certain amount of "commercial" work, as discussed in Charlene Regester's essay "The Unconscious and Metaphors in Suzan-Lori Parks's Screenplays of Girl 6 and Their Eyes Were Watching God" on the very interesting Spike Lee film Girl 6 and other pieces, and Parks is reported to be working on other such projects, including a musical about Ray Charles (Unchain My Heart) and the refashioning of Porgy and Bess into more standard musical theater form. Immersion in commercial theater has its risks as well as its rewards, of course, but I suspect that Parks will see such enterprises as challenging opportunities for growth (both hers and ours), and as adventures.

Reviews of her most recent plays indicate that many reviewers still have no idea what she is up to, what she is trying to accomplish. A typical approach is to label her work as too abstract, as though it were not so well grounded in real experience, and as though a play should always be "realistic" in the literal, everyday sense. Those reviewers might profitably read Kolin's book.

My own hope is that Parks will continue to expand her horizons, and in the process help us to grow along wth her. That, I claim, is Parks's particular kind of greatness.

[Parks’s next play to come to New York is scheduled to be Unchain My Heart, The Ray Charles Musical, which tried out as Ray Charles Live! at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007. It was originally expected to open at a Shubert theater this fall, but it has been postponed because of a business dispute and the new opening date had not been determined. Unchain My Heart, with a book by Parks and Charles’s music, won’t open until after spring 2011.) In November, however, the press announced that Parks will be collaborating with composer Diedre Murray to rearrange the Gershwins’ score of Porgy and Bess to move it from its operatic roots more towards musical theater. The new production, authorized by the Gershwin Trust, will open the 2011-12 season at A.R.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in September 2011. In addition to these projects, Parks has several screenplays, for both film and TV, in process as well.]


  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."