Style

The Playwright Who Fearlessly Reimagines America

When the playwright Suzan- Lori Parks was in high school,a teacher asked what she wanted to be as an adult. Parks already knew. She had been sitting under the family piano writing songs and plays since elementary school. “I was like, ‘I wanna be a writer,’” she recalled. The teacher’s response was not encouraging. “It was suggested to me that I not be a writer — because I was such a poor speller.”

Listen to this article, read by Janina Edwards

Open this article in the New York Times Audio app on iOS.

Rather than sink into discouragement, Parks absorbed the insult, turning it into part of her origin story. “I appreciated the note,” she said wryly, “because it planted a little seed in my subconscious: I gotta learn to spell. So I’m really good at spelling now.” She has recast that potentially hurtful experience using her own distinct sense of playfulness, frequently deploying the phrase “a spell” as a stage direction. She defines it as an elongated pause, or a place “where the figures experience their pure true state.”

When we met in January at a downtown cafe, Parks greeted me enthusiastically, standing before a wall of blooming flowers in the dead of New York winter. Dressed in purple-and-lavender-striped fingerless gloves, fur-lined boots and a black Comme des Garçons jacket, she looked every bit the iconoclastic downtown New Yorker. At 60, Parks carries herself with the energy of someone half her age, her presence a combination of gravitas and lightness, wisdom and childlike exuberance. One of America’s most celebrated playwrights — a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant,” a Guggenheim fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize — she is in the midst of a renaissance. There is renewed recognition that her plays, inventive provocations whose sometimes scathing visions of race and gender can unsettle audiences, have something to tell us about the troublesome relationship between individual identity and national community.

Heidi Griffiths, a longtime collaborator and friend of Parks’s who has worked as her casting director, described the playwright to me as someone “who will go off into the wilderness and find a place that she has to excavate. Often the things she reveals are the things that history has left long buried. She doesn’t look away; she keeps excavating.”

The 2022 Tony Award-winning revival of “Topdog/Underdog” was a reminder of the intellectual and aesthetic commitments that make Parks a one-of-a-kind figure in American theater. It starred Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins as two brothers who are victims of an existential joke. Before their parents abandoned them, their father named them Lincoln and Booth — after the American president and the man who assassinated him. Lincoln, who works at a local arcade as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and is repeatedly assassinated, moves in with his younger brother, Booth, after his wife throws him out. Booth, a street hustler, wants Lincoln to teach him three-card monte, a game Lincoln mastered before giving it up for a respectable, if demoralizing, job. They are loving yet also distrustful and wounded, interacting with the world through a bittersweet swagger. Through the brothers, Parks brought vital, sometimes biting street language into the theater. She also suggested how history resonates down through generations. Lincoln’s repeated assassination is not just a clever conceit: In watching the brothers, we witness how the American backlash against emancipation shadows Black life.

Related Articles

Check Also
Close
Back to top button