“I am gonna be Black and good-lookin’ all my years.
You will see our rage, and you will see our tears,
and you will see our light shine as we explore new frontiers
and we don’t got time to take no mess from you …”
On a 2017 podcast with Michael Kantor, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks recalled her childhood and defining moments that contributed to her building selfhood. “We were often the only black people that some people had ever seen live,” she said about traveling with her family as a child. “People would just stare.”
Parks recounted a particular memory where two women of European descent approached her and patted her on the head while she stood frozen in place; the two women were astounded to have seen a black person for the first time in rural Vermont. After asking her parents about the incident, they replied, “You are the ambassador of your race.” As an adult, Parks grew to realize her calling is actually “ambassador for the human race.”
Suzan-Lori Parks was born on May 10, 1963 in Fort Knox, Kentucky, right down the road from Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Her father was a career army officer, serving a tour in Korea and two in Vietnam while her family traveled around back home.
As a child, Parks began writing and singing songs. She recalls staring at a photo of James Baldwin on the book jacket cover of her copy of “The Fire Next Time” that her parents had gifted her for Valentine’s Day in the fourth grade. As she grew older, Parks became fascinated by Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. She enjoyed “the wrestling with the angels that was happening in all those plays,” diving into the tragedies of “Oedipus” and “Antigone.”
She continued to practice her writing at Mount Holyoke College, where she graduated in 1985. According to the Mount Holyoke website, Parks was originally enrolled “with dreams of becoming a scientist,” changing courses when she revived a passion for writing in one of her classes. Parks recalls the many instructors who pushed her toward the arts; at 18 years old, she applied to take a short story writing workshop taught by James Baldwin at Hampshire College and got in, meeting with the infamous writer alongside 15 other students every Monday afternoon.
Halfway through the semester, Parks recalled Baldwin pulling her aside after class. “He said, ‘Ms. Parks, have you ever considered writing for the theatre?’” Parks laughed, admitting, “I was crushed … I thought he was telling me that I was a sucky short story writer … I didn’t like theater at all.”
This moment was the beginning of a historic change in direction that would eventually lead to Suzan-Lori Parks’ immense fame as an American playwright. Sometime later, Baldwin would refer to Parks as “an astonishing and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.”
Since her days as an undergraduate student still discovering her talent for playwriting, she has written nine full-length plays and hundreds of drafts. Her first production was called “The Sinner’s Play,” presented as a thesis project in English and German literature at Mount Holyoke. Parks was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama for her 2001 play, “Topdog/Underdog.” In 2002, she wrote one play a day for an entire year, all of which would be published and premiered four years later in an impressive exhibition called “365 Days/365 Plays,” where over 700 participating theaters around the world staged Parks’ work.
Her presence on Yale’s campus, in particular, is indisputable and long lasting, as seen through the continual production of her art at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels.
Most recently, Parks debuted her play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” at Yale’s University Theatre in the spring of 2018. “Yale Rep has been a home for new plays since its very first season, and few playwrights have had as many premieres produced at the Rep as Suzan-Lori Parks,” said James Bundy, artistic director at the prestigious Yale Repertory Theatre. “A fearless innovator, she is the kind of writer who can speak eloquently to reveal the human experience, while also challenging conventional ideas about form and engaging with social and theatrical history to create wholly original work.”
Last fall, she visited Yale for the second time in one year to accept the Windham-Campbell Prize for drama, proving a mystifying force for Yale students and New Haven residents alike.
Kezie Nwachukwu ’20 played Lincoln in the 2017 Heritage Theater Ensemble production of “Topdog/Underdog,” a play about two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth.
“The characters are so human … emotionally, in terms of the characters’ actual personalities and traits,” said Nwachukwu about Parks’ focus on “creating very human situations” within the complex and strange worlds that exist in her plays. Despite his close work with Parks’ play, Nwachukwu remains fascinated by her writing style: “She never makes any judgements with her characters, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around that.”
The director of the production, A.K. Payne ’19, is an experienced playwright who also draws from Parks for inspiration. While reflecting on the playwright’s talk on the art of playwriting during the Windham Campbell Festival, Payne recalled Park’s insistence on “giving her characters room to speak,” saying, “there was something that struck me as profoundly true in this and deeply influenced how I approach my work as a playwright.”
However, Payne also recalls the difficulty in directing “Topdog/Underdog” and its overall complexity “because of the breadth of Parks’ work and the way in which she imbues much of the action of this narrative in silences and stand-offs between these two brothers who perform masculinity in order to lay claim to power.”
Parks seems to agree, and said that writing “Topdog/Underdog” felt “like silver liquid pouring at the back of your head.”
The Yale Dramatic Association plans to produce one of Parks’ famous Scarlet Letter plays, “Fucking A,” as its the spring mainstage production, in which Nwachukwu will be playing the character of Monster for his second play by Parks and at Yale. The play’s director, New York and Chicago–based director Adrian Alexander Alea, has worked with the playwright directly on two occasions. “Suzan-Lori Parks is such a generous human being that truly values and respects the process of other fellow creatives,” said Alea of the artist. “From my experience, she always comes from a place full of love and trust when in a room.”
“Fucking A,” which will debut at the University Theater in late February, is described by Alea as “such a rich, dense and juicy text that upon every next read or experience, a new meaning or theme comes to light.”
“I hope Yale University and New Haven engage with the story and these characters with an open heart, but more importantly, with a critical mind,” said Alea.
Noelle Mercer ’21 intends to support this initiative through direct action as outreach coordinator for the Yale Dramatic Association. “I believe ‘Fucking A’ will have a polarizing effect on campus, as any piece of theater does. My goal for outreach is to engage the greater New Haven community with this production.”
Parks is considered by many to be the greatest living American playwright of our generation, largely because of the unconventional nature of her plays.
In reference to her artistic form, Alea noted the invention of the language called TALK in “Fucking A,” as well as his belief that Parks “continues to challenge and explore the power, performance, physicality and limitations of language.” He then expressed that one of his favorite elements of Park’s artistic form is her use of “spells,” which he calls “an elongated moment, that has an architectural look on the page, when the characters experience their most pure simple state.”
“She interrogates English as a language that has been manipulated and transformed to make room for certain bodies and narratives,” said Payne. “She articulates a kind of freedom from the rules of standard English that makes room for her characters to say what might otherwise be unutterable.”
“One of the reasons I am so drawn to Suzan-Lori’s work is that she continues to find new forms for her stories,” said Bundy. “Her work is poetic, but it’s also political, and it makes use of the live connection between the actors and the audience to shift our perspectives and implicate us in the personal and social questions of her plays.”
With the strong conviction that playwriting can be taught, Parks also performs an experimental solo show called “Watch Me Work” in the lobby of the Public Theater, where she writes for 20 minutes on a typewriter and afterwards takes questions from attendees in hopes of soliciting her advice in a workshop-style fashion. She also teaches at New York University and serves as Master Writer Chair at the Public Theatre. Her newest play “White Noise” is set to premiere at the Public in March starring “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs.
“Being an artist is having a relationship with the thing that’s bigger than me,” Parks said, likening her artistic process to “reaching back to those who have come before to shine a light on the future path.”
Alexus Coney | firstname.lastname@example.org .