“Parks smoothly blends the high and the low, the serious and the humorous, the melodramatic and the grittily realistic. She has a voice that can transform blunt, vernacular language into fluid, flowing free verse.”
— The New York Times
For nearly three decades, Suzan-Lori Parks’ distinct style has solidified her status as one of theater’s most imaginative, respected writers. For her play Topdog/Underdog, Parks became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2014, she earned near universal acclaim for the world premiere of Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). With six parts additional parts planned in this nine-part epic, Parks is sure to keep theatergoers transfixed for years to come.
Born in a military family in Kentucky in 1963, Parks spent her childhood in several different states and, for several years, in Germany, where her father was stationed. After returning to the U.S. in high school, she enrolled at Mount Holyoke College to study English and German literature, and began to write plays with the encouragement of her professor—novelist and social critic James Baldwin. From her earliest works, Parks flouted theatrical convention. “She is an original,” August Wilson said of her “fierce intelligence, and fearless approach to craft, subvert theatrical convention and produce a mature and inimitable art that is as exciting as it is fresh.”
Her work is at once described as wild, free and unbound and grounded in discipline. Parks borrows the concept of repetition and revision—or, as she refers to it, “Rep and Rev”— from jazz music, which uses rigorous methods to create the illusion of free-wheeling. In her essay “Elements of Style,” Parks describes how this technique builds a “drama of accumulation,” in which mounting tension and emotion is at least as important as the build of the plot. In jazz, a musician might play or sing the same phrase over and over, revising it just a bit each time. Parks uses a similar tactic in her work, but with words instead of music. “What does it mean for characters to say the same thing twice?” she writes. “Three times? Over and over and over and oh-vah.” In this sentence, she invites us to contemplate the difference between “over” and “oh-vah,” and to reconsider a familiar word.
Reconsidering the familiar is an undertaking that Parks particularly enjoys, re-investigating history and historical figures, and showing them from an unfamiliar angle. In her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog, she created a character named Lincoln, a black man who works at a boardwalk arcade, dressing up as Abraham Lincoln for tourists to shoot with cap guns. “Lincoln is the closest thing we have to a mythic figure,” she told The New York Times in 2002. “In days of Greek drama, they had Apollo and Medea and Oedipus–these larger than life figures that walked the earth and spoke–and they turned them into plays. Shakespeare had kings and queens that he fashioned into his stories. Lincoln, to me, is one of those.” By confronting this new Lincoln—who repeatedly and unceremoniously reenacts the president’s demise—we examine both men’s relationship to their country, politics and violence. Abraham Lincoln becomes a character in the play via myth, rather than appearing on stage directly, as he does in many other plays that follow a more conventional structure.
Though she is best known for her full-length works, Parks also famously spent all of 2006 writing one play each day, in a project known as 365 Days/365 Plays. Though each play tells its own complete story, they also share thematic resonances with one another; when put together, they comprise a unified whole. 365 Days/365 Plays questions the convention that a good theatrical work is a single, long, linear piece. Although Parks was not the first to write outside this form, her unique and public commitment to write a play each day—often writing in hotel rooms, airports or wherever she found herself—emphasizes her ability to quickly and successfully embrace new structures.
Like much of her earlier work, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) deals with history through a mythological lens. Homer’s Odyssey seeps into Parks’ storytelling as she uses her lyrical, powerful language to depict a slave who fights for the Confederacy during the Civil War. “One of my tasks as playwright,” Parks notes, “is to locate the ancestral, burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones, and write it down.”