Suzan-Lori Parks

Definition

Theater

  • (1963 - ) US playwright, who in 2002 became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. In her complex, linguisticallydense plays Parks has explored key themes from Black history while setting herself against what she has called "the play-as-wrapping-paper-version-of-hot-newspaper-headline".

    Parks, who was born into a military family, spent much of her childhood in Germany. She later studied at the liberal arts college Mount Holyoke, where she was persuaded to begin writing by the great African-American author James Baldwin. After graduating she took secretarial jobs while struggling to get her plays performed off-Broadway. Recognition finally arrived with the staging of Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989), a surrealistic drama that earned high praise and won her the Obie Award for Best New Play. This was followed by the experimental The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole World (1990), which explores a series of Black American stereotypes, and Devotees in the Garden of Love (1992). The America Play (1994) proved more controversial, with some finding its symbolism opaque; the story concernsa Black man who becomes a famous sideshow attraction owing to his resemblance to Abraham Lincoln (punters are charged a penny a time to 'shoot' him). Parks then enjoyed a critical and commercial success with Venus (1996), a play about Saartjie Baartman, the 19th-century African woman exhibited at freak shows as 'the Hottentot Venus'.

    Parks's next project, a reworking of themes from Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, eventually resulted in two separate plays: In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000). The first tells the modern-day story of Hester, a struggling ghetto mother who has five children by as many men; the second, which includes songs written by Parks, concerns another Hester, an abortionist. Both plays were staged at New York's Public Theatre. Widespread acclaim, and the Pulitzer Prize, followed for Topdog/Underdog (2001), a story about the rivalry of two brothers (significantly named Lincoln and booth) that gave Parks her first Broadway hit. In late 2002 she embarked on the extraordinary project of writing a short play every day for a whole year; the resulting 365 plays were then staged over the course of another year at some 700 theaters in 30 cities. More recent works include the musical Ray Charles Live! (2007) and The Book of Grace (2010).

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