Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Melodie Jeng
October 25th, 2016
Suzan-Lori Parks laughs easily and is quick with a joke, which is sort of a ridiculous way to introduce a Pulitzer Prize winner. But when you’re the first African-American woman to have won a Pulitzer, and when you’re one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary dramatists, there are a lot of expectations about what you should be like and who you must be. Suzan-Lori Parks makes her own rules, though, and continually flips ideas and styles on their heads. This can be seen in her work like the Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog, In the Blood, Father Comes Home from the Wars, and 365 Plays/365 Days. Her early work, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of The Dead, is currently getting a new production at Signature Theatre. During rehearsals, we talked to Suzan-Lori about her writing process, influences on her work, expectations, and much more.
What’s it like to do a new production of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead, a play that you wrote a while ago?
It’s an old play. I finished it in 1990. I started writing it in maybe ’87 or ’88, something like that, and I finished it in ’90, so it’s an old play. A new production of an old play that I haven’t really read, or looked at, or thought about much since we did the second production of it, which, I call the definitive production. The first production was at BACA Downtown, directed by Beth Schachter in 1990. The second production was, I think, a year and a half or two years later, directed by Liz Diamond at Yale [Rep]. The person who was running Yale at the time said, “Liz Diamond, you’re so wonderful. What do you want to direct at Yale Rep?” and she said, “The Death of the Last Black in the Whole Entire World,” so there, we did it there. That, to me, is the definitive production. Both productions had great actors in it, but that one had Ricardo Hernandez as the set designer, who is our set designer now, and Liz Diamond, and some really awesome, awesome actors. It was a really gorgeous production, and I have not thought about the play since then. So that’s 24 years I haven’t thought about the play that much. What’s it like? For the first day or two of rehearsal, I was [in my mind] running movie of the 1992 production and, running side by side, the 2016 production, so I’m watching it, watching them both at the same time, and thinking, wow. The actors in ’92 were all so brilliant, but the language was really an alien thing, a foreign tongue. It was like we were asking them to speak in a foreign tongue. Of course, by opening night they’d all mastered the foreign tongue, but first rehearsal, it was foreign. In this production, a major difference that I realized when we were doing auditions was that pretty much every single actor who came in could do the language of the play. It was as if culture had caught up to the play somehow. Everybody was well-versed in hip-hop, Ebonics, jazz speak. The language of the play is concrete, yet it’s abstract. It’s rhythmic, it’s emotional, it’s heady, yet it’s very footy, and very down to earth. There are a lot of cultural, intellectual references, and literary references, and yet, it’s the language of everyday people, everyday speech, so it’s kind of everything all into one, and very hard to do. Everybody who came in could do it. I was amazed. So it’s been fun. Also with the play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, the timing is really brilliant because of what’s going on in the world today, and with the Black Lives Matter movement. Jim Houghton, when he suggested this play to start off the season, he must have been thinking it’s time to do this play. This is the perfect time to look at this play again within the context of world events, so it’s a lot of fun and it’s very moving. It’s very moving to see these actors, this next generation of folks, totally get it, totally enjoy it. Lileana Blain-Cruz is doing a brilliant job directing.
Do you try to look at it from the perspective of the writer seeing it as something that’s still malleable, and changeable, or do you try to look at it now from an almost interpretive lens of, “What was I thinking at the time”?
I look at it as the writer. I don’t look at it as what was I thinking at the time because I have no idea what I was thinking at the time. But that’s true of all my plays; I have no idea what I was thinking at the time. Even with my newest, Father Comes Home from the Wars, I have no idea what I was thinking at the time, but I can tell you the story of the play. I can tell you the story of the play really well, but what I was thinking? I was probably thinking about the story of the play. That’s as far as my thinking goes. I look at it in terms of, does it still land right, is it rhythmically correct, are the lines correct? I’ve done more line sharing because now we’re in a sharing economy, so they say, so I thought it would be fun to share some of these lines. Where, maybe in the 1990 draft, one character would say one line, I have now said, “Well, hey, let’s have four characters say that line in unison,” for example, so that kind of thing I’ve done some of. I’m not changing the line, not re-writing, but getting more people in on it to make it sound right. It’s a piece of music, really, and a play, so trying to get the sound right is important. It’s malleable, and yet, I’m not changing too much of it because it works, it clicks, it’s really beautiful, and moving, and interesting, and out there.
I’ve read in previous interviews that your work is heavily influenced by music, and jazz as a mode of structure.
Right. So the play opens with an overture, so that’s just like an overture of your favorite musical. Do you like musicals?
Yes, I do.
Pick a musical.
For an overture? We can use the Gypsy overture.
The Gypsy overture would have pieces of all the songs. So in this play it starts with an overture and, just like any overture, you’re going to hear pieces of things that are going to be referenced later on, and expanded later on, and put in different contexts later on. So you hear that. It starts like a musical would start, and then, the first thing after that is a duet, and then the structure moves back and forth between duets with Black Man with Watermelon and Black Woman with Fried Drumstick, and then larger, symphonic pieces where the other characters will come in. Actually, they’re more like figures. They’re not really characters. They’re more like iconic figures who will come in and speak their piece, as they basically try to help the Black Man [with Watermelon] discover that big question of the play: where is he going to go now, now that he done dieded. That’s the question. He is dead, and so acknowledging, accepting the fact that he is dead. Now we have the big question of where is he going to go, and they help him and the Black Woman [with Fried Drumstick] discover the answer to that question. The answer to that question is he is going to go into a play called The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Explaining that to the actors made me realize that it needed an addition to the title, which is AKA The Negro Book of the Dead because, like any book of the dead, that’s what we would recite when someone passes on to help them make a good journey to the other side. Anyway, so I’m using the music, duets, and then larger choral pieces, and I just counter them back and forth and back and forth until we get to the end.
Do you also find that musical structure is a way to teach the audience how to watch the play when they’re watching something that doesn’t have a traditional dramatic structure?
Yes, teaching the audience how to watch the play. Although, I’m not really thinking about the audience. From my end of it, I am trying to tell the story in the best way I can. The best way I can tell the story is giving us the overture and then showing these duets and then expanding on the themes and then coming back to a new theme, and then expanding on a theme and then coming back to a new theme, and then expanding on a theme, and that’s the end. Sure, it could help the audience understand how to watch the play because it is not familiar, but it also tells the story the best way to tell the story.
Do you see content and form being the same?
There’s the famous quote that I love so much. Charles Olson, the poet, “Form is never more than an extension of content,” so yes, that’s right. Form is never more than an extension of content. Charles Olson said it really well. That’s why it’s shaped that way, because that tells the story the best way. I think people see them as two separate things like, “I have a story now, now I got a shoe horn…” or, “I have a character that I love, now I got to find a plot.” I hear writers talking about plot as this kind of, “Darn, I got to find a plot so that people will want to watch this character.” But the story of your character is the essence of your character. We are our plots. One of the jokes in this play is: What’s the plot of the play? The plot of the play is six by six by six, it’s a grave that the man asks to be dug for him. That’s the plot, his grave site. That’s what the play is all about.
When you’re writing, where do you start?
It’s different for every play. Every genre has a different way to go about it and within that genre, each thing has a different way. But for this one, I was dreaming, I was asleep, taking a nap, I woke up, and I saw the writing on the wall, you could say, or you know how you dream something that’s still in your head so much that you can see it? I saw the title of the play, so I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting, you should write that down.” That’s the beginning of the play: the title of the play, and another voice saying, “You should write that down,” and then, it sort of found its way. That’s really the only play I’ve written that came with a title like that. For Topdog/Underdog I was just talking to a friend, and said, “Oh, two brothers, Lincoln and Booth,” and she said, “Go home and write,” I went home and wrote it. For Fucking A I was in a canoe and thought, “I’m going to write a play that’s a riff on The Scarlet Letter and I’m going to call it Fucking A.” I think they have different baits, you could say. The creative process for me is like, I’m a fish, and the spirit is a fisher. The fisher has a bait, and so, the baits are always different. It could be a joke. It could be a title coming up from a dream. It could seeing Three-Card Monty played on the street. It could be seeing my Dad come home from the war. It’s always the same. There’s always some bait, and I’m like a fish, and I take the bait, and that’s always the beginning. If it’s a play, I’ll say, “So, what is she doing? What does she want? What is he doing? What does he want? Where are they going? What happens at the beginning? What am I looking at? What happens at the end?” I just start asking myself questions like that and then I just try to sit down and write.
I read that you were really active when you‘re writing, that you stand up and move around a lot.
I used to move around a lot and dance around, and now I’ve done that for so long that I can do it without moving. I was in a meeting yesterday with somebody who wants me to write a movie and I was moving around, but all I had to do was just a little bit of movement and, for me, that makes me feel like I’m acting all the characters. But I don’t actually have to get up anymore and do it because I’ve done it for so long. I can be very still and the more still that I am the more I can feel the movement. I still suggest to people, when they’re having difficulty with a character or whatever, to act it out. That often helps me, like how does he walk, how does she stand, how does she sit, what is she going to do? A lot of writers will get stuck in their heads thinking, “What does this mean? What am I trying to say? What’s my point? What’s my message?” It’s like writing from the neck up kind of thing. In my experience, I find that getting stuck in your head and thinking just about ideas and what you’re trying to say does not a good play make. So I like to move around. I guess I like the message to be a mystery from the writer. The message and the meaning and the issues are very apparent to the audience and very apparent, upon examination and work, to the director and the actors, but the writer does not have to know the meaning or the message. In my experience, the writer needs to know the story. What is happening, what are they saying, and what are they doing—that’s all I need to know.
When you’re thinking about how the characters move through space, do you think of them in actual space or on a stage? Like if you’re writing a scene that takes place in a living room, are thinking of an actual living room, or are you thinking of a living room set onstage?
There’s a difference? Is there? I mean, like if I were thinking of two people doing an interview, would I be thinking of two people in an interview in an actual room, like the room we’re in right now, or a room onstage? I don’t see a difference. That’s why I have this neurosis called writer-ism. If I were writing a play about two people doing an interview right now, the only thing different about what I’d be imagining is I’d be standing here, watching us. Right now, I’m here talking to you. If I were writing a play about it, Suzan-Lori Parks the character would be talking and you’d be talking, and then Suzan-Lori Parks the writer would be standing and watching or walking around the room. When I’m writing Topdog/Underdog, what am I seeing? I’m seeing them in their room. Now, is that a real room or is that a room in a play? I don’t know. What I don’t see are the heads of the audience, and I’m not waiting for the audience to laugh at a joke, or gasp at a particular part, or scratch their heads. I write with both eyes on the work, so I don’t write by looking over my shoulder and trying to wonder what the audience’s reaction is going to be. Not that I don’t care about the audience, but if one’s play, song, movie, or whatever is worth anything, there is going to be an audience so vast that we waste time trying to second guess the minds of an enormity. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for the characters. The characters have a story that they need to tell through their actions and their dialogue, and that’s what I’m listening to.
It sounds like that also ties into what you were saying before about the writer not needing to know the message.
Do you think contemporary new play development and playwriting becoming institutionalized, with more and more MFA programs, has had an affect on writers feeling pressured to know the meaning of what they’re writing?
I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t go to an MFA school or program, but I teach at an MFA program at NYU, so I have an interesting relationship with that process. Everything I learned, I learned on the corner, so all my theories about writing and dramaturgy and all, I just learned by just by hanging out, but yes, it’s tricky. Good play development is respectful of that small, still voice that speaks to the writer. Play development that’s not so great is constantly asking the writer to create sound bites about their work, which in my experience does not serve the writing process. I mean, we can use analogies like having a baby. I have a kid, so making a play is like having a baby, so how much do you want to take it out and look at before it’s ready to be born? Well, you don’t, do you? No. You want to do a sonogram, which is a workshop, but you don’t want to be taking him out, looking at him, and then putting him back in and saying, “Wow, you need to bake a little bit more.” You’re respectful of the process, the womb, the mother, her needs. You’re respectful of the fact that the humans are, as far as we know, best developed with a certain amount of silence and darkness. Plays and creative works are the same way. So asking the creative person to do the song and tap dance thing, explaining in catchy soundbites to your wonderful donors so you can get money, there needs to be a better way to do that, and good, good, good play development understands that. I don’t think it’s the job of the writer to over-explain her work when she’s trying to write it. Some writers love to over-explain their work and all that, but what I find is, a lot of times, then you only get what they can manage to fit into a couple of sentences, and it doesn’t become this beautiful, gorgeous, epic thing.
I can be asked to talk about the story of it, but again, when you talk about meaning, “So what does it mean?” I have no idea. I don’t know. Does it help me figure out what it means if I have a smart dramaturge in the room telling me the meaning of it? No, not at all, zero, negative five-hundred. Does it help me if a dramaturge or a director or an actor says, let’s talk about this character arc or this character’s journey, yes, okay, let’s talk about that. That’s story, so you see the difference? There’s a difference. People don’t understand there’s a difference. They tend to lop it all together, and then, of course, it’s weighed heaviest toward the marketing aspect of it because, yes sure, we need money to create these works.
What other areas of culture affect your work?
Other types of literature, visual arts. I used to have a lot of friends who were visual artists. Then I moved out to LA, and I’ve come back, but I don’t have as much time to hang out with them as I did. But certainly, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker are friends who are doing really cool things. I get inspired by their work. And literature—great novels, poetry, you name it. Music, of course. Politics, especially things that are going on today, or the things that have gone on a hundred years ago and seem like the same things going on over and over. Life on the street, walking here from the subway. Sports. I love watching things done well, so that can be ice skating or like the Olympics, the pole vaulters. I watch them like, “This is your life, girl, how do you do that? You’re up in the air, and this big pole, running down the field…” I mean, its amazing. Sports are very inspiring because they’re done well, and they take a lot of dedication and discipline and craftspersonship and effort in the right direction, and that’s the same thing as an artist’s life. We work the same way. We work like that. We work like the gymnasts, like Venus and Serena Williams. We’re like that. We’re out there, practicing our forehand. I mean, that’s what we’re doing. We’re practicing our backhand. We’re moving around.
Do you see any themes in your work? Is that something you think about or no?
Themes? No, not at all. Oskar Eustis [Artistic Director of The Public Theater] says, “You’re the poet of freedom. That’s your big thing: freedom.” Okay, yes, freedom. I mean, yes, sure, I write about freedom a lot in my work, but while I appreciate what Oskar says, and that’s cool to have that, one can get too hung up on those kinds of themes, or if you say, “I have these themes in my work,” because you’re going to wake up one Saturday and you’ll be writing something that doesn’t have to do with that, and you’ll be like, “Oh no, that’s not me,” and that’s a trap. What happens is, you listen to people tell you who you are and one day you might wake up and find it doesn’t correspond to who you are on that day and what you might want to pursue. Then you might start holding yourself back and second-guessing yourself.
That comes up with actresses a lot in interviews. A question I ask actresses a lot is about what it’s like to be in an industry that’s constantly typing them. But for writers, it’s interesting to think about if you’re told, “You’re a writer who is really good at realism and writing plays in living rooms,” how that affects your psyche and how it affects how you develop as a human being on top of that.
Right, exactly. I mean, yes, people will call me to do certain jobs and that’s cool. It’s like you’re a super hero and you’re being called because you can make the world spin in the opposite direction, and that’s your thing. You’re on The Avengers and when they want spinning then they call the Spin Girl, and she’ll spin the world. So yes, sure, I can do that, but at a certain point you find that there are other things you can do too—things like writing songs and having a band, and those kinds of things. That’s outside the box of what people think of me as. I was just at USC giving a talk a week ago, and I was onstage talking and one of the people in the audience said, “I don’t know how to say this, but this is so fun. This is so fun.” I said, “What do you mean?” “Well, it’s just, you’re making jokes, and you’re laughing. We’re all laughing and we’re having a good time, and I’m just surprised. I thought you were really serious. Your work is really serious.” People have this idea that I’m really serious because my work is serious, and my work is not really serious, it just makes people think about serious things. It makes people think deeply, and makes people feel deeply. So I get a lot of heavy lifting calls, which is fine, actually. For awhile I was like, dang, I’m getting all these heavy lifting calls like, “We want you do the adaptation for Porgy and Bess.” I mean that’s heavy lifting. I get a lot of calls like that, but when I go and meet people, they all think I’m really serious, and I’m actually not at all. I’m just not. I told the person at USC, “There is a lightness that happens when you answer your calling,” and I feel like that’s the zone I’m in right now. I’m answering my calling, and so everything is very light and free, and yet I’m able to do this heavy lifting, which people call me up for and hire me to do, which isn’t bad.
I mean Tolstoy had a sense of humor. Do you have a spiritual life, and does that affect your work?
I do have a spiritual life. I have this tattoo on my arm which says “Ishvara pranidhana” three times. It’s the same phrase, three different times. It’s from the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, Sutra number 1.23. There’s a little bit of a joke going on. It’s in the place where people wear a watch. I don’t wear a watch, but if I wore a watch, I’d wear it [where the first tattoo is] and the joke is: What time is it? And this says, basically, to submit your will to the will of God. It’s time to submit your will to the will of God. It’s time to follow God, or go with the flow. So: It’s time to go with the flow, go with the flow, go with the flow. I used to do a lot of yoga, like two hours a day. Now, I do about 20 minutes a day because I have a kid and priorities shift and change. But my 20 minutes a day is my yoga practice and 20 minutes of meditation, so that’s the beginning of my day. The yoga that I do is a stronger yoga, and there’s a component called Svadhyaya, which is self-study. I’m really interested in the self-study. It’s just to be on to yourself about what you say, what you think, what you’re doing, and the idea that the only thing you really have any kind of control over is yourself. You don’t really have control over anything else, and your perception frames your world. For example, if I get notes from a producer, “Do this and that,” I try to say, “These notes are going to make the project so much better.” I just say that. Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but you know what? It always turns out to be true. It’s like a magic little thing. Instead of spending an hour or two or three or four being really, really angry at somebody, you can just try to work on your own personality. I tell my students, being in the arts is so much about personality management—your own personality. To me, that’s what being an artist is: managing your own personality and creating a life that’s sustainable so that you can keep practicing your work, which is the most important thing.
Is that something you had to learn? Because for women, especially, it can be so hard to get people to take you seriously, and that can kind of push you into a corner of maybe having to be more aggressive or assertive?
This is tricky. It’s tricky because, number one, yes, the world is fucked up. People got fucked up attitudes toward women. People got fucked up attitudes toward black people and people of color. People got fucked up attitudes toward immigrants and people of different religions, and it’s a mess. Okay, there’s a lot of mess going on, and we understand that. Number two, what if the only thing we really have control over is our own responses to things, and so, number three, what if the best you can do for yourself is to be mindful of your own thoughts and actions, first and foremost? Because I’ve had people say, “Oh, people don’t take me seriously.” Do you take yourself seriously? That’s my first question. And eight times out of ten she’ll say, “Well, I’m really…” and that’s where the work begins. We can wait til the cows come home for the you-name-its, for the man, for the white people, for the person whose foot is on your throat, whatever we’ll call them, we can wait forever for them to do the right thing, but if we’re not doing the right thing by ourselves and with each other, then we still have a lot of work to do. Our problems will not be solved by only them behaving appropriately. Our problems also need to be addressed on a very personal level. A woman might say, “People don’t take me seriously.” Often, she doesn’t take herself seriously. Often, she’s one of the many who might dismiss another women, and not take one of her sisters seriously. So there’s a lot of that going on. People don’t have a hard time taking me seriously because I take myself seriously. Not seriously like I’m serious, but seriously like, “I’m here. I can do the fucking job. What do you want?” I show up in a room. I come in with a certain amount of authority because every morning I get up and I work really hard and I don’t take my successes for granted, I don’t take my friends for granted, I don’t take my family for granted. I’m working hard. I’m showing up, and doing a job, and any negative shit loop that might be in my head, I work to let it go. And that’s what we all got to do. We all have negative shit loops in our head and, if we can work to let them go or re-write them, that can be very helpful. And again, that is not to discount the bullshit, fucked up nature of the world, but what can we do on a personal level?
What’s something you think the industry can do to make things better, and more equal for women in the theatre industry?
In the entertainment industry, really. I’m interested in more opportunities for women in theatre, but also more opportunities for women in film and television and everywhere. It’s simple. It’s three words: Let us in. Boom. It’s not complicated. Let us in. Realize that making room for the other is actually a way to make room for yourself. It’s a spiritual exercise. You’ve got to have the faith that somehow making room for the other is a way to make better room for yourself, and you’ve just got to believe that. It’s true, actually. See yourself in the other, whether they’re a person of a different ethnic group, a different religion, a different gender, or a different way of living. See yourself in the other, let us in, and realize that, by letting the other in, you actually make room for yourself. So it’s like a win-win, really. Realize that it’s a win-win.