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Suzan-Lori Parks’ Journey from a New York Bar to Household Name

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Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, author of "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Part 1, 2 & 3)."

Photo by Stephanie Diani.

Since the late 1980s, Suzan-Lori Parks’ plays have graced stages in every major American city. She is a recipient of the coveted MacArthur “Genius” Award, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the first Master Writer Chair at New York City’s Public Theater. Her newest play, Father Comes Home From The Wars, brings a talented artist operating at the top of her craft to the Mark Taper Forum through May 15, 2016. According to The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, it just might be “the finest work yet from this gifted writer.”

How did Parks get here, and how does she think and talk about her work? A number of interviews over the past 20-some-odd years offer a window into her evolution and her art. In a 1994 interview with Bomb magazine, Parks explained why she chose theatre as her medium.

I got into theater because there are things about theater that I love, and that I can do. You sit down. You write. You think about how a play has to work to be effective. That’s what makes it the most difficult form. Plays have to be soft and loose and completely flexible and completely taut, to withstand the minds, and hearts, and souls of thousands of hundreds of people, and actors getting in there and saying, “What’s my motivation?” And directors going, “What are we going to do at this moment?” Think of Shakespeare. He was such a good writer because he was a playwright.

In 1987, she produced her first play, Betting on the Dust Commander. In 2006, she described the experience to The New Yorker.

I was hanging out at the Gas Station—a bar then on Manhattan’s Lower East Side…and you’d sit there and drink and look at the cement walls, and I was, like, to the guy who ran it, “Hey, man! Can I do a play here?” And he was, like, “Oh, sure!” They didn’t have any chairs. They hadn’t done a play in their life. I had never done a play in my life. We ran for three nights. My dad, my mom, and my sister, and one of the homeless guys from the neighborhood—that’s basically all the people who came.

What followed was a body of work that quickly established Parks as a bold talent who did not shy away from grappling with difficult subject matter such as the Middle Passage, exploitation of the homeless, and race in America. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for Topdog/Underdog made her a household theatrical name. Shortly after, she described the effects of her public success to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

[Winning the Pulitzer Prize] required me to keep reminding myself not to take myself too seriously. One could blow up or trip on yourself because of something like the Pulitzer. But I’m not that kind of person. I gotta keep going on to the next thing. I’ve got to not be afraid to play the guitar or sing for people, or continuing to grow. I also want to learn to surf. One could get locked in by the Pulitzer, thinking this is who I am. Doors open with it, but doors in your mind could close.

Parks is interested in anything but closed doors. When asked what role the performing arts has in elucidating the state of contemporary America in a recent interview about Father Comes Home From The Wars for KPCC Southern California Public Radio’s The Frame, Parks responded:

I think we continue the dialogue. We give people a way to talk about things—[or] issues. I think we give people a way to understand their world. Just like old storytellers. Just like Homer, with The Odyssey. He gave people a way to understand the war. To feel it, you know? A lot of stuff today, they don't want you to feel, they don't want you to think; they just want you to buy something. We want you to feel and think and keep on keepin’ on.

Read more about Suzan-Lori Parks’ writing, her relationship with her teacher James Baldwin, her inspiration for Father Comes Home From The Wars, and how she “gets it out” in this interview with Center Theatre Group.

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