Way back when, before Suzan-Lori Parks became the sound-it-out voice of the contemporary American stage — if anyone can even remember that far back — it was 1992 and she was the foul-mouthed darling of the Yale Repertory Theater.
Her now-famous play among many famous plays, “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” was running off-Broadway, New Haven (under the red Rep roof on Chapel Street).
And there, where the experimental and the obscure have historically been embraced, the Obie Award-winning playwright settled into four years with director Stan Wojewodski and the cast and crew of the School of Drama.
Her method — as it remains today — is a mixture of repetition and phonetic words, profanity, layers of history, and, yes, a consciousness of racial representations.
Back then, when one of her characters said “do in diddly dip didded thuh drop,” it meant “yes,” according to the glossary that accompanies her collection “The America Play and other works.”
Now, it means Pulitzer Prize.
Specifically, it translated to Parks’ becoming on Monday the first black female playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize for her current off-Broadway (New York) show “Topdog/Underdog.” In a season of black-female-firsts, the prize has been claimed as a coup for African-Americans, for women, for Parks’ whole body of work, and for the discriminating tastes of the Yale Rep.
Way off Broadway
Parks started writing plays in 1983 at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She wrote “The Sinner’s Place” for a class taught by James Baldwin, a civil rights icon in his day and college English teacher/inspiration in Parks’. He got her started with playwriting.
“Someone I respected was telling me what to do — in a good way,” she said. “It wasn’t some Whosey-Whatsit who runs La Fuddy Duddy Playhouse in Whosey-Whatsitville.”
From there, Parks, now 38, went on to experimental theaters in Brooklyn, N.Y., slowly building name recognition and filling an award shelf that became even more crowded this week. When Wojewodski called, she welcomed the invitation to New Haven.
“He was offering me another artistic home,” Parks said. “It’s always wonderful to have an artistic director say, ‘Hey, you’re welcome here.'”
Mark Bly, the chairman of the playwriting program at the School of Drama, said that at the time it was remarkable for Wojewodski to commit eventually to three of Parks’ plays because she was still considered “a bit elusive” as a playwright. The third show, “Venus,” ultimately funneled from Yale to the New York Shakespeare Festival stage in 1996.
Parks’ talent and success helped boost the bragging rights of the Rep, which has traditionally focused on turning out quality theater from beyond the mainstream. But, Bly said, that was not the only reason Parks was valuable to Yale during her writing and teaching here.
“All I know,” he said, “is we had to do that work, we as artists needed to see that work done on our stage, to feel like our stage was communicating something to a very diverse culture. We were very lucky, very, very lucky that she committed to working with us on stage.”
Bly said what’s just as important as content to consider is what she’s done with form. He admires her for her deviation from the “Monday night movie of the week recipe” that so many of her contemporaries fall back on. Parks said “Topdog/Underdog” represents the apex of a style she’s been fine-tuning since her days with Baldwin.
“I’m doing the same old thing, same old s—,” she said. “I’m just doing it in a different way every time, depending on the characters and the story each time. Really, the characters raise the bar. I don’t jump over it, I scramble over it.”
Black like Halle
When Halle Berry won an Academy Award for her role in “Monster’s Ball,” making her the first black female leading lady to take home a statue, Parks wasn’t watching television. Berry successfully delayed the acceptance speech music cues for minutes while she accepted the Oscar on behalf of all black female actors out there.
Parks, whose award poises her to share figurehead status with Berry, said she’s hasn’t heard more than a synopsis of Berry’s one-small-step for black women monologue.
“Halle Berry was right to say what she said,” Parks said, “but I can’t just take my cue from her.”
So instead, Parks said she accepts the Pulitzer on the behalf of a wider audience than even race creates. She said the award is for American theater in general.
Still, she is being heralded as a member of the Berry camp of pioneers.
Yale professor Nadine George, who teaches a class in African-American theater, numbered herself among the fans of Parks’ ability to write plays that “cut like a knife and wash over you like a fugue.” She is also enthusiastic about the symbolic dimension of the playwright’s talent.
“As with Berry’s award,” she said, “this is an important moment in the field, and at the same time it is a sobering reminder that we have a long way to go.”
Parks said she thinks it is reductive to make the Pulitzer just a moment in the spotlight for a previously unrecognized group. Likewise, Bly, Parks’ old friend and dramaturge from her time at the School of Drama, said he could not expect her to limit the group of implicit co-recipients to a race or a sex. She is a black playwright, in his words, who “refuses to be any one group’s voice.”
“She is deeply aware of ethnic issues,” he said, “and of very pertinent racial questions, but she is not someone who wears a badge that says, ‘I represent one culture.’ She would never want to be labeled in any way.”
Indeed, Parks seems to try to avoid any kind of “August Wilson-style” racial affiliation as Bly called it. Having taken the occasional flak for black characters’ appeal to white audiences, she has written essays explaining herself and her style.
In particular, she responds to concern about her portrayal of black characters in relation to white ones. (In “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” the character list includes Black Man with Watermelon, Black Woman with Fried Drumstick, and Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork). There is no such thing as “THE Black experience,” she writes.
“For the Black writer, are there Dramas other than race dramas?,” she continues rhetorically in the essay, “An Equation for Black People Onstage. Does Black life consist of issues other than race issues?”
You should write it down
Parks is known to say she writes plays because she “loves black people.”
In “The Death of the Last Black Man,” Parks’ character “Yes And Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread” repeats the lines, “You should write it down because if you dont [sic] write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist.”
But Parks said this isn’t the only reason she writes. Mostly, her plays are involuntary reflexes.
“I write because characters come into my head,” she said in a telephone interview done in a car shuttling the former Rep playwright-in-residence back to Broadway yesterday. “If I don’t write plays for them, I get a huge headache. Why I write is more like, if I didn’t write the characters would strangle me, you know. A lot of people have stories going through their heads, but they’re not absolutely forced to write them down, If I don’t write them down, they’ll make me ill.”