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If you like Suzan-Lori Parks's story, you might also like:
Edward Albee,
Maya Angelou,
Rita Dove,
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Whoopi Goldberg,
James Earl Jones,
Audra McDonald,
Trevor Nunn,
Rosa Parks,
Sidney Poitier,
Harold Prince,
Lloyd Richards,
Amy Tan,
Wole Soyinka,
Esperanza Spalding,
Julie Taymor and
Oprah Winfrey

Suzan-Lori Parks can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Suzan-Lori Parks's recommended reading:
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Related Links:
The Show Woman
The Pulitzer Prize
Barclay Agency

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Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks
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Suzan-Lori Parks Interview (page: 6 / 7)

Pulitzer Prize for Drama

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  Suzan-Lori Parks

You've said that you don't read your press, so if we're divulging something that you're not ready to hear...

Suzan-Lori Parks: I'll close my ears.

But we read a great story about you as a beginning playwright approaching a theater critic on the subway for advice. "Where can I send my scripts?" What led you to do that and what came of it?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Desperation. I'd been in New York for several years working the temp jobs, the temp word processing jobs which allowed me to write. I was just typing for people. They did have spell-check, thank God.

I had to take a secretarial course because I was not a fast typer. So I learned to type a million words a minute. It was amazing. So I had been doing that, those day jobs, and writing, writing, writing at night. Writing my plays at night, and hanging out in various places and volunteering my work. Like, "I'll help clean your theater," I said to one group of folks, "Just so I can be around you guys, I'll be the janitor team." Lots of young, up-and-coming artists do that sort of thing. Didn't have a desire to go to graduate school, because I'd had James Baldwin as a teacher. I touch my forehead because it's like he gave me a kiss on the forehead. I had James Baldwin as a teacher, and I didn't feel that I needed to enroll in another academic program, but I needed to do the work.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

So I was doing the work, going to theaters, checking out folks.

I went to one show, and I heard someone say, "Alisa Solomon is here," something like that, and I looked up. I knew she was the very much esteemed critic from the Village Voice, and then, as luck would have it, we were both on the same train. It was an empty train car, late at night. I can look strange late at night in an empty train car. Little did I know, she's a third-degree black belt in karate. I didn't know this. So she's at the other end of the car, and I'm like, "Oh man, here's my chance." Desperation. I'd go walking up to her. Little did I know, she's getting ready to Hai ya! Luckily, she didn't hit me, and allowed me to say, "Excuse me. You're Alisa Solomon. I'm a desperate playwright. Where do I send my work?" She rattled off some places. She was very kind, very kind, and we're still friends today.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

She's fantastic, one of these fantastic people in the theater. She gave me a list. I sent a play to every single one. One of them, BACA, downtown in Brooklyn, bore fruit. They ended up doing Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, which won the Obie in 1990 for Best New American Play. So it was very wonderful. So that was a long answer to a short question, but it brought back all those memories.

So that's a good piece of advice, too, to use your contacts, use those opportunities.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Don't be afraid to go up to someone who's maybe further along in their career than you are and ask them for their advice. The kind of advice -- I mean, for example, I did not go up to her and say, "Hi. I'm a playwright. Could you read my play?" I didn't, because I knew better. I just said, "Off the top of your head, do you have any advice?" That kind of thing. So approach these people with respect for their time, but do approach them, definitely, because we all will say, "Oh, do such and such," or whatever.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

You attracted a lot of attention with a play called Venus. It was an unusual subject. Could you tell us how you came to write it?

Suzan-Lori Parks: I was at a cocktail party. I heard someone talking about a woman named Saartjie Baartman, from the southern region of Africa. In the 1800s, so the history tells us, she was part of what they called "Hottentot" or Khoisan peoples. Some of the women in the Khoisan peoples are distinguished by very large buttocks. So she was taken to England and exhibited as a freak or as "a curiosity," I think was the term they used. So I heard people talking about this over at a cocktail party, and I thought, "Wow! I really want to write a play about her." Actually, initially, it was include her in a play which is about a lot of people. I included her in the play and of course she took over the play, and it became all about her. It's not a history play. It's not the History Channel. It's a play about her and also about love. There are historical elements in it, and there's a lot of fiction in it, too.

What was the response to your play Venus?

Suzan-Lori Parks Interview Photo
Suzan-Lori Parks: Well, people are still doing the play. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and say "I was in Venus." I was in Chicago the other day, and I met this young man Ian. I nicknamed him Art Garfunkel, because he looks like Art Garfunkel, but his real name is Ian. He directed a production of Venus, and he was just telling me, "Oh my God! It blew my mind!" So it's been blowing minds. Sometimes people say, "Oh gee, you should have made her more this and that and this and that..." and I remind them that it's not the History Channel, it's a play. And she does have agency. So it stimulates a lot of conversation, but overwhelmingly, I think for people who do the play, and who see a production of the play, it's very moving. It's very painful. It's a very painful, sad, difficult play because ultimately it's about love, which is a difficult subject, if you really go into it. There's the character of the doctor. He loves her, and he cuts her up, which is difficult. She's dead. He doesn't cut her up when she's alive, although he does -- well, anyway, you've got to read the play or see the play.

Your play In the Blood was inspired by Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It originally had a different title, didn't it?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Fucking A. There are actually two plays. Everything has a long story. I'm like a grandma on the porch.

I was in a canoe with a friend, paddling along, and I said to the friend, I hollered up to the friend, "I'm going to write a play, a riff on The Scarlet Letter, and I'm going to call it Fucking A. Ha, ha, ha!" We laughed in the canoe. As we dragged the canoe back to shore, the idea had deeply hooked me, and I knew that I had to write a play, a riff on The Scarlet Letter called Fucking A. Funny enough, I hadn't read The Scarlet Letter yet. I hadn't yet read the book, I just knew the story. Went home, read the book, and that became the long process of writing a play called Fucking A.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I worked on it. Draft, draft, draft, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite for like four years, sat in front of my computer one day and said, "This is not working." Threw out everything that wasn't working, threw out all the plot,. It wasn't like The Scarlet Letter at all. So I threw out the plot, threw out all the characters. I got down to two things. One was a character named Hester, and one was the title, Fucking A. I threw out Hester, kept the title, and I heard a voice in my head, "What about my play?" and I said, "You're not..." Hester says, "What about my play?" I say, " I'm cutting you because you don't work. It doesn't work. So I'm cutting everything that doesn't work." She says, "Oh yes, yes, yes. I have a play," and in five seconds, I had the whole story of a play. I knew that play wasn't called Fucking A. "So what's the name of your play?" She said, "In the Blood." I said, "Oh." So I very quickly was able to write a play called In the Blood which is about Hester La Negrita and her five children by five different fathers.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

She talks a lot about the hand of fate, "the big hand coming down on me." It's a big hand coming down on her, the hand of fate. And after I wrote that play, then I was able to go back and write a play called Fucking A, which is about another woman named Hester, Hester Smith, who is an abortionist. That play has songs in it and revenge. It's a revenge tragedy, that play. So I got two plays out of that.

You have to listen to those voices when they talk to you.

Suzan-Lori Parks: You do. The more I write, the more I feel that that's what my writing is all about.

I don't have anything to say. I don't have "a message." I have nothing to say. I have things to show, and my writing all comes from listening. The more I can listen, the more I can write. Once I think I have something to say, it's over. I can't hear anything, because I'm talking.

So you have to get out of the way of the play in order to write it down?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. Kind of tune it. Topdog was different. That was the one exception.

Was there a connection between Topdog/Underdog and your earlier work, The America Play?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Well yes, the Abraham Lincoln thing. What's up with Abraham Lincoln? People ask me...

"Why do you write about Abraham Lincoln?" "Why do you choose Lincoln?" they ask me, someone asked me the other day. I finally realized, I don't choose Lincoln. Lincoln chooses me. It's a continual choosing, and I'm not sure why, but here I am. Yes. The America Play, which was produced in New York initially in 1994, a story about a Lincoln impersonator, an African American Abraham Lincoln impersonator. So it's about this guy who bore a strong resemblance to "Abraham Link-kuuuhn, he says. I say it like he does, "Link-kuuuhn," and he went out west and began to dig what he called "a replica of the Great Hole of History." So he was this digger -- ha, ha, joke -- and digging this hole -- ha, ha. It's a lot of silly jokes in that play. Digging this hole. Then in the second act, his family comes to look for him because they haven't heard from him in ages, and they find his remains, but that was the first time that Lincoln chose me.

It was literally as if he walked into the room. Not the historical Lincoln. This other guy, this black guy who looked just like him walked into the room, sat down, and started telling me, "There was once a man who bore a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln..." and all I was doing was just writing down what he said. It was trippy. Yeah! So that was in 1994-ish, and then in 1999, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, Emily Morris, a wonderful dramaturg, and I said to her, "Oh, I know what I'm going to write about. Two brothers: Lincoln and Booth." Ba-dump-bump. Ha ha! We started laughing, just like the canoe, Fucking A. Ha, ha, ha. It's always a joke, not a funny joke, but a joke with a hook, and I was hooked. I was hooked by the great fisherman, and I went home and wrote it quickly, and it was like silver liquid in my head.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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