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Creating Roads: a Conversation with Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks

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(L–R) Larry Powell, Tonye Patano, Russell G. Jones, and Julian Rozzell Jr. in "Father Comes Home From The Wars" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Suzan-Lori Parks has been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Innovators for the Next New Wave.” She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a MacArthur “Genius” award recipient. Her plays, screenplays, poems, and songs have garnered countless awards from organizations across the United States. Her most recent play, Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) which plays the Mark Taper Forum April 5 – May 15, 2016, is the opening trilogy in a nine-play cycle that will take audiences on a journey from the Civil War to our present-day world.

Center Theatre Group Discovery Guides explore the plays on our stages from an educational standpoint so that young people can learn more about and enter into the world of the show. In this excerpt from the Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)  Discovery Guide, Center Theatre Group Teaching Artist Marcos Nájera interviewed Parks about her work, her father, and the inspiration for her new play.

Marcos Nájera:
Ms. Parks, what would you say is your job? Your J-O-B.
Suzan-Lori Parks:

My job. Like my, you mean—hmm. You mean my day job or my mission in life?

Both. (Laughs.)

In the theatre, the playwright is the person who writes the play. And it’s spelled “W-R-I-G-H-T” not “W-R-I-T-E” because the focus is on the craft. Like someone who makes something. So I’m the maker of the play.

I see myself as an architect, so what I do is basically draw up the plan out of nothing. In the theatre, everybody starts with something. The actors have the text, the director has the script, the designers have something to work on. The playwright starts with a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen. A void. And she or he, the architect, creates something in the void that everybody can live in. And hopefully, if we build it right, it will last for a long time and be sturdy like a good house or a cool apartment building or a great bicycle. It’s high-quality craftsperson-ship.

I work closely in the first production with the actors, the director, and the designers to create stuff. So my blueprint gets changed and rearranged and added to and subtracted from a lot before we turn on the lights and invite you in to see the show.

What’s guiding you as your fingers float across a keyboard? Or do you prefer to pre-plan the writing?

It’s weird. It’s actually a combination. I’m an architect. I’m gonna plan. But this is what a lot of people don’t understand. They don’t understand how planning can actually create freedom. A good plan can be an excellent foundation for fantastic inspiration. They think: “##$*, if I plan, if I outline, it’s gonna kill it!” What I do is I create a roadmap and then I allow myself to be surprised.

My great mission in life as a writer—well, I write a lot. I write for TV, I write for film, I write songs, I have a band, I write essays, and I’m working on a second novel. As a writer, I think my job is to tell the truth and have fun. Bring joy. And, you know, encourage people to fess up! Be real. Be real by pretending! Isn’t that funny? (Laughs.) But sometimes that’s the best way to be real.

In the PBS documentary about you, The Topdog Diaries, you told students to explore what you call “the mind beyond the mind.” I thought that was a very cool idea. Can you talk about that?

Most people these days are on automatic pilot. They’re not really thinking about what they are doing. We’ve all been there at one time or another. You find yourself mindlessly watching television, flippin’ through some online article that’s making you feel bad, cruisin’ through Facebook and wondering why you don’t get any work done. You know, like that!

So that’s your mind. But what I’m interested in is the “mind beyond the mind.” The thing that is really you. The greater good that we all have a part in creating. That deep river of mystery that runs through us all—that’s where I write from—the collective unconscious.

It’s the bigger picture. We all know what that is. You know, you wake up in the morning and you listen to the birds. The moments of awareness when you are awake—it’s those moments. I encourage people to visit that place often. Just be on to your own stuff.

What’s the biggest block for students when you encourage them to go visit their “mind beyond the mind” and “just be on to their own stuff?”

Everyday life. It’s your biggest block AND it’s your biggest source of liberation. It’s the best crowbar, but it can get in the way.

I do a lot of yoga. Yoga chitta vritti nirodha. Yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind [from The Yoga Sutras]. Those fluctuations of the mind, they make it difficult to hear what the spiritual masters call that small, still voice within.

I suggest to my students that if you don’t have a meditation practice, start one. Five minutes a day, sitting quietly, first thing in the morning. Set your timer, sit there, breathe, close your eyes. That’s all you need to do and then grow it!

I took a meditation class last night. The instructor held up a glitter snow globe and shook it. She said the glitter flakes swirling around inside show what our minds often look like. But the glitter soon settled to the bottom and the water became clear and still again. She said, “That is meditation.” I said, “It calms down the glitter!”

Yes! It doesn’t wipe the glitter away. It doesn’t say, “Bad glitter. Bad glitter.” It doesn’t scold the glitter! It doesn’t say, “Dump the glitter.” Nothing like that. It just says, “Chill glitter. Glitter, chill so I can see clearly today.”

Oh! Today is Topdog Day, BTW! On this day in history, 1999, on the sixth of January, I started writing Topdog/Underdog! I finished it less than three days later. Boom, I was done. Every year I celebrate by saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for sending me the wonderful play Topdog/Underdog.”

Happy Topdog Day! January 6 is also what we call in the Latino community “Día de Los Reyes” or “King’s Day.” So with all this royalty and celebration of today, it makes me think of your favorite James Baldwin quote about putting the crown on your head.

(Laughs.) Oh what a great teacher he was! And that’s his saying, “Your crown is bought and paid for, all you have to do is put it on your head.” Man, I’ve had such great teachers. James Baldwin was a great teacher. The blank page is a great teacher. Kung Fu Panda is a great teacher—Pixar movies, the good ones! Good boyfriends! Bad boyfriends! Friends! I encourage my students to seek good teachers everywhere.

Was your father a teacher for you in some way?

Oh yes. My dad, Donald Parks, was a career Army officer. He joined the Army ROTC in college—it was one of the few places in this country where an African-American person could join, get a job, and have some kind of guarantee of fair treatment. To become a colonel in the army from where he grew up [in Chicago] was a big deal. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery and the Bronze Star was the big medal that he got.

Father Comes Home From The Wars is inspired by my dad. It was not inspired by The Odyssey. The Odyssey is in our drinking water. So you get bits and pieces and shards and shrapnel of a lot of things. The Odyssey is a big thing you get. It’s a big thing that people latch onto and think I’m doing a retelling of The Odyssey. No, I’m not. That’s not where I’m coming from. It’s Star Wars! It’s Ulysses S. Grant.

So in the war of our daily lives, we get hit by all this information and it is stuck inside of us. And it comes back out when we want to tell a story. Is that what you mean?

Right! Right! Right! Exactly. [This play] was inspired by my dad coming home from war a lot—he did a tour in Korea and two tours in Vietnam—or coming home from having practiced being at war. I always remember it being in the spring because it was around my birthday. And people would say, “Where’s your dad?” “He’s in the field,” I’d say. His 9-to-5 was: He’d go out into the field and practice being at war and then he’d come home for dinner!

I noticed in that PBS documentary that you have a pink Post-It note above your desk that says: “Vomit!”

(Laughs.) That was several incarnations of houses ago, but that means, “Get it out! Clean it up later!”

And with this play, how does music help you “get it out?”

See, that’s the thing. I’ve been playing and writing music for as long as I’ve been writing plays. And this one, it sings. There was music in there from the very beginning. I could hear the music. My favorite song, “Bronze Star,” which I wrote for my dad, was the beginning. It appears to us in Parts 1, 2 & 3 as underscore. You don’t hear the whole song. We are going to hear it later in Part 9, I think.

I always seem to be writing operas, spoken operas, if that makes any sense. It’s just the river on which these words float. The music is the river for me.

The music is more old-timey. It’s Americana. But the language is a mash-up and that’s on purpose. It’s contemporary language in a historical context. I’ve been writing plays about history for a long time. It’s like the [William] Faulkner quote, “History is not was, it is.” History is now, so let’s celebrate it.

Well, happy Topdog Day and King’s Day. You’ve earned your crown.

Thanks! I’m going to go pick up my son, Durham, now. He was named after my grandfather.

Oh cool, was your grandfather a veteran too?

No. He laid the sidewalks in West Texas–in the black part of town, of course. He was like a businessman. The black part of town didn’t have sidewalks so you know.

That’s poetic when you create a road for other people to follow. I think it runs in the family.
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