Our History, Her Language

Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

The phone rings, again, but playwright Suzan-Lori Parks lets the machine get it, again. She has just realized something.

"We came here a year ago. A year ago today!" In the tiny office on the second floor of her Venice Beach rental house, down the hall from her friendly faced pit bull, Lambchop, Parks jumps up to check the wall calendar.

Confirmed. One year to the day. She likes the timing. And when she likes the timing of something, her face turns into, well, a sunny day in Venice.

These days the orb shines brightly on Parks. The 38-year-old dramatist, screenwriter ("Girl 6"), novelist (first one coming soon) and essayist is best known for nonlinear, zero-gravity plays dealing with ghosts and icons of all kinds, carrying ordinary names such as Lucy or George. Or extraordinary, racially charged ones, such as Black Man With Watermelon, Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork, and Old Man River Jordan.

Her titles alone indicate the high-flying leaps taken therein: "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World," for starters.

Despite an ever-widening stylistic palette and an improbable array of projects, few would think of Parks and "kitchen-sink realism" in the same lifetime, let alone the same sentence.

This may change. Her play "Topdog/Underdog" begins previews Tuesday at New York's Public Theater. Parks is trying to tune out the buzz that this project--on its surface, a slice of old-style, mainstream American realism--may accelerate an already fleet-footed career. The play stars Don Cheadle ("Traffic") and Jeffrey Wright ("Shaft"), and is directed by George C. Wolfe, a longtime Parks supporter and artistic director of the Public Theater.

As if readying a major off-Broadway production wasn't enough, two days before her play's official July 26 opening, Parks is marrying the blues musician Paul Oscher, 51, in a Brooklyn courthouse. (They're honeymooning in Amsterdam.)

In her office not far from the Pacific, such events seem distant. The reason Parks and Oscher set up shop in Venice a year ago lies to the north, in Valencia. Parks now heads the A.S.K. Theater Projects Writing for Performance Program at CalArts. She's entering the second year of a three-year commitment.

"We like it here," Parks says. "Paul's a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn, and I thought [comical low murmur]: He's not gonna like it.

"But we do. Moving here, we were like two kids, bringing our favorite things along, a favorite guitar, our favorite books. You know how when you're kids and you play fort? We're playing fort."

The fort's office has a bookshelf on which sits a dogeared copy of "Basketball for Dummies." Reason? Parks has gone Disney without, one hopes, going Disney. She is 11/2 drafts into "Hoopz," a Disney Theatricals stage project about the Harlem Globetrotters. Typical for any new musical, or a new play with music, depending on which way this one goes, it's years from fruition.

On and above her desk, various CDs and pictures of blues and jazz giants, ranging from Memphis Minnie to "Ella and Basie," provide some portable inspiration.

"Topdog/Underdog" sprang directly out of an earlier Parks effort, "The America Play" (1993). In that play, a figure named the Foundling Father, a black gravedigger, leaves his wife and child to pursue his dream. He becomes an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, charging customers a small fee to take part in the reenactment of John Wilkes Booth's murder of Lincoln.

"Topdog/Underdog" goes a new way with the same historically charged names. It tells a tale of family secrets, three-card monte and a pair of brothers named Lincoln and Booth.

"I'd been thinking about 'The America Play' for a long time," she says, turning down the "Ella and Basie" album a bit. "I thought it'd be fun to write a completely different take on the idea of Lincoln and Booth."

In early 1999, Parks found herself in residence at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, reading a lot of Shakespeare in the off hours. She mentioned her idea to the Wilma dramaturge, and "she looked at me and said, 'Why don't you go home'--meaning back to my little apartment--'and write?' So I went home and wrote."

Three days later, there was "Topdog/Underdog."

Some of her plays took several years; "torture" is one word Parks has used to describe the birthing of a new work. Not this one. It was, says the grateful playwright, "a gift from God, like someone was pouring silver liquid into my head. It was the most wonderful writing experience I've had so far."

Co-star Wright still can't get over it. "I'm slightly awed at someone creating something so layered and so connected and dramatically logical in such a creative rush," he says.

Cheadle, who graduated from CalArts in the mid-1980s and now serves as a board trustee, met Parks at a welcome-to-campus affair. At that get-together, he recalls, "she told me about this play of hers, and right away, when she said the brothers were named Lincoln and Booth"--their father's little joke--"I was like, 'What?"' Cheadle says with a laugh.

In a series of sharp, harshly funny and explosive scenes, the history of the "historical" Lincoln and his assassin repeats itself in "Topdog/Underdog." The brothers share a $400-a-month hole in the wall. Lincoln (Cheadle), former three-card monte whiz, has gone respectable, albeit by way of an odd line of work: He's a white-face Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade who gets hot with blanks for a living. Better than nothing, he says. His brother, Booth (Wright), disagrees while cajoling Lincoln into teaching him the niceties of three-card monte. Along the way, the story of their thorny childhood is revealed and relived.

"It's so much about male energy in a confined space--who's the alpha male," Cheadle says. "But I'll tell you, there's not a moment in it where I thought: A guy wouldn't say that, or a man wouldn't do that.

"If she keeps writing like this, she'll be around for a long, long time."

"Topdog/Underdog" will likely strike many longtime Parks fans as a disarming change-up in form. Cheadle acknowledges that from one angle, the play recalls such dramas as Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot," in its careful dissection of a ritualized brotherly relationship.

Director Wolfe says that Parks' theatrical career may be on the cusp of wider acceptance, the way Sam Shepard sidled up to the mainstream with "Buried Child" and "True West."

In the latter, Wolfe says, "the rhythms and rituals and the intensity of Shepard's earlier plays were suddenly contained within an environment that was more recognizable to most people.

"But I don't think 'Topdog' is straightforward. It's just contained in a room. It's confined to a realistic space, but it has all the earmarks of the rest of Suzan-Lori's plays, the language that is so . . . cascading and brilliant. And in a sense, she's still writing about history chasing people's souls."

In a 1993 Times interview, she described an early work, "Imperceptible Mutabilities of the Third Kingdom"--which remains the sole Parks title to receive a major L.A. staging, eight long years ago--as "the first and last play of mine to deal with black people as an oppressed group. I thought about it, I did it, it was interesting. But it is no longer."

Former Mark Taper Forum staffer Peter Brosius staged "Imperceptible Mutabilities" at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in 1993. Even the recent and widely traveled "In the Blood," a free-hand response to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" and a 2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist, has yet to land on a local stage.

No way around it: Parks is "weirdly underrepresented" here, according to CalArts School of Theatre dean Susan Solt, who wants to help right that wrong. After all, Parks' "America Play" has been part of her theater school's directing course work for years.

"It's silly that she's so close, and we haven't been able to hook up with her yet," acknowledges Taper dramaturge John Glore. He adds that Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson is a fan of Parks' work, and that the Taper's planned second stage in Culver City, with a target opening date of spring 2004, would be a good spatial fit for "In the Blood."

One of three children in a military family, Parks was born in Fort Knox, Ky., to Francis and Donald Parks. The family lived in various states on various military bases, including Ford Ord, Calif. Parks spent the majority of her teen years in what was then West Germany. Her nomad's life helped her to develop a surveillance expert's ear for the traps, permutations and power of language.

Donald and Francis Parks eventually settled in Syracuse, N.Y., where both became educators. Suzan-Lori's sister, Stephanie, recently moved to Syracuse after their father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Her brother, Buddy, lives in Tucson.

Parks attended Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College, graduating cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1985 with a double major in English and German. At nearby Hampshire College, she took a creative writing course from the noted author James Baldwin. He nudged her toward playwriting, and her mentor later declared her "an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time."

After Mount Holyoke, Parks spent a year studying acting in London and then moved to New York to write, supporting herself in various odd jobs (including a brief stint as a phone-sex operator, which came in handy years later for her first screenplay, "Girl 6").

"I knew that the only way I could become a better writer was to study acting," she says. "But I never wanted to be an actor. Never. Ever. Ever." She laughs. "I knew what I wanted to do; I just set out to do it in my own way."

As head of the A.S.K.-funded CalArts Writing for Performance Program, Parks is throwing at her students everything she appreciated in her own education. The CalArts student-teacher ratio is enviable: two students, one teacher in the first year; two more students added the second; two more the third. The course work set up by Parks includes a wide variety of theatrical training in acting, movement, and African dance, plus reading reams of Shakespeare.

One technique Parks favors involves interviewing the student playwrights' characters.

"Two of my favorite questions have been: 'What are you afraid of?' and 'What can you tell me that you think I don't want to hear?' " says CalArts first-year student Patty Cachapero. "It's a way of getting us to listen to the characters and to not impose a political agenda on them."

Parks' own work never carried an obvious polemical theme. From the late 1980s onward, she found supporters for her experimentally bold excursions. She self-produced her first New York project ("Betting on the Dust Commander"), eventually finding creative homes in such places as Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn.

Early influences, she says, were many: poet and playwright Adrienne Kennedy ("Funnyhouse of a Negro"); playwright Ntozake Shange ("For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf"); the circular, incantatory rhythms of Gertrude Stein; the fierce invention and discombobulations of James Joyce.

In something akin to a trance state, Parks' characters speak sorrowfully and joyously and strangely in theatrical poetry unlike anyone else's. That poetry is lace-like in its aural details and repetitions, yet surprisingly muscular.

Like British master Caryl Churchill, says director Wolfe, Parks has the ability to "invent a new form to suit her subject matter--to suit the energy of the play." In the forthcoming Parks play titled "F------A," already seen in Houston and due at the Public Theater next season, Parks concocted a kind of code-language called "Talk," euphemistically twisted argot used primarily when the characters--which include an abortionist--discuss sex or body parts.

Example: "Every month when her period comes she is in hysterics" is translated as "Falltima ovo ella greek tragedy woah-ya." A phrase such as "They're so expensive" comes out a new way: "Woah-ya priceypricey."

On the page, Parks often indicates a transitional moment, or "a spell," by repeating the character names involved. In "Topdog/Underdog" you'll see something like:

LINCOLN

BOOTH

LINCOLN

BOOTH

The actors involved, according to Parks, can fill such spells with "great (unspoken) emotion."

Such moments, Cheadle says, are "a great place to surf. They can be anything.

"But they can't be everything."

Parks' "Hoopz" collaborator, director Marion McClinton, himself a playwright, says that when he met Parks years ago at New Dramatists in Manhattan, he told Parks her work "both fascinated and infuriated me. And she said: 'Oh! Thank you!"' McClinton chuckles at the memory.

"I had no idea where her work was taking me sometimes," McClinton says of "The America Play." "But it challenged me to sit down and say, I'm gonna get it. I'm gonna read the work out loud, and find out what she's going after. And reading it out loud made a huge difference. Her work is what all great dramatists' work is supposed to be: Heard. A lot of her language is old black English juxtaposed against modern language, so that it has both an old blues feel and an avant-garde jazz feel to it."

Parks and McClinton now find themselves in the "Hoopz" seats vacated by the project's former collaborators. (The original team consisted of director Kenny Leon, and Savion Glover and Reg E. Gaines, who co-created "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" with Wolfe.) Parks' story outline begins with a present-day basketball hotshot, a guy "with an attitude, who gets into it on the court with somebody for some reason, and he gets shot and killed.

"So we're in there with Stuart Oken," Parks says of a recent story meeting with the executive vice president of Disney Theatricals, "and the Disney folks are thinking, OK, main character gets killed in the first 10 minutes....And I say: 'But then! But then! The guy gets a second chance at life. The catch is, second chance takes him back to 1946, so he time-travels and has to hang out with the Globetrotters. And that's how we get into the story."

Parks realizes "Hoopz," whose composer has yet to be hired, will undergo several years' development. She knows this, though: She didn't want to write a conventional "biopic, bio-musical, you know. Bio-musical--sounds like a fungus. What we're trying to do is find a way to integrate the present into the past."

In "F------A," a densely plotted fairy tale that took several years to complete, a butcher speaks of his troublemaking daughter, Lulu, "always into something bad." As evidence, he reels off a hilariously long list of infractions, before getting to the charges of "raising the dead, envisioning the future, remembering the past."

It's true of every character to wander a Suzan-Lori Parks landscape.

"Most playwrights who consider themselves avant-garde spend a lot of time bad-mouthing the more traditional forms," Parks wrote in a 1994 essay. "The naturalism of, say, Lorraine Hansberry ['Raisin in the Sun'] is beautiful and should not be dismissed simply because it's naturalism....I don't explode the form because I find traditional plays 'boring'--I don't really. It's just that those structures never could accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me."

So how did "Topdog/Underdog" happen? One-set, two-character realism, from one of America's most inspired experimentalists?

"Each play is different, because the stories are different," she says. "I don't think there's one style going on. 'Topdog' is different from 'In the Blood' but kinda the same, you know, 'gritty,' 'violent.' But this next one has people breaking into songs [lyrics by Parks], 'The Meat Man Is a Good Man to Marry,' all kinds of stuff. And I wonder what people are going to think. I mean, I don't know what to think."

After the May interview in Venice, Parks returned to Mount Holyoke to deliver the commencement address. In a rousing, funny speech (you can read it online at http://http://138.110.28.9/offices/comm/oped ), she exhorted the graduating students to not merely spend their lives, but to "splurge" them, to "envision yrself living a life that you love."

The reception she got, she says, "made me feel like a rock star--all those screaming women! Incredible."

Later that month, she returned to New York for "Topdog/Underdog" rehearsals.

"I'm having a great time," she said recently by phone. "I'm taking a day off because the men need to do their male bonding kinda thing, the secret handshakes or whatever. It's more intense than usual, this play, because there are only two actors, who are greater than great. And working with George brings everything to another level. Everyone's focusing more, and concentrating harder, and digging deeper.

"I was thinking just this morning how much I like to pick a writer and hole up, read a whole bunch, really soak it up. And I kept thinking, When? When? Right now I don't have any time to be all by myself for a couple of months, reading. School starts up in September. We're having a reading [at the Public] of 'Peer Gynt,' which I'm adapting. And there's a wedding coming up! I have to think about the dress!

"So, yeah. It's a very busy time. But I told George the other day that for some reason, the combination of this play, the director and the actors just feels incredible. What is ['Topdog'] going to turn out to be? I don't know. It's hard not to have expectations. But then, expectations depend on the actions of people I've never met.

"I do know that every day, with the changes and tweaks that I make, it's getting better. Sometimes George'll say: 'We need more of this; you don't go far enough here.' So I'll write a whole page in rehearsal, which I never do, because it feels sure. Not safe. But sure."

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