A Symposium on the Work of Suzan-Lori Parks
Part One: Critics and Scholars
[The following is an edited transcript
of a symposium held at Hunter College on April 30, 2004, organized
and moderated by Jonathan Kalb. This first of two panels (for
critics and scholars) featured introductory remarks by Kalb, followed
by twenty-minute presentations by Robert Brustein, Shawn-Marie
Garrett, Marc Robinson, and Alisa Solomon, and discussion with
the audience. A second panel (for directors) followed later. Biographies
for the present speakers may be found at the end of this transcript.
The editor extends warm thanks both to the participants, for making
the symposium such a substantial event, and to Leigh Ronnow, Hunter
alumna extraordinaire, for accomplishing the daunting task of
transcribing the proceedings.]
This symposium has been organized in conjunction with the Hunter
Theater Department's spring 2004 production, which is Suzan-Lori
Parks's play Venus, directed by our faculty member Bill
Walters, who is with us today and who will be speaking with us
on the second panel. The show runs through May 9 and I encourage
everybody to see it, not only because I want everybody to see
all the work we do in the Theater Department here but also because
I think that this playwright, even more than a lot of other playwrights,
really has to be experienced in the theater if you want
to understand what she is all about. The presence of her work
in the theater, the challenges that her work poses to the theater,
including her habit of casting spectators in the role of dubious
historical witnesses whether they like it or not, are very much
of the essence of her aesthetic. I feel sure that our panelists
today will have a lot more to say on these issues. I have the
honor of welcoming to Hunter today a remarkable array of theater
scholars, critics and practitioners who have in part distinguished
themselves through their work on Parks's drama. They have taken
on the exciting and daunting task of focusing seriously on the
sometimes difficult work of a startlingly new author in a period
before others had provided any roadmaps for this, and everyone
who turns their attention to Parks in the future, whether by writing
about it or giving it life on the stage, owes a great deal to
these writers and artists.
Just one point of clarification to begin
with. For those of you familiar with her at all, Suzan-Lori Parks
is probably known as the author of Topdog/Underdog, a
play about two black brothers, one named Lincoln, the other named
Booth, who live together in a seedy rooming house and whose names
prefigure a tragicomic fate that both is and isn't obvious from
the start. This play transferred from the Public Theater to Broadway
in 2002 and was the first drama by an African-American woman to
win the Pulitzer Prize. Parks won the Pulitzer one year after
winning a MacArthur grant in 2001. It's important to establish
here, though, at the outset, that Topdog/Underdog, a
relatively naturalistic work, is not typical of Parks's other
work before or after it. Parks has tried many, many different
dramatic forms; in fact, she's something of a connoisseur of dramatic
form. The works on which she built her early reputation were deliberate
deconstructions of traditional linear structure.
Suzan-Lori Parks was born May 10, 1963,
in Fort Knox, Kentucky, the daughter of an Army colonel who moved
the family around quite a bit. By the time she was old enough
to move out she had lived in six different states of the union
and in Germany, where she attended a German school and learned
the German language. She eventually graduated cum laude from Mount
Holyoke College where she began writing plays at the encouragement
of James Baldwin, one of her teachers. She came to the notice
of the downtown theater community in 1989 for a play called Imperceptible
Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, done at BACA Downtown
and later at many other theaters, which won three Obie awards.
Following that, to mention only her full-length titles, came Betting
on the Dust Commander, The Death of the Last Black Man in the
Whole Entire World, The America Play, and Venus. Venus,
as many of you know, is built around the historical figure of
Saartjie Baartman, a black woman from South Africa who was brought
to England in the early 19th century and displayed as a sideshow
freak, The Hottentot Venus, because of her large behind. Then
came Topdog and a pair of full-lengths that responded
in different ways to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: In the
Blood and Fucking A. Although she has concentrated
so far mainly on plays, Parks has also written a great deal in
other genres. She wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee's film about
phone sex workers, Girl Six, and is currently working
on several other film scripts, as well as the book for a Disney
musical about the Harlem Globetrotters, called Hoops.
She has written many essays and she published a novel last year
called Getting Mother's Body, which could be construed
as a tribute to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
Now having listed all these titles and
honors, I have still told you nothing about what the fuss is all
about with this author. I've said nothing about her extremely
provocative use of history, her fearless use of racist stereotypes
to expropriate and diffuse what has been hurtful in other contexts,
and I've said nothing about her fractured language, the way, as
she puts it, she likes to bang words together and watch them do
things. This is no cuddly composer of folklore. Her literary heroes
are not easy writers but rather prickly and difficult ones like
Faulkner, Joyce, Adrienne Kennedy, and Samuel Beckett, about whom
she once said, "he just seems so black to me."
I want to turn things over to our panelists
now and will end by reading a few lines from Imperceptible
Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. The figures here are in
a flagrantly metaphorical boat located in a no-man's ocean called
The Third Kingdom, somewhere between the United States and Africa.
Shark-Seer: How many kin kin I hold.
Whole hull full.
Soul-Seer: Thuh hullholesfull of bleachin bones.
Us-Seer: Bleached Bones Man may come and take you far uhcross
thuh sea from me.
Over-Seer: Who're you again?
Kin-Seer: I'm. Lucky.
Over-Seer: Who're you again?
Kin-Seer: Should I jump? Shouldijumporwhut?
Shark-Seer: But we are not in uh boat!
Us-Seer: But we iz. Iz iz iz uh huhn. Iz uh huhn. Uh huhn iz.
Shark-Seer: I wonder: Are we happy? Thuh looks we look look
Us-Seer: They like smiles and we will like what they will like.
Kin-Seer: Me wavin at me me wavin at my I me wavin at my soul.
Shark-Seer: Chomp chomp chomp chomp.
Shark-Seer: Baby, what will I do for love?
Soul-Seer: Wave me uh wave and I'll wave one back blow me uh
kiss n I'll blow you one back.
Over-Seer: Quiet, you, or you'll be jettisoned!
Shark-Seer: Chomp chomp chomp chomp.
Kin-Seer: Wa-vin wavin.
Shark-Seer: Chomp chomp chomp chomp.
Kin-Seer: Howwe gonna find my Me?
Our mission today, one could say, is to
try to help find Suzan-Lori Parks's "me." We'll give it the ol'
I first came upon the rich, audacious, and singular talent of
Suzan-Lori Parks in 1992 when I went up to Yale to see a production
of a work with a marquee-swollen title, The Death of the Last
Black Man in the Whole Entire World. This was actually her
third in a series of plays with equally mind-boggling names like
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (I think
Alisa Solomon was the first critic to ever review that play) and
Betting on the Dust Commander. These titles didn't quite
match the length of Peter Weiss's Persecution and Assassination
of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of
Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, or
even Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the
Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. But like all her plays, The
Death of the Last Black Man suggested she had more in common
with Kopit's avant-garde mischievousness and Weiss's supertheatricalism
than with the formal and thematic conventions associated with
contemporary American realism.
In those days Suzan-Lori herself was eager
to distinguish her work in style from the more familiar domestic
conventions of say, Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun
(which George C. Wolfe called "one of the last 'mama on the couch'
plays") and in content from what she memorably identified as "the
I'm-gonna-get-you plays of the '70s" (sequels to the "I'm-gonna-get-your-mama
plays" of the '60s). Maybe that was because her teacher at Mount
Holyoke was Jimmy Baldwin, the author of a famous essay called
"Everybody's Protest Novel," in which he criticized the same sort
of belligerent ideologizing in some black fiction writing. Whatever
the case, Parks's writing has always been as much a product of
Western postmodernism as of African-American consciousness and
the black experience, an unusual amalgam of the two.
In this she had a literary prototype in
Adrienne Kennedy, one of the earliest African-American women writers
with more on her mind than race. "It's insulting," Suzan-Lori
once said at a public symposium. "It's insulting when people say
my plays are about what it's about to be black, as if that's all
we think about, as if our life is about that. My life is not about
race. It's about being alive." And she added, "Why does everyone
think white artists make art and black artists make statements?
Why doesn't anyone ask me ever about form?" Well if they did,
people would have gotten an earful because Parks had been carefully
schooled in the formalist breakthroughs of the postmodern school.
Like other members of that movement, notably Gertrude Stein in
The Making of Americans, and James Joyce in Finnegans
Wake, for example, she is very preoccupied with deconstructing
the English language. And like the author of a play called The
Blacks, Jean Genet, who was one of the earliest writers to
explore the way skin color influences consciousness, she is deeply
concerned with identity and how the presence of the Other helps
both to define and to obscure our sense of ourselves. At the same
time, her work has been influenced a lot by music, both jazz and
classical, from which she derives her concept of what she calls
"repetition and revision"--that is to say, revisiting and revising
the same phrases over and over again.
But despite her joyous encounter with music
and language, it cannot be denied that Suzan-Lori is also writing
plays about race. The Last Black Man, for example, is
partly an effort to exalt black English into a kind of poetic
code and to adapt English words to the black experience. As the
play moves the audience through a kind of expressionist history
of America, a character named Before Columbus reflects on a time
when the Earth was flat, while another insists that the Earth
was "roun" until Columbus made it round with a "d." In short,
Parks deconstructs language as a means of establishing the forgotten
place of African-Americans in recorded history. "You will write
it down," she writes, "because if you don't write it down then
we will come along and tell the future that we did not exist."
"You will write it down and carve it out of rock." In the introduction
to one of her collections, she adds quite beautifully, "One of
my tasks is to locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones,
find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down." This, I would
suggest, is her way of endorsing the Czech writer Milan Kundera's
definition of art as "a struggle of memory against forgetting."
Her plays may sometimes be about oppression, but she never limits
herself to writing about oppression. As she says, "To define black
drama solely as the presentation of the Black as oppressed is
After The Death of the Last Black Man
came two transitional works, The America Play and Venus.
The America Play was her first stab at the Cain and Abel
relationship between Abe Lincoln, here called the Foundling Father,
and his murderer, John Wilkes Booth. Topdog/Underdog
was her second treatment of the subject, a sign that she is given
to taking a story and revising it. In both works the central figure
is a black man trained to reenact over and over again Lincoln's
murder at the hands of Booth at Ford's Theater during a production
of Our American Cousin, which was playing there when
Lincoln was shot. Venus, on the other hand, is about
the celebrated Venus Hottentot, as she was called. By the way,
that word Hottentot began as a derogatory term for the Khoikhoi
tribe in South Africa. It was coined by an Afrikaner who said,
"they only have two words, 'hot' and 'tot,'" and that's the way
the word came into being. It was later applied to "Venus Hottentot"
who was abducted from her South African home in the early nineteenth
century to become a phenomenon of English freak shows because
of her gargantuan buttocks and breasts. Despite obvious temptations,
however, Venus is not a victim play and never pushes
sympathy buttons. Parks's Venus is hugely exploited but always
retains an aristocratic dignity and sang-froid laced
with a gentle irony. She is exhibited, she's manhandled, sexually
violated, infected with the clap, anatomized and, finally, autopsied
by physicians who think they have found the missing link. Yet
the play is not only an indictment of white racism but of European
smugness and insularity as well. In short, it is less a victim
play than a powerful dissent from European concepts of female
Like The America Play, Venus was
a transitional work in the sense that Parks began then to subordinate
her linguistic experimentation in order to concentrate more on
theme and character. This had the result of making her work more
accessible, until with In the Blood, a contemporary version
of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter about a homeless black
woman and the black preacher who seduces and abandons her, she
finally produced a popular work. Her next play, Topdog/Underdog,
even enjoyed a short run on Broadway, and as Jonathan told you,
won the Pulitzer Prize. But just as that work covered the same
material as The America Play, her most recent work, Fucking
A, was a second look at the Hester Prynne story, the one
she adapted in In the Blood, with the heroine wearing
a scarlet "A" for being an abortionist.
Parks's style was undergoing changes as
well. The dialogue of Topdog/Underdog is composed in
highly syncopated rhythms, the verbal equivalent of the modern
jazz riffs that the director George C. Wolfe used as transitional
motifs. In her previous plays, Parks's explorations were performed
in a highly charged, imagistic language that kept the poetic content
higher than the sociological substance. In her recent, more accessible
if less reverberant plays, she uses increasingly naturalistic
language and domestic themes. As in Topdog/Underdog,
she is more concerned about what she calls family wounds and healing
than with big historical flourishes. That may be why, instead
of experimental artists like Marcus Stern, Liz Diamond, and Richard
Foreman, who are the directors associated with her earlier work,
her plays are now being staged by more mainstream artists like
George C. Wolfe and Michael Greif. No one can predict where this
unpredictable dramatist will go next, whether she will break out
into fresh uncharted territory or remain content with a modest,
if seedily furnished room in town. In any case, she is definitely
an artist whose future work one awaits with the greatest anticipation.
The title of my talk today is "The Venus Hottentot is Dead: The
Historical Saartjie Baartman." Saartjie Baartman is the name of
the woman who became known by the appellation "The Venus Hottentot."
So I'm here to fill in a little historical background about the
character, because while the play frequently refers to the little
evidence that exists about her, it's certainly an imaginative
version of the character.
The South African Baartman, under the stage
name of The Hottentot Venus, was shown before paying crowds in
London, in the English provinces and in Paris during the early
19th century. She died at the age of twenty-six in Paris in 1815.
Her death is the starting point in Venus, and the play's
most repeated refrain is "The Venus Hottentot is Dead." Parks
perhaps anticipated that Venus's audiences would need
reminding on this point; for of all of Parks's figures, Venus
is the least likely to stay dead anytime soon. Parks views her
historical characters as having continuing life as "effigies,"
to use Joseph Roach's term, or "repetitions with revision," to
use Parks's, that appear throughout history, as Robert Brustein
mentioned. The same sorts of patterns repeat themselves, perhaps
with revision. Saartjie Baartman isn't just what James Baldwin,
Suzan-Lori Parks's teacher, called one of the many thousands gone.
Nor is she one of the sixty million to whom Toni Morrison dedicates
her novel Beloved. Like Morrison, Parks, in her plays
before Venus, tended to concentrate on the unknown dead victims
of the long international shame of the slave trade. Yet Saartjie
Baartman is different. For many South Africans, she is a martyr,
a secular saint.
In 1996 a South African Professor of Archaeology
named Andrew Sillen called Baartman a metaphor for what has happened
to his country. The few Americans today who have heard of her
have probably heard about her from the buzz about Parks's play
and its productions throughout the country. When the play premiered
and told Baartman's story, Parks took on a new role in a way as
a playwright, something more akin to Brecht's idea of a writer
who gives the audience pleasure through teaching. Her previous
plays were much more playful linguistically than Venus
is. More literal and less poetical than in her earlier work, Parks's
Venus is a conduit of the real past. Its Brechtian structure
and language, its songs, mark a mutation of Parks's dramatic form,
and Baartman's bones seem to require that. Parks does draw on
the same inter-textual strategies; that is, she pulls from historical
sources and mixes them with dramatic dialogue, as in her earlier
plays. Venus is--mercifully, in my opinion--as far from
documentary drama as those earlier plays. Yet Baartman's ordeal
is described in Venus, in all its violent and perverse
particularities, through a fragmented structure and multiple ironic
So who was Saartjie Baartman? Through uncertain
means and for uncertain ends she left South Africa and ended up
in London in 1812. It is thought--and this is reported on slim
evidence in a book called The Shows of London by Richard
Altick--that her father was a drover, or a driver of animals,
who was killed by a Bushman, or Hottentot as the Dutch called
them. Then she was taken to London, probably by force, to participate
in a freak show. Those events are depicted in the play. In London
she achieved a minor morbid celebrity as a sideshow freak called
The Hottentot Venus. She appeared nearly naked and crowds were
particularly attracted by her butt. This appears again and again
in historical documents.
Altick called her "steatopygic to a fault."
Steatopygia is a medical condition that many doctors insist some
South African women still suffer from, which involves having a
large ass. In fact, it has to do with retention of water and other
things that are completely to be expected in the environment in
which those women have lived for centuries. In any case, spectators
were also attracted by her genitals and private viewings could
be arranged. Again through unknown forces, Baartman ended up in
Paris in 1813, performing her show--which is to say, being shown
off by somebody else. Parks questions this business of Baartman's
agency. She sees Baartman as a diva. She gives her a kind of choice
that the historical Saartjie Baartman probably would not have
had, a set of rights and a will that she would not have been granted.
The French were even more fascinated by
her than the English, for theoretical as well as erotic reasons.
The preeminent French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who is for the
French what Charles Darwin is for the English, was looking for
a scientific basis for race at the time, as were many so-called
naturalists, and Baartman seemed an ideal object of study. Naturalists
regarded Baartman's race--which was not just African but the sub-race
of Africans called the Hottentots--as "the true missing link."
That's a quotation from Cuvier. After Baartman's death, Cuvier
(who appears in Parks's play as the Baron Docteur) performed an
autopsy on her corpse and published his results to great acclaim.
He also made a plaster cast of her body and, most astonishingly,
preserved her genitalia in a formaldehyde jar. These were put
on public exhibition at Musée de l'Homme in Paris, where they
remained until 1978. At that point I guess they decided they were
a little embarrassing.
There were Peruvian genitalia and other
genitalia then too. The Musée de l'Homme had a habit of preserving
exotic women's genitalia, and also the brains of great male European
scientists. Shelves of brains and genitalia. To paraphrase Shakespeare:
a spectacle for mechanic slaves and quick comedians, a study for
science and death.
The historian William B. Cohen writes that
Baartman was so famous in French naturalist circles that she "dominated
much of French scientific thought about Blacks for the remainder
of the nineteenth century." Soon after her remains were removed
from public display, Baartman's case was reopened by scholars
and scientists contra-colonialism. In 1982, Steven J. Gould wrote
an account of visiting the Musée de l'Homme. He writes in his
evocative style about the labyrinthine innards and back wards,
which is a pun Parks exploits but Gould misses. And his account
reads like something out of Joseph Conrad, a white man's primal
scene. Here's what he says, after recounting holding the skull
of Descartes and looking at the French scientist Paul Broca's
brain: "Yet I found the most interesting items on the shelf just
above, a little exhibit that provided an immediate and chilling
insight into 19th-century mentalité and the history of
racism. In three smaller jars I saw the dissected genitalia of
three Third-World women. I found no brains of women, nor any male
genitalia. The three jars are labeled 'une négresse,' 'une péruvienne,''la
Vénus Hottentotte.'" Hot on Gould's heels, many scholars picked
up the story of Baartman and she became once again exhibited,
displayed, theorized, but this time in scholarly conferences and
discussions such as this one.
few words on the contemporary events that surrounded Venus's
premiere, purely coincidentally. Baartman descended from, as we've
said, a group of Africans known derisively as Hottentots or Bushmen;
even today many people call them the latter. The real name of
their tribes are the Khoisan. Sadly, they've practically been
eradicated through genocide. In January and February 1996, before
Venus's premiere in the U.S., the Griqua National Congress
in post-apartheid South Africa, which represents the Khoisan tribes,
intensified its pressure on South African policy makers to secure
the return of Baartman's remains to South Africa from France.
The Khoisan are generally light-skinned and identify themselves
as neither Black nor Colored, according to apartheid's lingering
categories, and at first the GNC's efforts were rebuffed because
they lack the political muscle of, say, the ANC. Interestingly,
not a single American newspaper picked up on this Baartman controversy
in 1996, while it was all over European newspapers. In the year
2000, Baartman's remains were finally returned to South Africa,
and she was really greeted there as kind of a secular saint. A
great celebration was held and she was given a proper burial,
which, according to the traditions of her people, is essential
and necessary for her to pass on to the next phase of life.
A couple of other contemporary creative
writers have also picked up on Baartman's story and it's interesting
to compare their approaches to Parks's in Venus. In 1979
the white South African poet Stephen Gray conceived an immortal
Baartman figure, an Earth mother Venus who reverses the putdown
she endured in life. This is an excerpt from his poem, in which
she effects a kind of Dionysian revenge:
Saartjie Baartman is my name and I know
my place I know my rights I put down my foot
and the Tuileries Gardens shake I put down
my foot and the Seine changes course I put
down my foot and the globe turns upside down
I rattle my handful of bones and the dead arise.
In another poem, by the American writer
Elizabeth Alexander, who is also a playwright, Baartman resumes
her mortal dimensions. It is a very naturalistic telling of Baartman's
story. Like Parks's, Alexander's Baartman is the family entrepreneur
and a kind of diva. For Parks, Venus's downfall comes when she
merges her public and private personas; that is, when she succumbs
to the love affair with the Baron Docteur. Alexander imagines
Baartman's inner life and memories as her only sanctuary. Here's
how she imagines Baartman thinking:
. . . there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters in banana skirts
and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
Interestingly, Alexander also reveals the
secret of the Hottentot Venus's fabulous popularity. The Venus
. . . I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian
archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair and diamonds.
In the end she fantasizes a kind of Jacobean
revenge against Cuvier.
If he were to let me rise up
from this table, I'd spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart . . .
so the whole world would see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.
Of course, "deformed" and "unnatural" were
the qualities that Cuvier sought to ascribe to all Hottentots,
and by extension all Africans, through his autopsy report on Venus.
Unlike Gray and Alexander, then, Parks denies Baartman justice.
Her play is not a melodrama or a tragedy. She grants Baartman
and the audience only whatever comfort lies in performance because
it repeats, because it revises. Parks moves Baartman out of the
familiar form of revenge fantasy, where both Gray's and Alexander's
Venuses, different as they are, seek a divinity to shape their
ends. Parks's Venus, like the figures in her earlier plays, can
only keep on "waving back," to borrow a phrase from Imperceptible
Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, where figures in Middle
Passage keep waving goodbye to their African selves and the distant
African shore. Baartman, in a sense, also keeps waving back. That's
the justice that Suzan-Lori Parks can imagine for her in the present.
I want to begin by quoting one playwright's vision of an ideal
theater, a theater he famously said would be located in a cemetery
"where graves are being dug all the time."
Before burying the dead man, carry the
corpse in his casket to the front of the stage, let his friends,
enemies, and the curious sit in the section reserved for the
audience, let the funeral mime who led the procession divide
and multiply, let him turn into a theatrical company, and let
him recreate the life and death of the dead man, right in front
of the corpse and the audience, afterwards, let the casket be
carried to the grave in the dead of night, let the audience
finally leave--the feast is finished. Until another ceremony,
occasioned by another corpse, is worthy of dramatic performance--not
a tragic one. Tragedy must be lived, not played.
The writer, of course, is Genet, and this
scenario (from his essay "The Strange Word Urb…") anticipates
many of the procedures and themes of Venus, not least
its own funeral mime in the person of the Negro Resurrectionist
overseeing a reenacted life of Venus after presenting her body
and announcing her death. The passage also names the deliberately
unresolved tension between exhumation and burial--or, more generally,
exposure and concealment--in many other Parks plays.
It's an ambivalence for which Genet found
a simple theatrical sign. In the stage directions to Deathwatch,
he insists that the lighting be as bright as possible all the
time in the otherwise tomblike prison cell. The condemned may
be out of sight, buried alive in a hole, but they are not unseen.
There is always a spectator monitoring their actions. The characters,
denied privacy, are always on stage. The same harsh, unremitting
light should fill both the stage and the house of The Screens,
Genet wrote to Roger Blin, that play's first director, "because
I should in some way like both actors and audience caught up in
the same illumination, and for there to be no place for them to
hide, or even half-hide."
There may be no place to hide or even half-hide
in Parks, either, so habitual is her characters' theatricality
and so pervasive is the accompanying surveillance. Yet she nonetheless
recognizes the strength of an undertow pulling the action down
and out of sight. The characters' response to this extraordinary
force is the action. As many critics have observed (Una
Chaudhuri, Greg Miller, Alice Rayner, and Harry Elam among them),
Parks's theater occupies a perforated landscape. Her stages are
pockmarked with ditches, pools, and graves; the text with lacuna;
the bodies with wounds; the narratives with secrets and other
recesses from which authoritative meaning won't emerge. This is
a theater in perpetual retreat from visual, verbal, and physical
presence, recoiling as readers and viewers reach toward it. We
have each made our own list of its hiding places: under the porch
or in the slave-ship hold in The Death of the Last Black Man;
under the bridge in In the Blood; The America Play's
Great Hole and, less obviously, Lucy's pledge of confidentiality;
in Venus, the cage, cell, and dark bedroom; and, in many
plays, the privacy of footnotes and the anticipatory silence before
speech or the helplessness after it. These aren't mere absences
or omissions, as some have described them, but arenas of action.
Here, in the spaces opened up whenever the action sinks below
the surface of declarative language, social behavior, and expository
action, Parks's characters engage with histories both individual
and cultural, seize and sift the very matter supporting their
presence, and confront aspects of themselves that can't be regularized
into dramatically manageable form onstage or in spoken language.
Not that these recesses are wholly divorced
from Parks's relentlessly spectatorial culture. As in Genet, the
idea of privacy exists only as a simulation, teasing characters
with promises of a security it can no longer fulfill. "Yr only
yrself when no ones watching," Parks writes, hopefully, in Topdog/Underdog,
welcoming the irony that the brothers are actually quoting one
of Lincoln's voyeuristic customers. Is there ever true solitude
in Parks's theater? A naturalist and, later, a photographer hover
over the action in Imperceptible Mutabilities. Hester's
bridge is regularly invaded by policemen, welfare officials, and
vandals scrawling graffiti. The needy and the menacing burst in
on the Hester of Fucking A just when she settles into
the first private hour of the night. In Topdog/Underdog,
the most intimate companion of one's seclusion becomes the most
intrusive spectator. The action of that play exists in a state
of permanent inhibition, as the brothers are always spying on
one another or fearing discovery. One brother looks in, unnoticed,
from the threshold, or eavesdrops behind a screen. The other hides
his possessions--money, porn magazines, weapon--from prying eyes
or tries, futilely, to smother the shame that follows his own
moments of self-consciousness.
In her recognition of the pull exerted
by subterranean spaces, literal or figurative, Parks extends a
tradition of concealment in American theater, or more precisely,
African-American theater. The oldest hole swallowing her own is
in William Wells Brown's 1858 play The Escape; or, A Leap
for Freedom, the first play published by a black American
writer. Its most memorable image is a deep pit in which a slave
is kept prisoner by a sadistic overseer. (That synonym for slave
owner, as Parks recognized in Imperceptible Mutabilities,
nicely captures the relationship of spectatorship to possession.)
Jean Toomer's Kabnis, the play buried in his 1923 novel
Cane, places the title character in a murky cellar where
he must face a painful ancestry he thought he understood above
ground. "I get my life down in this scum-hole," he says. Marita
Bonner's 1928 play The Purple Flower envisions a dimly
lit level below the thin "skin of civilization," as she calls
it. The latter repeatedly cracks--"a thought can drop you through
it," she says--and plunges Bonner's characters into an atavistic
More recent works make Parks's imagery
seem all the more inevitable. Amiri Baraka's Dutchman
is set in what he famously calls "the flying underbelly of the
city," a hot, cramped subway car. Another subway car appears in
Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers. Kennedy's Ohio
State Murders, nearly contemporaneous with Parks's major
early plays, is set in the underground level of a university library,
with a single window hung far above the stage. At night, the play's
playwright-protagonist retreats here to consider why her theater
is so preoccupied with violence. Of course, the best-known hole
in American literature is in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,
and its protagonist's monologue sets the standard for all subsequent
self-interrogations. In all this theater, as in Ellison's novel,
characters who have had invisibility forced upon them use it to
study their disguises, compromises, and inhibitions, if never
wholly to shed them. They also surrender to elemental fear, anger,
and longing, these emotions no longer cut to fit any landscape
other than their own. (In The America Play, Parks writes
that the Great Hole, "gave a shape" to the Lesser Known.) Out
of sight, all these characters hope to arrive at insights penetrating,
candid, and self-surprising.
In Parks's theater, the pits, underbellies,
and cellars of these earlier writers appear as replicas and echoes
(to cite two forms from The America Play), or rather,
throughout this theater history, each void can be seen as citing
an earlier one, digging deeper into a shared absence. In fact,
the digging, as the Lesser Known and the Negro Resurrectionist
know, is as important as the hole. Parks makes the most of theater's
temporality to confront the experience of losing, not just the
subsequent recognition of loss--of retreat, not mere vacancy--and
of the dynamic struggle either to resist it or, more often and
more surprising, to welcome it and, by trying to control it, to
turn it to one's advantage. As Elizabeth Bishop advises in "One
Art," "practice losing farther, losing faster."
Images of falling or sinking recur obsessively
in Parks's theater, as if each sequence advanced by a few segments
one endless, metaphysical descent, the ground forever lowering
just as the characters near it. (Is this a vision of the original
Fall from grace as rendered by a playwright who acknowledges Catholicism's
formative influence on her theater?) The Foundling Father slumps
repeatedly in his chair after being "shot." Kin-Seer in Imperceptible
Mutabilities sinks through the ocean after being jettisoned
from a slave-ship. An Icarus-like pilot in the same play falls
out of the sky onto Sergeant Smith. The sky itself seems to fall
on Hester during the eclipse in In the Blood, an experience
that makes her feel as if "the hand of fate with its five fingers
[were] coming down on me." Miss Miss imagines (falsely, it turns
out) her own drowning in the short play Pickling. "Down
down down," says Black Woman With Fried Drumstick. "Down down
down down down." Perhaps this is her account of Black Man With
Watermelon, who tumbles through the experience of dying over and
over but never reaches the bottom of death.
As characters fall, so too does the idea
of character. The Foundling Father, already a fallen version of
the real Lincoln, dwindles further over the course of the play,
present only as a Lincoln bust early in Act II, then a Lincoln
penny, then even further reduced to an intangible face on the
TV that reruns the play's first act, now, in a final diminishment,
played in silence. So runs down memory. As Lucy and Brazil try
to retrieve the past, it dissolves in their hands and before their
eyes. This erosion of character has its equivalent in just about
every Parks play. Bodies turn to maimed bodies, turn to body parts,
turn to facsimiles of body parts, turn, finally, to mere words
for those parts. In this last instance, I'm thinking, of course,
of the glossary at the end of the printed version of Venus,
perhaps meant to be read and staged as part of the body of the
text, on par with its footnotes. (Here too, the corporeal associations
of the word "footnotes" are hard to ignore.)
The regression doesn't stop here. The glossary
asserts an authority that Parks deliberately withholds in her
other plays. This procedure involves more than interrupting speech
with silence. As memorable in themselves as are Parks's famous
"spells," equally important are the passages of falling toward
the moment when silence reestablishes order. Here, to borrow an
image from Bonner's Purple Flower, we can imagine the
thin ice of the play's verbal civilization cracking and the speakers
plunging through a languageless chasm, so horrifying that the
silence at the bottom comes as a relief. At least that
is stable. In sequences that parallel bodily dispersal and decay,
writing itself slowly recoils from our attention, as characters
burrow into private, coded modes of expression, or pull back even
further to a time when they could not or would not express anything.
Enacting a kind of reverse evolution of
language over the course of several plays, Parks seeks ever stronger
ways of troubling, if not wholly burying expression. Each departure
from established language initiates more extreme retreats. After
the vernacular are the echoes of the vernacular, or, in Fucking
A, the still more remote, exclusive vernacular of the made-up
language "TALK." The buried language of the written footnotes
is more accessible than the unwritten ones (in Last Black
Man). The preverbal sounds of the glottal stops, quick intakes
of breath, and tongue clicks subside to the shaped silence of
the spells, which finally sink deeper still, toward the unshaped
silences in which characters hear themselves trail off into an
unvoiced question or a dash. (The America Play ends in
one.) All are ways of marking the sudden failure of any dramatic
structure, verbal or silent, to support its characters. A beautiful
line from Last Black Man captures this dissolution of
language and the desperation to retain it before it rushes away.
"My text was writ on water," says Black Man With Watermelon. "I
would like to drink it down."
Venus could be another text "writ
on water." Parks labels its scenes in reverse order, starting
at scene thirty-one and ending with scene one. The structure suggests
the melting of a solid into fluid, or the shedding of skins; what
once had bulk, presence, slowly disappears until nothing remains.
Nothing, or everything. Perhaps the play's structure is the inverse
of the dying that goes on throughout Parks--her theater, with
this play, returning to its newborn state, or even to some earlier
stage in which, on which, actors haven't yet turned into characters,
haven't submitted themselves to our attention, a time when everything
was still potential, a state of grace.
Does Parks preserve whole strata of experience
and emotion by refusing to show them in her theater? Venus is
famously said to have died of "exposure." Hers is only the most
obvious instance in which performance is manipulative and distorting.
The three-card monte spectacle in Topdog, the mountebank
preacher in In the Blood, the phony Lincoln in The
America Play (reminding us, further, that Lincoln was of
course killed while watching a play): theater in Parks is always
associated with fakery and always a dangerous and unprotected
space. When her invisible men and women reject such duplicity
and sink into their holes, they seek secure fact, not illusion,
an image of experience that is real, not merely realistic. They
compulsively measure their surroundings, weigh and take stock
of its contents--actions that they believe are the first steps
toward having a history and, as she puts it in Last Black
Man, "hiding it under a rock." They honor pledges and keep
secrets, save money, pickle things in mason jars. They take photographs,
write and save letters, keep records and monitor those kept by
others, balance the budget. In every case, Parks's characters
are working to "hold it hold it hold it," as all the characters
say seven times at the end of Last Black Man, thereby
filling their voids with knowledge, however unexalted. As Lincoln
insists in Topdog, "if you dont know what is, you dont
know what aint." Sometimes the holding is simply a matter of usage.
Black Man With Watermelon says, "You: is. It: be. . .You: still
is. They: be. . . Remember me." At other times, the same need
is satisfied less articulately. During the spells, the characters
are claiming moments of silence, not merely observing them. They
mark them with their particular styles of refusal. The silence
literally has their names on it.
Such serious and busy activity returns
us to Genet, and I want to end with another look at his passage
about a cemetery theater. At the end of the passage I quoted,
Genet makes a careful distinction: lives enacted on this gravesite
stage are "worthy of dramatic performance--not a tragic one."
He adds, "Tragedy must be lived, not played." In Parks, too, there
is the same assertion of the difference between the playable and
the unplayable, and the same cordoning off of territory for life
uncorrupted by the theater. Every action, every aspect of character
in her theater implies a world of incident and psychology not
shown, impossible to show, saved from the fate of being shown.
As Venus says, "Love's soul. . . hides in heaven. . . Love's corpse
stands on show." Up in heaven--or down in a hole. Parks presents
us with the drama lodged between the two sites, but the tragedy
flanking it remains obscured--"lived," as Genet said, "not played."
In her plays, we see the stereotypes, archetypes, variations on
literary characters, facsimiles of historical figures--masks all--but
the people they stand in for remain submerged, causing anxiety
by staying just below the surface--landmines, to borrow an image
from Imperceptible Mutabilities, that might explode if
we're not careful. The true "tragedies" of the woman in Venus,
of the two men in Topdog, of the family in Imperceptible
Mutabilities, of the race in Last Black Man, and
finally, of the nation in The America Play: Parks knows
that there is no way to do them justice in the simplifying medium
of theater, the medium that, as Brecht said, "theaters everything
down." She rejects her art to save her subjects. That she does
so within her art preserves her own self-protective ambiguity.
We can't pin her down. "Miss me. . .Kiss me," says Venus, sounding
like Parks herself as she rejects and summons us in an unbroken
circle, simultaneously mourning loss and trying to compensate
I would like to begin by challenging a particular narrative that
has become popular in mainstream journalism since Suzan-Lori Parks
won the Pulitzer Prize. This narrative describes her starting
out with promising but largely obscure early plays championed
by a few white intellectuals until she was triumphantly rescued
by those who knew better, George C. Wolfe and The Disney Corporation,
who guided her toward the writing of characters you can sympathize
with and plots you can follow and sometimes even predict. Of course,
I'm exaggerating but only slightly. The embrace of Parks by the
mainstream has seemed to require, among some critics--not any
of my esteemed colleagues here, of course, but at least among
some daily reviewers--a sort of denunciation of her earliest plays
or a valuing of them primarily as immature sketches that prepared
her for the more complex and controlled canvases that she's created
in the last couple of years. The situation reminds me a little
bit of how modern drama surveys typically treat Ibsen, tracing
a clear progressive trajectory from overwrought verse dramas to
realistic paragons. The prose plays themselves, evolving like
an ever more fit species, shedding soliloquies, asides, and all
the integuments of the well-made play as they creep, then crouch,
then culminate in the upright masterpiece of Hedda Gabler.
A grand narrative like this is, at best, misleading. Worse, it
tends to turn us into forensic dramaturgs, pushing us to read
the earlier plays primarily for clues of the full-fledged works
that will follow. I want to stave off that tendency by focusing
today on Parks's first play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in
the Third Kingdom. I do not want to ask how it introduces
themes and formal obsessions that emerge more fully later or that
are left aside in Topdog/Underdog or Fucking A
or In the Blood (plays that I admire very much). I want
to look at Imperceptible Mutabilities for itself because
it's a powerful work in its own right and really ought to be produced
and studied more often.
I don't have time to give a full reading
of Imperceptible Mutabilities, so I want to talk a bit
about Parks's general project with language and the startling
dramaturgical strategies that she invents in this play. Let's
begin precariously balanced on a ledge, that is, with a character
standing on a ledge, a window ledge contemplating jumping, specifically
Mona in the opening scene of Imperceptible Mutabilities.
Her roommate is fixing eggs while Mona is peering over the abyss.
Part of the complication of these characters is that they call
themselves Mona and Chona but they are officially called Charlene
and Molly. So Mona, Molly, is standing on the ledge.
Charlene: How dja get through it?
Molly: Mm not through it.
Charlene: Yer leg. Thuh guard. Lose weight?
Molly: Hhh. What should I do Chona should I jump should I jump
Charlene: You want some eggs?
Molly: Would I splat?
Charlene: Uhuhuhnnnn. . .
Molly: Twelve floors up. Whaduhya think?
Charlene: Uh-uh-uhn. Like scrambled?
Charlene: With cheese? Say "with" cause ssgoin in.
Molly: I diduhnt quit that school. HHH. Thought: nope! Mm gonna
go on-go on ssif nothin ssapin yuh know? "S-K" is /sk/ as in
"ask." The little-lamb-follows-closely-behind-at-Marys-heels-as-Mary-boards-the-train.
Shit. Failed every test he shoves in my face. He makes me recite
my mind goes blank. HHH. The-little-lamb-follows-closely-behind-at-Marys-heels-as-Mary-boards-the-train.
Aint never seen no woman on no train with no lamb. I tell him
so. He throws me out. Stuff like this happens every day y know?
This isnt uh special case mines iduhnt uh uhnnn.
Charlene: Salami? Yarnt veg anymore.
I begin here not simply because these are
the opening lines of the play, but because the impact of language
on self-definition is so crucial here. It's important throughout
the play and quite powerfully in the last section, "Greeks," which
chronicles the tragic disintegration of the Smith family, as the
breadwinning father, a sergeant overseas, works for his mysterious
distinction. But in this first scene the effects of language on
self-formulation and social possibility are most explicit. Parks
focuses here on black English and its proclaimed inadequacy in
mainstream America. Interestingly, she does not strike a tone
of complaint. Indeed, in interviews and post-play discussions
of this early work, Parks was often adamant about not being pegged
as a political writer of a particular kind or as a black writer
of a particular kind, specifically those who churned out what
she called "those I'm-gonna-get-you-whitey plays" of the 1970s.
And as you heard, she said around this time, "It's insulting when
people say my plays are about what it's about to be black--as
if that's all we think about, as if our life is about that. My
life is not about race. It's about being alive." With startling
imagery and a lyrical sense of wordplay, Parks dramatizes this
The characters in Imperceptible Mutabilities,
among them slaves in middle passage, contemporary black women
being spied on by a white naturalist through the medium of a giant
cockroach, a proud and proper family awaiting their father's return
from military service, certainly represent different aspects of
African-American experience. But it's through the everyday surreality
of what it means for them to be alive that Parks's allegorical
absurdism achieves its power. Grounded in history, yet given to
fanciful flights of language, formalistic in its conventions yet
full of compassion, Imperceptible Mutabilities theatrically
incarnates and uses the double-seeing of theater itself to call
attention to our own experience as spectators of that incarnation,
of what W.E.B. Dubois called the "double-consciousness" of African-American
life. That's not to say that Parks gives us stories of conventional
characters struggling with a familiar assimilationist identity
crisis, searching at once for their roots and for the road out
of the place where they're rooted. Instead, she stages that consciousness
itself, pulling apart language and image, pointing at their innards,
and sometimes reconstituting them anew.
Though Parks is an admirer of the avant
garde's most staunch stager of the conundrums of consciousness,
Richard Foremen, her minings of the mind are less cerebral than
his. You might say that Foreman stages the left side of the brain
and Parks the right. Where Foreman's non-narrative spectacles
are driven by the sparkplug fire of connecting synapses, Parks's
stage poems follow a dream logic in which sights and sounds melt
into one another without losing their own shapes. So in one scene
when loud Foremanesqe buzzers punctuate Imperceptible Mutabilities
in the Third Kingdom, for example, Parks's twining of the
disparate elements of slavery in that scene, into a single excruciating
image, occupies an emotional terrain that's far more moist than
that of distanced Potatoland. Parks delineates her characters'
anger, madness, and fear, and at the same time she steps a bit
away from them to reveal the double-consciousness not only that
her African-American characters experience, but also with which
they are perceived from the outside. Thus, she is really doubly
dealing with double-consciousness. While investigating the outer
and inner worlds of African-American life from the inside, she
is also showing how both are viewed from the outside, punched
into relief by definitions and descriptions made by white folks.
With her stage imagery and her experiments
with language, Parks pulls taught this tension between inner and
outer life, between black and white worlds, between reality and
appearance--a project that is inherently theatrical because it
has at its core the question of representation. In the opening
scene I read a moment ago, we hear the voices of women in the
dark while slides flash overhead. In an interview, Parks explained,
"You have these fixed pictures projected up there and down below
there's a little person mutating like hell on stage. I'm obsessed
with the gap between those two things." And she added, "This dynamic
parallels the relationship between preconceived images of African-Americans
and real people." At the same time, Parks explores a similar dynamic
in the relationship between language and theater. In drama she
says, "Language is taken from the world, refigured and set on
the page and then taken from the page, refigured and set loose
in the world again." But since language in this literary sense
had historically excluded African-Americans, Parks's undertaking
is doubly complex. She explains, "At one time in this country,
the teaching of reading and writing to African-Americans was a
criminal offense. So how do I adequately represent not merely
the speech patterns of a people oppressed by language (which is
the simple question) but the patterns of a people whose language
use is so complex and varied and ephemeral that its daily use
not only Signifies on the non-vernacular language forms, but on
the construct of writing as well? If language is a construct and
writing is a construct and Signifyin(g) on the double construct
is the daily use, then I have chosen to Signify on the Signifyin(g)."
In doing so Parks uncovers the power of
language to be performative, that is to call action into being,
both in historical terms, as language can oppress as well as express,
and in theatrical terms. The very typography of her scripts address
this latter sense. Parks's early plays look like long dialogic
poems. There are no stage directions and little in the way of
moorings for the unsuspecting director. But Parks insists that
movement is contained within the speech itself. Often leaving
out punctuation that would delineate formal pauses, she lets words
run together to find their own rhythms. And with a self-conscious
nod to Zora Neale Hurston's seamless welding of the so-called
folkloric and the so-called literary, Parks makes music of everyday
usage. Even the way a word is spelled can imply stage action.
"The," t-h-u-h in her scripts, signifies thuh, a slump, while
t-h-e, "the," makes the body do something different. What's more,
for African-Americans the distinction can mean the difference
between work and unemployment, even between life and death, which
brings us back to Mona on that ledge in near suicidal torment
over the difference between "ask" and "aks."
Throughout the play, as in this scene,
Parks plays with language, punning, changing a letter to shift
the ground of the world within her words, tugging on the tension
of what's known as standard American English and black vernacular.
It's an issue Mona recognizes clearly. She says,
You lie down you lie down but he and
she and it and us well we lays down. Didnt quit. They booted
me. He booted me. Couldnt see thuh sense uh words workin like
he said couldnt see thuh sense uh workin where words workin
like that was workin would drop my phone voice would let things
slip they tell me get Basic Skills call me breaking protocol
hhhhh! Think I'll splat?
Conversations between these two women alternate
in this first section of Imperceptible Mutabilities,
which is called "Snails," with monologues delivered by the white
Naturalist, who is observing the interactions and behaviors of
them, among them. His exaggerated language contrasts that of the
women whom he's spying on. He says, "Having accumulated a wealth
of naturally occurring observations knowing now how our subjects
occur in their own world (mundus primitivus), the question
now arises as to how we of our world (mundus modernus)
best accommodate them." His diction is a comic yet sinister, white
patriarchal discourse. Parks shows how egregiously he is missing
what's going on in that apartment, in large measure because his
language simply cannot describe or encompass it. Though I certainly
don't equate Parks with her characters, I have, I confess, sometimes
anxiously wondered whether she wasn't commenting with this menacing
Naturalist on the white critical establishment that might also
seek to accommodate her work in whatever "mundus modernus"
happens to be the fashion of the moment. Gauging the work on its
own terms, of course, is the best and only way to avoid that trap.
It's also the best way to keep Suzan-Lori Parks out of the meta-narratives
about playwrights' careers and keep ourselves open to the inexhaustible
conventions of Suzan-Lori Parks's great theatrical imagination.
QUESTIONS AND DISCUSSION
I want to use my privilege as moderator to ask a few of my own
questions first. Shawn, I'm just curious, do we know how Baartman
died? The play says she died of exposure but do we know that?
And you mentioned that Suzan-Lori Parks invented the love affair
with the doctor. Is there anything about a love affair in the
The question of how she died is really interesting because nobody
knows what she died of. There is repetition with revision here,
as I said: in the late twentieth century, we've revised Baartman
for our own purposes through the theater, through poetry, through
scholarly texts, anthropology, and so forth. Everybody's still
seeking the explanation, you know. What's the bottom line?--to
pun on the play's main image. There are currently five different
published explanations of her death. Richard Altlick supposes
that she died of alcoholism. That's one possible explanation.
Another possible explanation is, as Suzan-Lori writes, she died
of gonorrhea, and Suzan-Lori calls it "the clap," an obvious,
very funny pun. Another explanation argues that she died of exposure
because she was kept in a cage and probably caught some sort of
virus, cholera, chill, who knows? There's another historical account
that holds that her racial inferiority alone--not only was she
African but this inferior form of African--would have contributed
to her death. That's a historical source. In my chapter on this
play, I resolve not to get to the bottom of this issue. There's
no record of why she died. All that's known is that she died at
the age of twenty-six.
The love affair is a fiction, as far as
the historical record is concerned. However, if you read the autopsy
report, and a lot of it is actually verbatim in the play, there
are these fascinatingly bizarre moments where Cuvier says, for
example, "Her foot was very alluring." There are hints, in other
words, of desire throughout the autopsy report, and you can think
about the need to get under the skin of this character--"creature,"
as he calls her--as really a form of desire. I think Suzan-Lori
picked up on this, which from a modern point of view might be
seen as a perversion or a horrible violation--this posthumous
violation of her body as a sort of desire, the desire to literally
penetrate the body of this strange woman. Cuvier also, in one
of creepiest moments of the autopsy report, writes about her labia.
One of the mysteries of the Hottentot women had to do with their
genitalia. They were thought to have very elongated and extended
labia. Nobody knows now whether this was because of the habit
of decorating the labia, or because of a quote unquote racial
characteristic. In any event, it did seem to Cuvier that Saartjie
Baartman's labia were elongated. And in a certain moment in the
autopsy report he describes taking her labia and pulling them
to measure their length. He pulls them up and around and says,
"they form the shape of a heart." Now we can assume the great
scientist was not talking about the muscle that pumps blood here
but rather about the two-dimensional valentine. So there are all
these odd moments in the autopsy report where I would guess Parks
thought, "Hmm." But no, they didn't really fall in love, as far
as history knows.
Thank you very much. Bob, you mentioned that the later plays,
which might be described as more social realist or Brechtian,
were less "reverberant" for you. And Alisa talked about not liking
the narrative about Parks progressing to good, healthy commercial
plays. Could we have just a few more words on this transition
from earlier to later works from both of you?
I don't have anything against these recent plays. I like them,
but I don't think it's necessarily a progress narrative. That's
what concerns me. And who knows what she's going to next? If we
stick with the Ibsen teleology, then nobody knows what to say
about the late Ibsen plays which are so interesting and exciting.
Some of us love Peer Gynt, as well. So it's not that
I think she shouldn't be allowed to write more narrative plays,
more accessible plays, or that I don't find them appealing in
their way. What I'm talking about is the idea that this is the
line of progress and now she's finally coming into her own and
finally doing what playwrights are supposed to do. That's the
trajectory that I want to intervene in. Though I do find the earlier
plays more resonant.
Well I agree with you. I find them more resonant too. Perhaps
because they're more difficult to understand and therefore you
keep coming back to them, whereas the later plays are more easily
accessible and there doesn't seem to be much left after you've
absorbed it and digested it. That's why I said they were not as
reverberant. But this is a normal pattern of American artistic
creative development--to start in the avant-garde and then eventually
to be captured by the Disney Corporation. I mean the same thing
happened to Julie Taymor. It happens to everyone but Richard Foreman,
so it's a normal American development.
I'd actually like to add a question to this. I wonder if we might
think for a moment about the material conditions in which Suzan-Lori's
work first came to our attention, at BACA Downtown. Certainly
her tremendous talent and craft and skill had everything to do
with it, but if she were to come on the scene now, where would
her plays get done? Do we have the kind of space right now where
an unknown playwright could get a spectacular production by a
great director like Liz Diamond in a handsome, well-appointed
production with fine actors, that would get reviewed by everyone?
The conditions have really changed, and one likes to think that
the great talents will rise and be found anyway but I kind of
wonder: are there writers around right now that might be breaking
new ground that we don't know about?
Question from the audience
about the purpose of inserting a reading of the Baron Docteur's
autopsy during intermission of Venus.
I would say it has a lot to do with some of the ideas that Professor
Robinson talked about, the abyss. The play is cleaved in two like
the buttocks and in the middle is a gap or a hole. There are moments
in Parks's plays that she calls the nadir--the terrible, bad,
bad, bad stuff--and I think this is one of those really painful
things. She puts it in the intermission because, I think, she
sees it as a kind of gap imagistically. I think the effect she
wants is sort of hearing something going on and people wandering
back and forth, and the character of the Baron Docteur continually
says, "Please gentlemen go. Take your rest. Take your rest." I
think you're meant to hear terrifying snippets of this secret,
now-buried document, this autopsy report, and it's put in a place
where it's almost not meant to be heard or seen.
In the intermission you are asked to choose whether you are going
to listen to it or not. You can or you can't.
Question from the audience
about the repatriation of Baartman's remains.
What was left after Cuvier's maceration, as the French call it,
was a plaster cast of her body and the jar of her genitalia. I
believe that was all that was left. So only those remains were
repatriated and buried. I'm sure that's not typical. I'm sure
the entire body is usually buried. But just the symbolic return
of those remains was extremely important to the Khosian people.
It took the French four years to agree to return them.
I'd like to add that my colleague Claudia Orenstein told me earlier
that there was a production of Venus done in South Africa
on the occasion of the repatriation of Baartman's remains. I found
that extremely interesting in light of the fact that some people
find this play troubling because it's not a straightforward victim
play which presents her as a pure and noble heroine.
It was actually a fundraising campaign, that production, and it
was coupled with a kind of special offer where people could go
on a tour of South Africa in conjunction with the play if they
donated a certain amount of money. It was a whole sort of interdisciplinary
program to raise funds to bring the remains of Saartjie Baartman
Question from the audience
about whether anyone on the panel had read Parks's recently published
novel and, if so, what their views of it were.
I've read it. I think the novel is really joyful. I think it's
more joyful than anything she's written to date. It feels confident
to me. It was written, or completed rather, after she received
the Pulitzer Prize. Whatever one thinks of the Pulitzer Prize,
it is a kind of validation of one's talent. She also had received
a MacArthur grant by that time. She had gotten engaged, married,
and moved to Los Angeles and became the head of the Cal Arts playwriting
program. I think the book really exudes confidence and joy. I
also think it's significant that it's set in west Texas where
she spent many years as a young person. She never used to talk
about living there and now she has really recast herself as a
southern woman writer.
Question from the audience
requesting clarification of the Brecht quote "theaters everything
I'm not going to suppose I know exactly what Brecht meant by that,
but I think the demands of theatrical production, the commercial
pressures on theatrical production, the requirements of character
construction and narrative development and basic intelligibility,
all simplify or oversimplify the vast, sprawling, and messy experience
that some writers try to capture. They reduce what is a multi-dimensional
world to one of two or three dimensions that can be staged. And
Brecht, who was always a practical man of the theater, I think
recognized that when you stage something you also betray it in
some way, you compromise.
So you're saying that that applies to Suzan-Lori Parks? Or that
I think in some of her works she's staging that very problem.
I don't think she's found an answer to it any more than Brecht
Question from the audience
about Parks's so-called "compromise" with respect to the avant-gardism
of her earlier plays.
This is opening up maybe too big a can of worms at a point where
this session needs to be wrapping up, but I wonder if this issue
doesn't need to be talked about briefly in terms of race. At least
since the Harlem Renaissance, going back to W.E.B. Dubois and
Alain Locke and before, there's been a discussion about whether
literary experimentation was permissible in the African-American
community. Throughout the 20th century there were always many
voices claiming that African-American writers had an obligation
to write plays that were "uplifting." Now, this is a pressure
that not all of us share. All of us on this panel are white. And
so I wonder if this fact doesn't just need to be stated and brought
into our discussion.
I think that's a good point. There's a tradition of privileged
white avant-garde writers and avant-garde thinkers, among which
I count myself, to remain on the fringe and, you know, piss into
the tent instead of pissing out of it (to use Lyndon Johnson's
tasteful phrase). For at least two hundred years now, artists
have been trying to invent a new vision through creative dissent
against what has gone before. That means continual revision, continual
advance, continual rethinking, as it were, on an aesthetic level,
which is quite different from the natural desire to become part
of American life, to become assimilated into American society,
to enjoy American prosperity with all its advantages and opportunities.
Those are two different things. To ask anybody, black or white,
to assume the hair shirt that goes with being an avant-garde artist,
I think is presumptuous. However, we have to maintain that presumption
or else the arts will never move forward.
is a playwright, adaptor, director, actor, teacher, and critic.
He is a Professor of English at Harvard University, the drama
critic for The New Republic and a past Dean of the Yale
Drama School. Mr. Brustein was the founding director of the Yale
Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, and served
for 20 years as Director of the Loeb Drama Center. He retired
from the Artistic Directorship in 2002 and now serves as Founding
Director and Creative Consultant for the A.R.T. Robert Brustein
is the author of 13 books on theatre and society, including Reimagining
American Theatre, The Theatre of Revolt, Making Scenes (a
memoir of his Yale years), Who Needs Theatre (a collection
of reviews and essays), Dumbocracy in America and Cultural
Calisthenics. His latest book The Siege of the Arts,
was released in 2001. He has supervised well over 200 productions,
including the out-of-town premiere of Susan Lori-Parks's The
America Play. Of those productions, he has acted in eight
and directed twelve, including his own adaptations of The
Father, Ghosts, The Changeling and the trilogy of Pirandello
works: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Right You Are
(If You Think You Are) and Tonight We Improvise.
He is the author of Nobody Dies on Friday and adapted
the musicals of Shlemiel The First and Lysistrata.
Mr. Brustein has been elected to the American Academy of Arts
and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and
was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. He was recently
a Senior Fellow with the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia
Shawn-Marie Garrett is
revising her dissertation, "Suzan-Lori Parks's History Plays,"
for publication. The book will cover Parks's plays to date as
well as her essays, screenplays, and just-published novel, Getting
Mother's Body. Ms. Garrett has been following parks's work
since 1994 and has conducted several interviews with her. She
has also written on: post-1980s collective creation in American
theater; the ironic revival of minstrelsy in the 1990s; Kafka
adapatations for the stage; and young experimental theater companies
in New York, among other subjects. Ms. Garrett teaches drama,
theater history, and theory at Barnard College, Columbia University.
Marc Robinson is Director
of Theater Studies at Yale College and Associate Professor (Adjunct)
of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama.
He is the author of The Other American Drama (which includes
a chapter discussing Suzan-Lori Parks) and the editor of The
Theater of Maria Irene Fornes and Altogether Elsewhere:
Writers on Exile. His essays and reviews have appeared in
such periodicals as The Drama Review, Theater, Performing
Arts Journal, Modern Drama, and The Village Voice.
He is a contributing editor of Theater magazine. He holds
a D.F.A. (1992) in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the
Yale School of Drama.
Alisa Solomon is a professor
of English/Journalism at Baruch College and of English and Theater
at the CUNY Graduate Center. A theater critic and political journalist
at the Village Voice, she is the author of one of the
first critical essays on Suzan-Lori Parks (in the journal Theater,
1990). Her books include Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on
Theater and Gender (winner of the George Jean Nathan Award
for Dramatic Criticism), The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian
and Gay Theater (co-edited with Framji Minwalla) and Wrestling
with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian
Conflict (co-edited with Tony Kushner).