Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wins $300,000 Gish Prize

Suzan-Lori Parks has reason to feel like a million dollars: On Wednesday she will be announced as the winner of the $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, organizers said, raising her total arts prizes from the last 10 years into seven figures.

The Gish Prize, established in 1994 by a bequest from Lillian Gish and named for her and her actress sister, is for “highly accomplished artists…who have pushed the boundaries of their art forms, contributed to social change and paved the way for the next generation,” according to the announcement.

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It’s at least the fifth big-dollar arts prize that Parks has won since 1996, when she was tapped for a $50,000 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. And that doesn’t count the $10,000 Parks received from Columbia University when her play, “Topdog/Underdog,” won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in drama. Parks also won an undisclosed John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2000.

In the announcement, Parks noted the illustrious roster of Gish Prize winners she joins,  among them Bob Dylan, Frank Gehry, Ornette Coleman, Arthur Miller, Spike Lee (whose 1996 film, “Girl 6,” Parks scripted) and Maya Lin.

“I’ve been looking up to them and following in their footsteps for years,” she said. “And now I’m invited to join them? It’s brilliantly trippy.”

Parks was one of 54 nominees considered by a five-member selection committee that included fiction writer A.M. Homes; Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center; Ella Baff, head of the arts and culture program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Mikki Shepard, executive director of the Apollo Theater in New York City; and Russell Granet, education chief at Lincoln Center.

Baff, who chaired the committee, said that choosing Parks “underscored the continuing importance of dramatic writing in giving voice to the endless variety of human experience and shaping our society.”

This year Parks also banked the $100,000 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, given through Columbia University, for her most recent play, “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3).”

The three-hour drama about the experiences of a slave who follows his Confederate master off to the Civil War premiered last fall at New York’s Public Theater and will open April 19 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

In 2006, Parks won the $100,000 Edward McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT -- for artists “whose creative trajectory reveals that they will achieve the highest distinction in their fields and continue to produce inspiring work for many years to come.”

In 2001 she won a $500,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Despite Parks becoming an Angeleno during the early and mid-2000s, when she spent four years heading the dramatic writing program at California Institute of the Arts, her work hasn’t been seen much on major L.A.-area stages.

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The Taper did “Topdog/Underdog” in 2004, and South Coast Repertory revived it in 2010. “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” for which Parks updated the original libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, came to the Ahmanson Theatre in 2014 after a Broadway run. Parks also wrote the book for “Ray Charles Live! A New Musical,” which premiered in 2007 at the Pasadena Playhouse but failed to flourish.

Parks, who now lives in New York City, first gained notice in 1989 with “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom,” which won an Obie Award for off-Broadway excellence. That show was staged at the Odyssey Theatre in 1993; Theatre @Boston Court produced Parks’ “The America Play” in 2006.

Also in 2006, Parks used her stature to instigate a sort of one-author national theater festival by recruiting theaters from across the country to do free performances of her “365 Plays/365 Days,” 365 short works she’d written at the rate of one a day.

Parks holds the Master Writer Chair at the Public Theater, where she’s offering a series of free shows in its lobby called “Watch Me Work” that combine performance with a writing workshop. The announcement on the theater’s website says that “the audience is invited to come and watch [Parks] work and/or to share the space and get some of their own writing work done.”

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