The Sinner’s Place, pr. 1984
Betting on the Dust Commander, pr. 1987
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, pr. 1989
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, pr. 1990
Devotees in the Garden of Love, pr. 1991
The America Play, pr. 1993
The America Play, and Other Works, pb. 1995
Venus, pr. 1996
In the Blood, pr. 1999
Fucking A, pr. 2000
The Red Letter Plays, pb. 2001 (includes In the Blood and Fucking A;) Topdog/Underdog, pr., pb. 2001
Getting Mother’s Body, 2003
Anemone Me, 1990
Girl 6, 1996
When Suzan-Lori Parks received a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the play Topdog/Underdog, she became the first African American woman playwright to win the award. Born into a U.S. Army colonel’s family, Parks traveled extensively as a child, spending time in diverse places across the United States and in Germany. Parks graduated cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Mount Holyoke College in 1985, double majoring in English and German. She studied creative writing at Hampshire College with James Baldwin, who encouraged her development as a playwright, and she later spent a year in London studying acting.
Parks works as the director of the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Project’s writing for performance program at California Institute of the Arts. She has won awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. She also won a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2001, and several of her plays have received the Obie Award and nominations for the Tony Award. In 2001, she married Paul Oscher, a blues musician.
In 1989, at the age of twenty-six, Parks was hailed by critics as one of the most promising young playwrights. Her twelve plays over seventeen years set the stage for Parks to become the most prolific African American female playwright since Alice Childress. Parks’s plays are positioned toward global audiences while still addressing the distinct concerns of African American culture. Her use of adaptation, her uncompromising critique of social ills, her manipulation of history, her revisionist linguistic and vernacular strategies, and her mathematical interpretation of the theatrical endeavor help to define innovative twenty-first century theater.
Parks introduces unusual settings and contexts of history that challenge each individual to take responsibility for his or her response to history and to society’s ills. One of Parks’s most radical historical conventions is her redefinition of Abraham Lincoln’s meaning as an American icon. In The America Play, an African American man impersonates Lincoln and makes money as a traveling sideshow vender, selling the opportunity for individuals to play the part of John Wilkes Booth in a reenactment of Lincoln’s assassination. Parks expands this idea in Topdog/Underdog, a play about two African American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, who are obsessed with hustling, history, and sibling hierarchy. The play can be compared to the stories of Cain and Abel and Oedipus.
Parks’s The Red Letter Plays (In the Blood and Fucking A) are revisionist adaptations of themes of sexism and class from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850). In the Blood features a homeless mother of five, Hester La Negrita, who uses street wit and a gritty, self-confidence to resist the inevitable tragedies of social injustice, abandonment, poverty, and double standards of morality imposed on her by the welfare system and a privileged, accusing society. In Fucking A, the protagonist, Hester Smith, is branded as an underground abortionist in a society where it is a crime to have children out of wedlock. The play questions the negative social labels a violent society stamps on the poor and on the children of the poor.
Parks’s play Venus humanizes the image of the early nineteenth century Venus Hottentot, South African Saartje Baartman, who was manipulated and taken on a world tour in a freak show to exhibit the physiology of her phenomenally shaped posterior. Betting on the Dust Commander explores gender themes such as male-female communication and the duality of symbolism in the setting of a couple’s deteriorated marriage relationship. Devotees in the Garden of Love is a satirical allegory about how the domestic dreams that mothers and society at large instill in young women and young men can be confusing, damaging, and inevitably absurd.
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World are specifically African American cultural explorations, but they do not fit into any pattern or tradition of African American theater. Parks’s messages are complex, although her characters are recognizable.