REMARKS ON PARKS:
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
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 so.
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' college try.
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
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 bullshit."
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 beauty.
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
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
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 distancing devices.
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.
A 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
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
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 character explains,
. . . 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
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 for it.
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 or
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
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 very predicament.
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
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 historical record?
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
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
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
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 back.
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 down."
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 it doesn't?
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 did.
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 University.
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).