Suzan-Lori Parks stages the fight for freedom in her new Civil War-set play

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is far too independent an artist to feel comfortable in the role of African American spokesperson. But she didn't hold back when asked for her thoughts about the controversy over Hollywood's diversity problem that came to a head with another overwhelmingly white edition of the Academy Awards.

At lunch at the trendy Bowery Hotel not far from the Public Theater, where her heralded drama "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" had its 2014 world premiere (the play opens Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum), she complimented Chris Rock on the job he did hosting the Oscars. But to the question he posed in his opening monologue — "Is Hollywood racist?" — Parks had a no-nonsense answer.

"Yeah, and so is America," she said. "Hollywood is only as interesting as the rest of the country. Hollywood thinks, 'We're separate, we're cool, we're gorgeous, we're glamorous, we walk on red carpets all day.' Guess what? You're all just as kookaburra as the rest of us."

What interests her is the way the movie business reflects the nation. "Hollywood doesn't particularly value the contributions of women," she said. "Interesting that neither does the rest of the country on any given day. Hollywood enjoys and seems to encourage crazy violence. Gosh, that's happening in the rest of the country too."

Parks is glad there's a conversation happening around these issues but doesn't see this as grounds for congratulations. "I was at the University of Utah recently giving a lecture and sitting down with an awesome group of faculty," she recalled. "One of them was saying, 'This country should be better than that,' just like we say, 'Hollywood should be better than that.' Yo, yo, yo, let's get real. Hollywood is exactly what it is and should not get a pat on the back for looking at itself or laughing at Chris Rock's jokes."

A dramatist who enjoys caricaturing cultural attitudes in her work, she went on an improvisatory riff: "Diversity and inclusion are such a pain and I'm a good person when I do it and I'm so annoyed I have to include more roles for women and black people. Oh poor me. I'm just so trodden upon!"

This wasn't a subject that Parks, a charmingly sociable playwright, came to discuss. But confronting the world in all its shameless contradictions is her hallmark. She has a writer's compassionate gaze, but her mode of being is theatrical. She is every inch a dramatist — a point that was underscored when the sound of something crashing into the window right next to our corner table provoked an impromptu vignette.

"Sounds like someone fell off a ledge," Parks said, leaning over to see what was going on. "Hello, do we need to help you?" she shouted, giggling in disbelief.

The tinted window preserved the mystery, but could someone really have fallen onto the new pristine Bowery, a destination these days not for bums but millennial dandies?

"I'm making the most dramatic choice," she replied. "There would be people screaming if that had happened. No, they're doing construction."

Back to our "beautiful food," as Parks joyfully christened it, and to the real subject of our meeting, her even more beautiful career. Since she burst onto the scene with "Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom" in the late 1980s, this Army brat who was born in Kentucky, attended school in Germany and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1985, has created a body of work that has made her one of the most decorated playwrights of her generation.

Parks, a preternaturally youthful 52, has won nearly everything. The Herb Alpert Award, multiple Obies, the Pulitzer Prize for "Topdog/Underdog" (she was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer for drama), a MacArthur "genius" grant and, most recently, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. This last award was particularly meaningful to her not only because it came with $300,000 but because it cuts across artistic disciplines, something she has striven to do in her work, which bridges poetry and music in drama.

A finalist last year for the Pulitzer Prize, "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" has added to her trove. The play received the $100,000 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.

Representing a swerve for Parks into episodic long-form storytelling, this is the first installment in a Civil War drama that she now believes will have 12 parts divided into four separate plays. Hero, the protagonist, is a slave who is persuaded to fight for the Confederacy on the promise that if he joins his master in battle he will win his liberty. Parks takes up a classic subject of drama — freedom — exploring it not just as an existential conundrum à la Sophocles but as a traumatic historical condition.

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, where Parks has been in residence as the master writer chair, told me that he considers this "the best play she has ever written." Parks smiled when she heard this but said she leaves those calculations to others.

Some artists grow cautious when being taped for an on-the-record conversation, but Parks hardly seemed to notice the micro-recorder next to the attention-stealing breadbasket. ("Here we go," she said. "Don't eat the bread, eat the bread, don't eat the bread, eat the bread.") She asked me about my life in Los Angeles (we met as judges on the Obie Awards in the late 1990s) and updated me on her divorce, her young son and her recent engagement to a guy she met on an Internet dating site.

Parks' plays reflect the spontaneous, direct and utterly infectious energy of their creator. Her early works — "Imperceptible Mutabilities," "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World" and "The America Play" — were marked by a dreamlike fluidity that brought to mind the great Adrienne Kennedy. But the verbal inventiveness, a melange of jazz, Beckett and spoken word, was purely Parks' own.

The three dramas that followed this period — "Venus," "In the Blood" and one with an unprintable title that, like "In the Blood," was loosely inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" — had narratives that were more readily graspable. These plays, produced at the Public Theater under George C. Wolfe's leadership, had some complaining that Parks was losing her avant-garde edge, that she was becoming more accessible and, good heavens, institutional.

"I'm not sure what that was about," Parks reflected. "I guess it was some fear that I was leaving this little world downtown, where you're 'real.' What is that even?"

The success of "Topdog/Underdog," Parks' 2001 play about a pair of brothers named Booth and Lincoln whose sibling dynamic takes on a syncopated historical rhythm, was both exhilarating and disorienting. She wrote the play in three days ("it came very quickly, the way a lot of things do when they've been brewing for years"), and it was an immediate sensation.

"George C. Wolfe directed it downtown with Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright," she said. "And then we had Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright uptown, with George C. directing. The play opened on Broadway on a Sunday and won the Pulitzer on a Monday. It was like, 'Oh, man!'"

Success of this magnitude isn't easy to follow, but Parks, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, a stone's throw from the beach in Venice, had one advantage: She wasn't interested in repeating herself. She taught at the California Institute of the Arts, she wrote a novel ("Getting Mother's Body"), and she worked on the TV adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" for Oprah Winfrey.

Her next theatrical project, however, surprised everyone. Parks committed to writing a play a day for a year. The producing vision for "365 Days/365 Plays" was equally outlandish: a grass-roots theater festival involving scores of theater folk nationwide.

"I started writing in November, the year I won the Pulitzer," she said. "I didn't know it then, but looking back it was my way of saying thank you to the art form..... I will bow to you every single day and offer the little thing that I have in my mind to you. It was devotional."

From a certain vantage, it may have seemed as if "Topdog/Underdog" had knocked this gifted dramatist off course. "365 Days/365 Plays" was more notable for its communal goodwill than for its artistic impact. "Getting Mother's Body" received mixed reviews. The book she wrote for a Ray Charles jukebox musical, which opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007 and is still vying for Broadway, could easily be mistaken for commercial work-for-hire. And her rewrite of the book for "Porgy and Bess" ignited controversy when Stephen Sondheim criticized the creative team's presumption. (The production, though polarizing, went on to win the Tony for best musical revival.)

Parks wasn't concerned if some saw her as artistically adrift. "There are people clamoring for me to be something. But for an artist, the biggest person you have to answer to, aside from your mom or your dad ('Oh, I hope they like it!'), is yourself. I'm tuned into the world, but when it comes to expectations, who do I answer to? I answer to myself."

This is a philosophy she tries to instill in her students at New York University and in those writers who join her for Watch Me Work, the live-streaming workshop she conducts at the Public. "I'm always saying, 'Listen to that small voice within,'" she said. "That's where your writer's voice is."

This doesn't stop people from offering Parks their two cents. "I still get it today," she said. "There are people who need to tell me when they meet me that 'Topdog/Underdog' wasn't such a good play. 'You know, it's not really your best play,' they'll say. As if they think I'm going to take my name off the cover because they don't like it."

In an early essay, "An Equation for Black People Onstage," Parks raised a few provocative questions: "Can a White person be present onstage and not be an oppressor? Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed? For the Black writer, are there Dramas other than race dramas? Does Black life consist of issues other than race issues?" In Parks' view, "There is no such thing as THE Black Experience." Her mission: "to explore The-Drama-of-the-Black-Person-as-an-Integral-Facet-of-the-Universe."

She's not discounting the importance of racial concerns. "They're big, important issues," she acknowledged. "But there are questions of the human condition — Who am I? What am I doing here? These are issues that everybody asks regardless of their race or gender or upbringing or social status or whatever. As people of African descent, we should remind ourselves that we're not merely supposed to be addressing questions of race relations. I say 'race relations' in a funny little voice because, gosh, the white man is standing on my neck again. The plays like that are very important and at a certain point they begin to serve the needs of white narcissism."

Parks, who studied with writer James Baldwin in college, flatly rejects the idea that black characters need to be seen always in relationship to white characters. Drama for her has its roots in what she calls the "mythic or epic experience."

"Once we recognize that we exist within this context, we can see the connections between our lives and the folks in 'Ramayana' or the 'Mahabharata' or 'The Odyssey' or 'The Oresteia' or the epic works of Horton Foote or those 10 great plays of August Wilson or any of the works that chart that ginormous wave of human experience," she said. "Even though they differ widely in style and scope, all of my plays recognize that we're part of this huge wave."

Music is a crucial element. For Parks, lyric is what arises when characters are pressed on all sides. "That's when the wine flows out of them," she said.

Parks wrote the songs for "Father Comes Home From the Wars" and even performed them onstage with her guitar in an early workshop production at the Public that was directed by Jo Bonney, who staged the New York premiere and is helming the Taper production. "These are not elaborate songs," she stressed. "We're not talking Mozart or the Gershwins."

But songwriting has become an integral part of her creative life. "I love to play out," she exclaimed.

In its exploration of history through a contemporary theatrical filter, "Father Comes Home From the Wars" represents a pure distillation of the Parks aesthetic. She owns her style here with an agile grace.

"I appreciate that you recognize that because that's the subject of the whole play," she said. "What do you do if you're allowed to own yourself? How can you own yourself even before freedom comes? And after freedom comes, what is the best use of yourself?"

Freedom, a birthright, never gets easier — not even for a master playwright. "One would think you develop these muscles of craft and then you can sit down and repeat yourself," she said. "But what I've discovered is that you're onto the next level, like in a video game."

When she gets stuck, she calls on her ancestors. "We are tough," she said in her sunshiny way. "Not getting nominated for an Oscar isn't going to stop us from working. Lack of opportunities, obvious inequities, unfairness, evil, hatred, lies are not going to make us want to stay home and quit. Whether you're black or white, you can look at your heritage and find someone there who endured. You call on them, and you keep on going."

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on April 17, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Moving a stage past race - Suzan-Lori Parks goes deeper into `mythic or epic experience' in plays." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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