Thank you for being here today.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Thanks for having me.
Topdog/Underdog has been your most acclaimed play to date; it won the Pulitzer Prize. Let's talk about that play and the relationship between the two brothers. One of them was a three-card monte player.
Suzan-Lori Parks: There are two brothers in the play. It's a two-hander. Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, African American men, in their 30s, kind of, and one is a booster, meaning he goes out and steals things. What do you call it? Shoplifts things, putting them under his coat and whatnot. And the other gentleman works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade where people come in and shoot him. It's complicated. So he works as a Lincoln impersonator, but he used to throw cards, meaning he used to do three-card monte, like the shell game, but with playing cards. He used to throw cards on the street, and he was the best that ever lived. He felt one day that that was going to be his death, so he swore to never touch the cards again.
The difficulty in the play is that he's remembering himself basically. Through the course of the play, this young man remembers who he is, and what his calling is, and he is called to throw the cards again. It proves to be very difficult for him. If he could just not remember who he really is and keep on impersonating Abraham Lincoln, he would be all right. But it's not enough.
He's sort of dragged down. There's a force like gravity, isn't there?
Suzan-Lori Parks: It is almost, or drag almost. He's pulled into himself. He's literally "re-minded." He remembers who he is.
Was Adam reminded of who he was? Adam like the "Adam-in-the-Bible" Adam. Was he reminded? Is that what the snake did? Did the snake remind him of who he was? So was he dragged down into his own humanity and to his own -- what do you call it? Mortality? Because that's what happens to this gentleman, Lincoln, in Topdog/Underdog. He is reminded of his own self, which means -- that's right, 'cause Adam ate from the tree of life and learned about death. And that's what it is. He's reminded of himself, so he moves from the historical into life. Anyway, when I think about the play, then I start going, "Woo!" but I don't really think about it that much.
There seems to be almost a cosmic aspect to these brothers, because somebody named them Lincoln and Booth.
Maybe names aren't something we should fool around with that much.
Suzan-Lori Parks: They have power. They have a lot of power, as does name-calling. There's a lot of that in the media these days, people calling people things, mostly unkind things, and who has the right to call who what? Context is everything -- everything. We have to be aware that names have a lot of power.
What was it about Lincoln, as a historical figure, that captured your imagination?
Suzan-Lori Parks: What is it about Lincoln that hooks me first? It's his costume. That's not irreverent or dissing Lincoln. You know what I'm saying? It's his costume: the hat, the beard, the height. This is from a person who as a child was very drawn to mythic characters. So the hat, the beard, the height, I think that that has burned itself in the imagination of the universe in a very deep way, and even if he had been just -- I don't know. Then the other things around it I think -- I don't know -- but I think that we can't dismiss that, because all the world's a stage, and the costume is very, very important. And he freed the slaves and whoo! You can imagine that. There they go, running free.
You know, he spoke in a high voice. That is always a little piece of the puzzle that makes me go "Hmmm." How high was his voice? Can you imagine a man that tall speaking like this? They say in some African countries that the dead speak in nasal tones, and I always find that fantastic that he had a high voice. And he was shot in a theater by an actor. That's what draws me to him a lot, also. Costume? Free the slaves? That's icing on the gravy. Shot in a theater by an actor. How good is that? If you're a playwright, it just doesn't get any better than that.
You mentioned Adam in the Bible. There is almost a sense in your play that the historical Lincoln was destined to be shot by Booth, that there was almost a sense of original sin, maybe that he was too pure for this world, that there was an inexorable tragedy that was going to come.
The same way with John Lennon. His costume wasn't quite as elaborate and dramatic and amazing, but I think he had an awareness of himself as part of the pageant. I think that's why we connect to people like that. I think you're totally right about Lincoln, but that's not what people want to hear. "Talk about how he freed the slaves and stuff." Well, that was part of it, but it wasn't the deep thing, you know. It wasn't the deeper or bigger thing.
What was the experience like, writing Topdog/Underdog? Was it different in any way from your other plays?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. It was like silver liquid being poured in the back of my head. That's what that was like.
Usually, it's just like I can hear talking. Topdog was like -- I thought that if I looked up -- I didn't, as I was writing, because I wrote for three days, or 72 hours. People said, "Well, you wrote from this day to that," but it was like a three-day period. Wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, and I thought if I looked up, I would see someone pouring silver liquid into the back of my head. That's what it felt like. It was just like "I know."
That's one of those bricks, those story bricks. The lesson from that is: I am not a three-day writer. Though I was, just that once.
A few years ago, you had this idea to write 365 plays in 365 days. You've described it as almost like a prayer to the theater, or to art. How did that come about? It's still going on.
Suzan-Lori Parks: It is. The production is still going on. The production started in November 2006 and will continue through November 12, 2007. My husband Paul was there when it sort of came, from the great prompter who stands off stage, continually whispering things in my ear.
We were hanging out at our house in Venice Beach, and I said to Paul, my husband, "I'm going to write..." and I talked in this voice, which is funny, because maybe the nasal tone thing -- Oh, it gets kind of creepy! "I'm going to write a play a day, and I'm going to call it 365 Days/365 Plays. Wow!" Paul wears his sunglasses -- his shades -- all the time, 'cause he's a blues musician. He's sitting on the couch like this, and he goes, "Yeah, baby. That'd be cool," like that. I said, "I'm going to do this", and he said, "That'd be cool." There it began. I ran upstairs and started right then. It was the 13th of November 2003, I think, or maybe 2002. I can't remember. Anyway, 2002 or 2003. And I wrote a play a day. The first one was called Start Here.
One effect is that some of the bigger theater companies, who are kind of up on the hill, are joining hands with smaller community-based companies. They don't usually have a lot of contact, and now they're coming together. So in a way, you're bringing the theater community together. Was that intentional?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Not in the writing of it. I have nothing to say. I have things to show.
I just wanted to say thank you to theater for being. I wanted to say thank you, and the way I say thank you is by writing in the way I wanted to. I wanted to embrace the everyday occurrence. I would wake up in the morning and say, "Oh look, there's a rabbit running across the lawn." Hopping, I suppose. "Oh, the play for the day is called Rabbit," for example. Or perhaps a writer or someone had died. I'd wake up in the morning and hear that Carol Shields, the wonderful writer, had died, so there's a play for Carol Shields, or Johnny Cash or Idi Amin, and they would get their tribute plays. Or I'd wake up in the morning and think, "Oh, I want to write one of my project plays," I call them. So I'd write Project Ulysses or Project Macbeth or Project Tempest. Or "Oh, I think I'll write Hamlet. Hamlet is a great play, and The Hamlet is a great novel by William Faulkner. Put them together and write Hamlet the Hamlet."
Sometimes they're done as curtain raisers, and sometimes they're the whole show.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Exactly. Sometimes they're done as little features in the lobby while folks are coming into a mainstage production. The City of Seattle is doing a play a day. Every single day, they're doing the play that was written on that day. It rains a lot in Seattle, so a lot of the pictures that I've seen, they're doing it under a series of umbrellas. It's gorgeous. Each city is doing them in their own fashion, as they choose, because we really wanted the individual cities to take charge. In Washington, D.C. they're doing them, and in Atlanta, Chicago, the Northeast. They call it "The Storm Front," because the show will move from Boston to Connecticut. It will move like a storm front. People are having fun.
In a way, you're sort of demystifying playwriting by saying, "I can write a play a day."
Suzan-Lori Parks: Exactly, which doesn't make it any less incredible somehow.
It doesn't make it any less like, "Wow," by saying, "I can write a play a day, and so can you, and so can you, and so can we all." Or a poem. A lot of people have said, "I'm going to write a poem a day." Great! Or a lot of folks coming up, younger writers, have said, "I'm going to do it, too." Great! So they feel empowered. It doesn't make it any less special. What's that saying in Zen meditation? "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water." So it doesn't make it any less special. We're just trying to say it's out there. It's available to everyone. It's something that everyone can do. We open up the window of opportunity in your mind, and we're not necessarily encouraging everybody to become a playwright, but we're encouraging everyone to open up the window of opportunity and see what happens.
We want to talk about your childhood, and what led you to writing. Your father was in the Army when you were growing up, so you moved around a lot. What was that like? You've said it wasn't such a bad thing.
Suzan-Lori Parks: It's a difficult experience to describe. We're in Washington, D.C. today, and there are a lot of people here who know what that's like. In a way, it's not a bad thing, but it's a tricky thing.
We tried to move at the end of every school year. So summertime, we'd move, which meant that every September, we were the new kid in school. That was often kind of hard because, you have those weeks when you're standing there with your lunch tray, and you're saying, "Who will eat lunch with me?" and you're waiting for someone to wave you over to their table. That's kind of difficult. But also, it's great to meet new people who live in different places, from California to Texas to Germany, things like that. So like most blessings, it's a mixed blessing.
Are you from Kentucky originally?
Suzan-Lori Parks: I was born in Kentucky. Born in Fort Knox. So we lived in Kentucky, we lived in Fort Knox. I was born there and then, 1963, my father got transferred or reassigned to Greensboro, North Carolina. So we moved right away. One of the earliest memories I have is being in the car, and they didn't have those car seats back then. So I'd do this, because you'd put the baby on the seat, and there I was, riding on a seat. I could see sky, trees, sky, trees, sky, trees. That's the first memory I have, and to this day, as my husband will attest, I love riding in cars. Very relaxing. I love going on rides. So I'm not from Kentucky. I think if I'm from anywhere, I'm actually from Texas. When my dad was in Vietnam -- he had two tours of duty in Vietnam, and the family -- 'cause it was 1968, so it was a very volatile time in the United States -- my parents thought it would be best if the family relocated to Texas where my mom's folks are from. So we spent several years living in West Texas while Dad was in Vietnam, and I really feel as if I'm from West Texas. That's where my heart is, I think.
So you finally got to go to the same school for more than one year?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. We were very small. It was first grade and second grade. Actually, it was kindergarten and then you'd go to a different school for first grade, but you'd see some of the same people. We lived in the same house for a couple years in a row. It was lovely, actually. I love West Texas. Odessa. I give a shout-out to Odessa.
Didn't you also live in Germany at one point?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. In the mid '70s. I remember we left on the day that Richard Nixon resigned. So it was like, "We're out of here."
Going to Germany, my parents had this idea that was very far out, especially for the time and especially because we're an African American family, and we didn't speak any German. My parents thought it would be a great idea to send the kids to German school. So we were sent to a German school. They wanted us to be with the Germans. We lived "on the economy," it was called, with the Germans. Among the places we lived in Germany was a very small town, Höchst, that was a thousand years old. It was celebrating its thousandth -- I forget what it's called in German, but celebrating its thousandth anniversary. We were in this German school. Certainly, we were the only Americans in the school, we were certainly the only African Americans in the school. We were the only people of African descent that a lot of these children and adults had ever seen before. So there was a lot of "Wow!" that kind of thing. A lot of that. And then, we didn't speak German. So there was a lot of "Wow! Huh?" and because we were small, the German kids were just learning English, so there was a lot of confusion. Then one day, it was as if I just inhaled the language. I felt it actually just enter, right through here, and I was completely fluent in German, and it was great. It was really great, but it entered through here. I don't know if all languages do that, but it did that for me, thank God. Whew!
Have you used it since?
Suzan-Lori Parks: I was a German literature major. I was an English and German literature major in college. I went to Mount Holyoke College, and I was a German literature major, and every time I go back to Germany, it comes rushing back, but that's about it.
You've mentioned your father. What can you tell us about your mom?
Suzan-Lori Parks: The first thing that comes to my mind. My mother -- who turns 70 this year, it's 2007 -- she just turned 70. She's been a scholar and an academic all her life, but she is retiring from Syracuse University, where she runs something called Students Offering Service, which is an organization that gets the college kids out of the classroom and into the community. She's big on getting out of the classroom and into the community to do things like Crop Walk and Habitat for Humanity and things like that. But what's exciting is she's retiring from SU, and she's going back to school at Mount Holyoke College, where she will be a Frances Perkins Scholar, and she's all excited. We're getting her a book bag, and we're going to drive her up to Mount Holyoke. So she's going to be a Frances Perkins Scholar. And study -- what did she say she wants to study? American Studies, and she might well take a dance class. So yeah, she's pretty out there.
Was your father an officer?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, he was. One tour in Korea and two tours in Vietnam. When he retired from the Army, he got his Ph.D. and was a professor for 20 years. His subject was education. It was always, "Dad, what do you do in the Army?" It was always so complicated and mysterious. And then, "Dad, what do you teach?" "Education." I always thought that was like, "I teach how to learn." I could never really understand it. And now my mom is going back to school. It's great. I'm so proud of her.
You obviously come from a pretty academic background. Was academics stressed as being important?
Suzan-Lori Parks: It's funny. An academic background? Let's see...
My father was born and raised in Chicago. Very, very, very, very, very poor family. My mom from Texas, not well-to-do certainly, her mother was a teacher. Her grandfather had a bunch of black businesses and did things in Odessa like build sidewalks and things like that, but they weren't rich. But they understood the importance of education. They met in college at Southern University, which at that time was a segregated college -- or university I suppose -- in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So it was a segregated school. So, to say they were academic, you know, I meet people who are from academic families, and it kind of wasn't like that. It was just that I think my parents recognized the importance of working hard and enjoyed school. You know what I mean? So they weren't sort of these academics. They were more like hard-working people who enjoyed school and wanted us to enjoy school.
What was his experience like in Vietnam?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Back then, it wasn't a popular war, and the public, the folks who didn't go, weren't smart enough to know that the people who went over there had to be respected. So there wasn't a lot of talk about your experiences in the war. The men and women who served didn't talk about it. What I do know is that it was kind of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, as he would often say. Before he went, I remember he would wear his uniform when we went, for example, from Fort Knox, Kentucky to Greensboro, North Carolina. It's a big stretch of land in the South. People debate whether Kentucky is in the South or not, but to me, it is. Mint Julep, Kentucky Derby, slavery. It's in the South, so not to be dissed or anything, but it was actually a dangerous span of land to travel in.
When we did that trip when I was little and in the car and seeing sky, trees, sky, trees, sky, trees, my mom had a shotgun in her lap, and my Dad had on his uniform. This is how we traveled because the understanding was, they were told, "Carry a gun in the car," by the folks in the Army. "Carry a gun in the car." If you're black, and in the South, and traveling, carry a gun in the car, number one. Number two, the person in the service -- usually it was the father, the man -- wear your uniform. So okay. That was 1963. We were traveling, gun in the car, uniform on the man. When he came back from Vietnam, he got shit for wearing his uniform. Do you see what I mean? So before, in 1963, you were protected because, say for example, some unsavory character would see you and figure you must be all right because you're serving the country. Then in 1968, 1969, 1970, he got a lot of shit because he was wearing his uniform. Like he said, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." He said that a lot in his life.
What books did you enjoy reading as a kid?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Harriet the Spy. A brilliant book, great pictures. Hotel for Dogs, that's another overlooked classic, in my opinion, and I just looked it up on Amazon. I'm going to go and buy a copy for myself. I haven't read it since the fourth grade, and I am going to re-read it because I remember loving that book. Books with pictures generally, I'm quite fond of.
I don't know how to pronounce their name. There are these French people, the D'Aulaires. D-apostrophe-a-u-l-a-i-r-e-s, something like that. "D'Aulaires," you're supposed to say. Greek myths, illustrated. The book used to be -- I think it still is -- about this big, and I have it in hard cover, still do have it in hard cover, and it's Greek myths. My mom and dad got me that book in probably the third grade, and I would sit there poring over these myths. I love tales and myths and legends, that kind of thing. I still do, love that kind of stuff, those stories, stories about gods and goddesses and all kinds of stuff. I loved that. Those were my favorite books growing up.
Were there any particular teachers who really encouraged you before you got to college? We've heard there was one high school teacher who actually discouraged you.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's funny how discouragement can be a form of encouragement actually. It's all how you take it. I had lots of wonderful teachers who would give you pats on the head or whatever, but you mean in -- you know, back in the day. But I tell my students, when I give my lectures, "Use shit for fuel," because sometimes something discouraging can be encouraging. It's all in how you take it. When I was in high school -- and people have to understand that this was back in the Dark Ages, before we had things like spell-check -- I was a very poor speller. Still am actually. They used to say, "Sound it out," if you couldn't spell something. Having spoken German fluently, I knew you can sound things out in German, and you'll figure out how to spell something, but in English, it doesn't work that way. So my teachers would say, "Sound it out, sound it out," and I had no clue. So I was a very poor speller, especially back in the day, and no spell-check. I was in AP English -- Advanced Placement English -- because I just loved reading and books and things like that, loved writing, but this teacher would have us take weekly spelling tests. There would be a column of words every week, we'd have to spell them. She'd probably give them to us on Monday, and then we'd have the test on Friday. Oh, horrible grades!
I went to her (the English teacher) and she said, you know, in that advisory thing that you do when you're about to graduate from high school, and she said, "What are you thinking of studying in college, Miss Parks?" and I said, "I'm going to study English. I want to be a writer." I was all excited. And she looked in her grade book, and I got all these F's in spelling, and she said, "I don't think it would be a good idea for you to be a writer because you're such a poor speller." Probably not the advice one would give today, because of spell-check, but back in the day, that was the prevailing wisdom, as they say. I was brought up to say "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am" and "Yes, sir. No, sir." Respect of elders and whatnot. So I said, "Yes, ma'am. Okay. Well, I'm not supposed to be a writer because I'm a poor speller." Fortunately, I was really good in science, and I was really good in physics. I used to ace my physics tests. So I thought, "Well I'll just be a scientist." But what you love comes back to you. So I ended up in writing.
Did you ever hear from her after that?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh no, because that kind of story has happened to me many, many times. There have been many people in my career who tried to do that to me. When I retell those stories, I don't mention who they are or the specifics, because I'm not into dissing them. I'm not into that. For me, the importance of the story is how you respond when you're given some advice that doesn't jibe with what's going on in your heart. That's what's important. So I didn't keep in contact with her. I didn't keep in contact with many people, just because of moving around a lot. You don't develop the habit of keeping in contact with folks from way back. But I wish her love, and I know she was giving me the best advice that she had. That's how I take it.
I did run into, though, a guy who is like -- a fabulous career -- he lives in, I think, Ohio. Cincinnati, I think, or maybe Cleveland. And he is a surgeon, brilliant guy, was brilliant in high school. I told the story, didn't mention the name of the teacher, and he was in the audience, and he came up to me afterwards. He looks the same. He said, "Oh my God, you look the same." I said, "Oh my God, you do, too," and he said, "That teacher, she said the same thing to me! I think that was her thing that she said. If you weren't a great speller, she was sending you out of the English Department kind of thing." So you know, it wasn't personal.
So if you started college studying science, how did you find your way back to writing?
Suzan-Lori Parks: It was in college. I was in the science lab. I think it was chemistry. Chemistry is cool; it just wasn't my thing. Oh God, I was dying. You're wearing the rubber gloves. Everything is rubber, rubber boots. The goggles you have to wear, pouring something. I'm sure real chemistry is much more exciting, but when you start out, you're just pouring this thing into that thing, and you're doing some experiment that's been done a million times before, and it's horrible. I was dying. At Mount Holyoke, as in many universities, we had to take these required classes.
We had to take an English class, and I remember, among the books we read, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which I still don't really get. But I got it, like in this way. I was like, "Oh, this is beautiful!" It was beautiful. A woman, and the lighthouse, and "Will we go to the lighthouse? Will we not go? Will the weather be good?" Whatever. I don't know what they're talking about, but it was gorgeous, and I remember when I read that book, I said, "Oh, yeah! I remember who I am!" It reminded me. It helped me "re-member," literally, put my members back on each other. It's as if somebody had given me my hands back, or my eyes back, or my ears back, or my heart back. You remember yourself, and you go, "I remember who I am. I'm the kid who loves myths, and makes up songs about things, and who loves writing." So there I was. I danced out of there, and I've been dancing out ever since.
Is this around the time that you met James Baldwin?
I'm in college, and get this note in the mail from my favorite English teacher, Mary McHenry: "James Baldwin is going to be teaching a creative writing class. Would you like to apply?" And I thought, "Oh my gosh!" I sent in one of my short stories that I'd been working on ever since I had reminded myself that I wanted to be a writer. I was accepted, and I was one of 15 people. It was very competitive if you'd get in, because he taught in the five college consortium: Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, U. Mass, and Hampshire College. He selected three from each college, so we were 15 folks. So it was kind of intense, 15 folks around the table, and he was at the head of the table and just such a generous and brilliant spirit. I tell folks he taught me how to conduct myself "in the presence of the spirit." He taught me how to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit, meaning the spirit is an honored guest, and you welcome them into your life when they knock on the door. His whole life to me was about that, and he taught me that just by his example, just by sitting at the head of the table.
He didn't teach us any writing tricks. He didn't teach us how to network at social functions. He taught us how to conduct ourselves in the presence of the spirit. He was very generous, a very generous teacher.
That sounds like a great gift.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. It's all you need. That's all I needed.
Did it have to do with having faith in your voice?
Suzan-Lori Parks: It does have to do with having faith in your voice. It does. Sticking to your guns. Believing in yourself. Realizing that your "self" isn't -- let me see if I can spell it right -- "y-o-u-r, little s, e-l-f. "It's not that. It's "y-o-u-r -- capital S e-l-f. Your Self includes everybody. You're part of the huge universal community at all times, even when you meet somebody you don't like, who isn't like you. I was telling the honor delegates today that the concept of radical inclusion means you have to include even folks you don't like, which is hard. Having faith in your Self, having faith in your own voice, things like working hard. He wasn't just sitting with his feet up on the desk. He was a hard-working writer. Service, the idea of service, the idea of being there for the people. Not just maybe your own people -- you know, African American women under the age of 44. No. Your people are, again, the entire people, entire world.
You've talked about discipline as something that comes out of a love for yourself. That's an interesting way of looking at it, that it's something you owe yourself.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Right. That's exactly it. It's something you owe your Self, but again, y-o-u-r capital S e-l-f.
You owe your Self, not just your small self, not just, as I often say, "the character that I am playing this round," the character called "Suzan-Lori Parks," the character by the name of Suzan-Lori Parks. I don't owe just Suzan-Lori Parks that. I owe my Self, my great Self, my big Self. This tattoo -- and if anybody speaks Hindi or reads and speaks Sanskrit -- it's from the Yoga Sutra, sutra number 123.The sutra is by Patanjali, and it says, "Ishvara-pranidhanad va," which basically means, "Your life is an offering to God." The big S, your big Self. So it's a love for your big Self, that's what discipline is. It's just a devotion to the greater beautiful thing that allows us all to be here. It sounds a little "woo-woo," but basically, it's manifested in me because I'm a writer. I get up every morning, and I write. I sit. As Paul knows, I sit. I have my notebook. I'm scribbling. "Don't talk to me right now, honey. I'm writing." That's my thing. That's how I manifest it. Someone who runs the hurdles, or a tennis player, would manifest it daily, going out there and hitting balls or whatever they do.
Wasn't it also James Baldwin who steered you towards writing plays? What do you think he saw in you that suggested that?
Suzan-Lori Parks: I'm a ham. I'm such a ham. I can't help it. I'm a ham. So when we sat at this beautiful table, this long table, and all 15 of us, the other writers, they would read their work, and they would read it as I suppose one should read a short story, beautifully voiced, like that, great really. But sometimes I'd get up and act it out, and I did this week after week. Every time it was my turn, I would sort of become a little more animated. I felt that's how it had to be read. It had to be lived. After a couple of weeks, he said, "Ms. Parks, have you ever thought about writing for the theater?" I thought he was telling me, "You're no good. Out of here. Go to the theater," like "Get thee to a nunnery." I didn't know what. I was devastated. But then as I rode home on the bus -- because classes were at Hampshire College, I rode the bus home -- I thought, "Well, maybe I'll start writing for the theater." I knew nothing about theater, nothing. I had seen a play or two, but hadn't taken a theater class at Mount Holyoke or anything like that. So I started writing for the theater, and I'm still writing for the theater today.
Sounds like he was onto something, wasn't he?
Suzan-Lori Parks: That's the interesting thing about these blocks of advice. Sometimes the advice is very well meaning, from a teacher who says, "No way. You should not be a writer." Sometimes the advice is from a very well-meaning teacher who says, "You should try playwriting." You have to know, and knowing yourself and listening to yourself, and developing that practice of listening in to what it is that you want and who you are, it makes you better able to understand and decipher the advice. Some advice jibes with you. Some advice does not jibe with you, and you have to learn to distinguish it, and that's difficult. It's a lifelong practice. Lifelong.
It's not easy. I get a little better at it, hopefully, every day.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
You mentioned that you try to avoid reading articles about yourself, but you couldn't have avoided hearing about your Pulitzer Prize and your MacArthur Genius Grant.
Suzan-Lori Parks: They call you on the phone, at least they called me. I was with some people at the Public Theater, and they just said, "Go sit in that room."
They said, "Oh, you're going to have a meeting with George Wolfe," and I said, "Oh, okay." And George is so busy, he's late, and I'm sitting there going, "Oh, he's late," and all of a sudden, someone came and said, "Go sit in that room, and wait in that room," and I'm like, "Oh, okay." So I went and waited in a room with a phone, and the phone rang. They said pick up the phone, and it was the Pulitzer people. The MacArthur people were even weirder. They just called on the phone, just at my house, and I just said, "Hi. Who's this?" and I said, "No! You're shitting. No! You're kidding. No, no. Oh, shit. Oh." That was before the Pulitzer. So they were giving me prizes.
Did all that recognition feel like a heavier pressure on you, or do you just try not to think about it?
Suzan-Lori Parks: The fine print of every prize you win -- no matter for what, the Gold Medal in the Olympics or what, doesn't matter -- the fine print is that you're actually being summoned to spread kindness and compassion in the universe. That's actually what you're being called to do. So winning a Pulitzer is actually, "I'm being called to spread kindness and compassion." So that's what the real burden, if you will, is about. It's not about writing. Writing is just the task I've been given to do, so I can do something, while I'm actually being summoned continually to spread kindness and compassion.
Have you ever experienced a dark period, or writer's block?
Suzan-Lori Parks: All the time. Someone was telling me that Bishop Desmond Tutu was cracking a joke this morning that was like a brilliant God knock-knock joke. I love that. The fact that Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has witnessed great difficulty, is telling knock-knock jokes, it made me go, "Yeah. It's true that you can experience difficulty." The difficulties I have experienced are not comparable to what he's experienced, but you can experience difficulty and, quote-unquote "dark times" and still recall the unbearable lightness of being.
I have writer's block all the time, but I write anyway. I have difficult days all the time, but I haul myself up. I think that's very important. Some folks think that if you have some success in a field that it's been Easy Street, a level road all the time. We can even look at people like Lance Armstrong. He has to ride up all those hills to win his prizes. We all do. We're all in the Tour de France every day. We're all like that. Folks coming up in the arts, or in any kind of profession should know that all of us are climbing mountains every day. Yeah, I have writer's block all the time, but I write anyway. I don't mind, like, "Oh, this is crap!" I don't care. I can make it better, 'cause I rewrite, and then I make it better.
That's another thing, for people out there who are writers. Write and then rewrite. Don't do both at the same time. I usually write a draft from beginning to end, and then I rewrite the draft. So it's two different ways of working.
When I'm writing, it's as if I am sitting in a garden, like a jungle where everything grows, and when I am rewriting, I'm riding on a horse through a field, brandishing a beautiful sword, the sword of discrimination -- not racial discrimination -- but discernment, I suppose you'd call it, a sword of discrimination. I am brandishing the sword, and there's music, like Wagner playing, bumpa-da-bum-bum, and I'm cutting everything that doesn't belong. So there's writing, and there's rewriting. I enjoy both.
That's a great image. Did you actually study acting in London?
Suzan-Lori Parks: For a year, yeah, I did, so I could be a better writer. I didn't want to be an actor, but I wanted to be a better playwright, and I thought that's the way to do it. You study acting.
Do you think that helps?
Were you ever tempted to go further in that direction?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Acting? No. I couldn't. Acting is tricky, because I would always want to acknowledge the presence of the people in the audience. It was hard for me to pretend for an extended period of time that they weren't there. As a writer, I could be all the people on stage. I could be in all places at once. That was enough for my sort of psyche, but as an actor I would always want to look at the people.
Writing is still related to acting, because you're creating a character.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Exactly. But you're creating all the characters. For an actor to do that, I don't think that's good acting, but for a writer to do that! Like Shakespeare, one of my favorite writers, he was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. When you look at his plays, he was everywhere. That's the reason I love his plays so much. In other plays, you see one character who is the voice of the author. In Shakespeare, there is no one character, he's everywhere. He's in every character, which is what I strive to do. I want to be in all the characters at the same time. So it's different from acting. I think good acting is where you are your character only. I don't know much about acting. I only did it for a year, so I'm not sure.
What are you working on now? We read about a Ray Charles project.
Do you work with your husband on the songs?
Suzan-Lori Parks: I play them for Paul. "Hey, honey, how do you like this?" He's like, "Damn girl, you're a folkie." Paul is the best ear to listen to my work. He's always the one I go to first, last, and in the middle. I read everything to him. Nothing goes out of the house without me saying, "Honey, you got to tell me what you think," and he gives excellent feedback. Perfect.
Well, he's a musician. He must have a good ear.
Suzan-Lori Parks: He has a great ear. He has a great ear and a great eye. A great visual sense. He says, "That don't lay right." It has to lay right. Another favorite thing he says is "the concept of talent is overrated."
The concept of talent is overrated. The real gift is the gift of love. So what happens is you fall in love with something, like you fall in love with an instrument, or you fall in love with a craft like writing, or you fall in love with the legal system and want to be a lawyer. So what happens is you fall in love with something, and you want to practice that something all the time, and then hard work at it begets talent for it, and I just think that's pretty groovy.
Yeah. So he's a smart cookie.
Well, thank you for a great interview.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Thank you so much. Thank you for excellent questions. I really appreciate it.