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A Symposium on the Work of Suzan-Lori Parks

Part Two: Directors

[The following is an edited transcript of a symposium held at Hunter College on April 30, 2004, organized and moderated by Jonathan Kalb. This second of two panels featured presentations by Richard Foreman, Liz Diamond, Leah C. Gardiner, and Bill Walters, plus a discussion period with the audience. It was preceded by a critics-and-scholars panel, previously posted. The editor again 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.]

Jonathan Kalb:
Thank you for coming back. This is our second panel on Suzan-Lori Parks and we have with us this time a distinguished group of directors who have wrestled with all problems, challenges and joys of doing Suzan-Lori Parks’s work. I’m going to introduce them in the order in which I’ve asked them to speak and then, as in the earlier panel, we’ll open it up to a more general discussion.

Richard Foreman has received a MacArthur Fellowship and been awarded the PEN Master Dramatist Award, plus nine Obies and many other prizes. He has designed and directed over seventy-five productions at major theaters around the world, including over forty of his own plays. I assume most of you have visited his Ontological-Hysteric Theater down in St. Marks Church. Six collections of his plays have been published, as well as many articles and a number of books in different countries discussing his work. Richard directed and designed the world premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus at Yale Rep and the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater in 1996.

Liz Diamond is resident director at Yale Repertory Theater and Chair of the Directing Department at the Yale School of Drama. Her productions at Yale include Fighting Words and Rice Boy, both by the Canadian playwright Sunil Kuruvilla, Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, and Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy. Other productions of hers include Racine’s Phaedra at American Repertory Theater, Euripides’s The Trojan Women at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Of Mice and Men at Arena Stage. Next season she will direct Strindberg’s Miss Julie at Yale Rep and the world premiere of Octavio Solis’s Gibraltar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Liz began collaborating with Suzan-Lori Parks in 1988 when Parks invited her to direct Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom in a workshop production at BACA Downtown in Brooklyn. She directed the world premiere in BACA’s 1989 Fringe Festival and the show won three 1990 Obie Awards, for playwrighting, direction, and for Pamela Tyson’s performance. In 1991, Liz directed Greeks, which was Part Four of Imperceptible Mutabilities, at Manhattan Theater Club’s Downtown/Uptown Festival, and she directed the world premiere of Parks’s Betting on the Dust Commander at the Working Theater in New York. In 1992 she directed the west-coast premiere of Imperceptible Mutabilities at New City Theater in Seattle and The Death of the Last Black in the Whole Entire World at Yale Rep. In 1993 she worked with Parks on The America Play, conducting readings at New Dramatists and a workshop production at the Dallas Theater Center. In 1994 she directed the world premiere of The America Play at Yale Rep and The Public Theater in New York. Gail Grate as Lucy and Michael Potts as Brazil received Obie Awards for their performances in that show. You can see that Liz has been very involved in Suzan-Lori Parks’s work.

Leah C. Gardiner’s New York directing credits include Kent, CT at the Zipper Theater, The Mother of Modern Censorship, and Immigrating Interludes at Tiny Mythic Theater for Lincoln Center’s Director’s Lab. Her regional directing includes A Streetcar Named Desire at The Pillsbury House in Minneapolis, which was honored by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as one of the top ten productions of the season. She directed Spunk at the Oddfellows Playhouse in Middletown, CT, and, most recently, the Philadelphia premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog at the Philadelphia Theater Company. This premiere is what she’ll be talking about today. Leah assisted George C. Wolfe on the New York premiere of Topdog/Underdog and the Broadway production of On the Town. She has served as Director in Residence at the Public Theater and was an individual artist participant in the 2001 TCG Conference. She served as Resident Director for New Dramatists in 2002-03 and was a participant in the artistic leadership for The Women’s Project and Productions. She’s a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Yale School of Drama. And I might add that she was one of Liz Diamond’s students.

Bill Walters teaches acting and directing in the Theatre Department at Hunter College. Bill previously taught at Yale, Tulane University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His work as a director and choreographer has been seen throughout the United States and abroad, most recently in China. Bill is the director of the Hunter Theater Department’s current production of Parks’s Venus, and he’ll be talking to us about that.

Richard Foreman:
It’s been a long time since I worked on Venus. I was originally interested in Suzan’s work, I don’t how many years ago it was, but at a time when I had stopped going to very much theater. Up to the time I was forty I went to see everything. But then I couldn’t take it anymore. So I was familiar with Suzan-Lori’s work by reputation, and they sent me the script of Venus and as usual, I looked through it very casually. I thought: “This looks interesting because it says ‘Venus’ and there’s a line of dialogue and then, with nothing else in between, ‘Venus,’ and dialogue, ‘Venus,’ and dialogue, then just ‘Venus’ and nothing.” I thought that the texture, which is basically what I respond to first in all writing, seemed provocative and difficult and interesting. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll do the play.” Then I thought, “God, how do you do something like this?” So I went to the library and saw Liz’s production on tape of The America Play, which I liked. I thought was very interesting. Then, like I always do, without paying too much careful attention to the play, I tried to get a global feeling of what is going on.

Now, the first thing that always happens with me is I make a set. The story of Venus seemed sort of antiquey. I looked through a lot of books. I found a line drawing, an etching, in a book I had of the history of magic shows in the West, and there was something there from the 18th century, sort of a cage thing. Apparently somebody was using secret microphones to make voices come into that cage, but the cage and the people leaning into the set seemed related to the way that I imagined this play when I read it very casually. So I designed a set and made a model, as I always do, and went to my first meeting with George C. Wolfe . . . well, my second meeting. . . and made my first mistake. I made a number of mistakes doing this show. George said to me, “There’s a lot of green in that set. You can do what you want but my experience has been that green sets never work.” [laughter] I thought, “I sorta like it but I don’t know--. I get to do exactly what I want in my own theater but if George doesn’t like green, okay.” So it wasn’t green. That was a minor change that I didn’t think was too serious.

Now, it appeared self-evident that George had been working with Suzan-Lori for a number of years in crafting this play. It seems to me that this was perhaps the transitional play when, as people have said today, Suzan-Lori was changing from being this wild, experimental artist to being, for better or for worse, a more commercially acceptable artist. It’s my understanding that Venus was the transitional play because George was having her rewrite it to make the play more palatable as a normal evening in the theater for normal Public Theater audiences. As a result—and I didn’t object to this—George thought there should be a lot of cuts. And I didn’t disagree. Now, George was not there. I mean, George came to like two rehearsals, but he asked for cuts. And I felt, “Well, I’m doing this play for them.” It was one of those situations when whenever we were talking together, we were sort of in league against George, who was the “commercial” producer. And then, when he would come around, we would sort accept many of his ideas. Suzan-Lori was of course friendly towards George, having worked with him for two years, but I noticed that he was cutting a lot of the more abstract material. Now whether that’s a mistake or not a mistake, I’m not really prepared to say because yes, it was difficult to make that material work, especially in the way I had decided to do the production.

To me art is nerve, a question of having the courage to do what you want to do. And I must admit: that’s why I don’t particularly like working with living playwrights. (Or even smart producers, and George is certainly smart). I’ve worked twice in my life with living playwrights who were there at rehearsal, with Arthur Kopit and Suzan-Lori Parks. And I liked them both and we got along swell, but I must admit there’s a built-in inhibition. When I’m doing my own play and we’re rehearsing, I can say, “Oh my God, is that a stupid line. How are we gonna deal with this stupid thing?” Now I would never say that to another writer. I mean, Suzan-Lori might actually enjoy me saying that. (I don’t know if Arthur would?) Nevertheless, there’s this built-in hesitation and I think it influenced my production somewhat in a bad way.

When I read the text originally with this stop-and-go kind of structure, I thought somehow it needed lights on, lights off, click, click, adjustment, lights on, lights off, to reflect the very abstract nature of the play. I think I softened my initial ideas dealing with that. So when George was cutting the more abstract parts in my production, he was probably right in terms of what he saw in the rehearsal studio. By the way, he wasn’t a dictator. It wasn’t insistence. He just said, “I really have problems with this, this, that, that.” And I was basically a hired gun, out to please without sacrificing my vision too much. I mean, there was nothing but my stuff on stage. It was still my production. I certainly can’t deny that.

The only thing about the production, well there are two things about the production that I was pissed off about. This play imagines a world of English Colonial culture--represented by the Doctor character, then re-reflected in scenes in which the “freaks” put on little commentary "playlets" in the theatrical style of the time. For me those scenes were a big challenge. You have two worlds—how do they mesh without seeming too obvious in their message? When we were still in New Haven--I thought we could suggest the garbage (I use the word “garbage” in quotes) out of which the English society believed it was “extracting” the “freaks” they were putting on display in the side show by putting a lot of crumpled up newspaper all over the stage floor. Because the English world of the time was also a world of “garbage.” And when George and Rosemary Tischler (who was George’s assistant at the time—I think it was really her idea that I do the play) saw the play remounted in New York, with all this crumpled up newspaper on the floor—they came to me and said, “Well, Richard, the string, I know all that string in front of the stage, I know that’s your thing. But the dirty newspaper all over the stage, I mean—why, Richard? Why?” I explained, but they weren’t satisfied. Maybe they thought it didn’t go with the Public Theater’s neat image. So we got rid of that crumpled up newspaper. I think it was an aesthetic mistake but not a major one. The more interesting issue involved the very good actor playing the doctor. Adina, who played the Venus Hottentot, was somebody who read for us and in five minutes we all thought, “that’s her, that’s it, she’s great.” And she was. Peter Francis James is another fine actor and he read for something else and we really liked him, and Suzan-Lori and I both thought-- “You know, couldn’t he play the English Doctor?” Well, he was black, but he was pale black, so we thought, what does it mean if we cast a black man as the doctor? We talked to George about it and said, “he’s the only actor we’ve seen who can really cut it in this part.” So he played the doctor.

Now, I rehearsed the play for, I think, six weeks. And I had Peter Francis James playing the doctor as a sort of bumbling, shy guy, who was falling over things. There were a lot of ladders on the set. He would trip on ladders. He had these little glasses, and was crumpling paper nervously in his fists. After the New Haven opening, George and Rosemary came to me and said, “Richard, why are you doing that to Peter? He’s such a good actor and you’re making him into this wormy little schlep.” So my big mistake was bowing to their wishes, and changing Peter’s performance. In New York Peter Francis James played it—a very good performance—more as a distinguished English gentleman of that period who was a serious man of medicine, a little disturbed by his feelings for the Hottentot Venus but nevertheless a man of culture and determination. In my original version, I identified him with myself perhaps, this bumbling intellectual who does these strange things. I think my original version served the play and its strangeness much better. I thought there were many fine things about the production but, as often happens in the theater, you compromise and you negotiate. If I had to do it again today I would try to have the courage to make it stranger than it was. Maybe people thought it was strange, but I think it should have been even stranger. That’s really all I can say.

Liz Diamond:
It’s an honor to be here among these wonderful colleagues and to talk about a writer who remains my favorite living writer. Working on Suzan-Lori Parks’s plays, as I look back on it, was really the great theater training of my life. We came up together. I’m ten years older than Suzan-Lori, but I was a classic late bloomer who backed into admitting that I really wanted to make theater and that I might have something worth other people paying a few bucks to see. It took me a long time to own my voice as an artist, and I was only beginning to when I met Suzan-Lori in 1988.

I remember reading a wonderful conversation that was published in the Village Voice between Richard Foreman and Elizabeth LeCompte. They were arguing back and forth about theater and at one point he said, “You know, when I go to the theater, I like it when it’s like going to the gym. I want to go to the gym, the gym of art.” I love that phrase because I think that working with Suzan-Lori was for me an eight-year gym for art. I learned so much about what theatricality is, what theatrical poetry is, about what it means to embody poetry in three and four dimensions, in space and time, about texture, the texture of language and how that becomes visible and audible on stage in an actor’s body. These were really joyous years of shared learning and discovery for both of us. So I thought I might talk about some of what I learned working with Suzan-Lori.

I think the first thing I learned with Suzan-Lori, was how to read a play, which I kinda thought I already knew how to do. Perhaps I did, but my first encounter with her work was in a sense my first encounter with everything I didn’t know about how to read a play. In 1988, Mac Wellman had set up a workshop for new experimental writing at BACA Downtown at the urging of the amazing and wonderful Greta Gunderson, BACA’s artistic director. BACA Downtown was this crazy art gallery/performance space near the Fulton Mall and I was working there as a director. Suzan-Lori joined Mac’s new work project. She was twenty-five. Mac read her play Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, gave it to Greta, and said, “You have to do this. This has to be done.” And they talked about who should do it, and it was my good fortune that they thought I might be a good match.

I read the play and I remember not knowing how to read it, not really knowing what was going on. Lines like: “How dja get through it? Mm not through it. Yer leg. Thuh guard. Lose weight. Hhh. What should I do Chona should I jump should I jump or what?” What was up? Only when we got together and Suzan-Lori read it out loud in my kitchen did I see that I needed to just get very simple. Simply say, “Okay, who’s talking? Get through what? Where’s the leg? What kind of guard?” Now you’ve probably learned in the course of this afternoon that one of the great, pleasurable features of Suzan-Lori’s writing is that it’s richly layered and loaded, fraught with word plays and puns and jokes in which one word starts to ricochet and bounce around and mean much more than it does on what you might call the dog shit level of reality. But I found that by starting there I could begin to direct her work. By saying, okay, here’s a kid who is maybe half way out the window, has her leg stuck in the window guard, has a problem, and her sister is talking her back down from the jump with eggs, food, some nourishment. By beginning there we began to create something concrete. Making the abstract concrete is so much the problem of putting on theater, then allowing it to become abstract again in the imagination of the audience as they listen and hear this resonant language.

Early on, Suzan-Lori talked about how to cast the play and, as Alisa described, you’ve got figures that move from one part of Imperceptible Mutabilities to another. We had five actors and we knew we wanted a white guy to play the Naturalist and decided to cast him as Duffy in Greeks later on. He plays several roles in the play which are conventionally white characters, and then in the last play he appears again, as the last son of the Smith family, this African-American military family. Interestingly, this didn’t cause any consternation at BACA Downtown, but it caused a near riot at Manhattan Theater Club when we did it the next year. The audience was deeply troubled at Manhattan Theater Club that Suzan-Lori had depicted a black family’s only son—and the last child in the line—as a white person. They felt fooled with, played with. They felt troubled. They also felt, I think, obstructed in their understanding: “What do you mean? What does this mean?” They were vaguely threatened by it and didn’t know what to do with it. All of which were understandable reactions. I don’t think Suzan-Lori and I made it any easier with our response to their consternation, which was to say “We just felt like it.” We could have been more helpful. At one point when I talked to her about it she said something very interesting, which I found moving at the time and still do. She said she felt that it made sense because he was the “dream child” of this family—a statement that she declined to make at Manhattan Theater Club because she had no confidence that they would understand this. When I asked her what she meant she said: a black family would dream of having a child that they wouldn’t have to fear for, and you don’t have to fear for a white boy. He’ll be okay. The thought that you might have a child that you wouldn’t have to protect was critical in her exploration of this play. In some ways the dream comes true, the assimilationist dream of that play comes true in the end, which she sees as a kind of tragicomic fact.

Suzan-Lori was clear from the start that she wanted to write against the grain of mainstream American theater. She talked with great enthusiasm about wanting to fight the “belch factor” in the theater. She wanted to write plays that would be chewy and a little bit hard to digest, that wouldn’t go down easy. She was genuinely interested in that. And I loved partnering her in that project. At the same time, neither of us saw these plays as opaque, as perhaps some did at the time. And we worked hard together to make them clear on their own dramatic and poetic terms. For example, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, at first was a four-part play—with four equal parts. One of the parts plainly did not belong. I told her it felt like a one-act; its own play. She agreed and replaced it with a poem, called “Third Kingdom” which she split in two and put as a kind of thematic environment around the three larger plays. Once she did this, the whole play worked. This poem provided, if you will, a kind of watery bed, a poetic bed, on top of which the rest of the play floated. The phrase "Third Kingdom" refers to that watery limbo between Africa and America and the poem was an elegy in which slaves on a slave ship described their dreams and fretted about where they were going and where they had come from and how deep the water was and what was swimming there under the surface of the sea. So we put the show in the container that was sort of oceanic.

We didn’t have a lot of money. With Imperceptible Mutabilities, SLP put in $2000, I put in $2000, and BACA Downtown provided the space. Everybody worked for free, and the actors donated their performances. The man who created the photographs, Phil Perkins, did it all for free. That’s how it happened. We painted the floor together one night—this dark, dark, dark blue-black. We created a sort of memorial arch under which Sergeant Smith stood in the last piece. We brought kitchen chairs for the Smiths in Greeks and a friend of ours built a giant mechanical cockroach that rolled around and took pictures. When we worked on our next big project, which was The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, everything changed because we suddenly had a budget. We had a longer run. We were casting with a casting director and it was a whole new world. It was an extremely hospitable world that opened up to us then. Yale Repertory Theater invited Suzan-Lori to do The Death of the Last Black Man, and she invited me to direct it. And there we got to work with the set designer Ricardo Hernandez.

The Death of the Last Black Man is this gorgeous requiem for the last black man in the whole entire world. And unlike Imperceptible Mutabilities, which underwent a pretty massive change during our work together, Black Man was virtually complete when I got it. It was this masterpiece of theatrical theater. You have a man named Black Man with Watermelon and his wife, Black Woman with Fried Drumstick, and all these other figures: Yes and Greens Black Eyed Peas Cornbread, And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger, Before Columbus. When we first talked about the play I said, “Gee, uh, what, who are these people?” And she said, “All I can say is, all of them but Black Woman with Fried Drumstick are dead, but some are deader than others.” And that was my first clue as to what might be going on in the play—which tells an extraordinary tale in which Black Woman sits on her porch and her husband’s body and spirit come flying back to her. He lands on the front porch with the electrocution cap still on his head, having just been fried in the town square, and is distressed because he’d like to die. His body is dead. He wants to be laid to rest but he can’t be, and the problem in the play is when and how will Black Man will lie down? When will he be allowed to cross the river and be laid to rest? He won’t, it seems, until Black Woman accepts his story, and writes it down—writes it down and hides it under a rock, which is a refrain that’s repeated over and over again by the least enfranchised figure in the play, Yes and Greens Black Eyed Peas Cornbread, an illiterate slave girl. This injunction is repeated across the play: “You must write it down. You must write it down and hide it under a rock.” It’s repeated until Black Woman finally hears it, and she doesn’t hear it for pages and pages, until she’s witnessed enough versions of Black Man’s death that she can no longer deny his story. Then she promises to write it down. And he can lie down and at the end of the play he’s laid to rest.

We staged it as, in a sense, a high mass. Suzan-Lori is Roman Catholic. I remember she said to me, “Whatever it is, it isn’t Baptist and I don’t want it to be Baptist. Don’t give me the eruptions of song and gestures.” She said, “It’s cooler than that.” And she said, “I promise you, the cast is gonna wanna go there. Don’t go there.” And it was very interesting because the cast did want to go there. Many of them were young African-American actors from black Baptist backgrounds, and they were terribly resistant to this cool, cool tone that Suzan-Lori wanted in the play. They finally embraced it because I think they saw what she was after. The end of the play is solemn, not ecstatic.

The America Play was a huge project for both of us and it was the one that took us to the Public Theater from Yale Rep. It was a wild ride and it involved huge debates about how to make it possible for the audience to enter the world of this play. I remember vividly, late-night sessions of notes with George Wolfe in which he’d say, “Marge has got to understand this.” The first time he said this, I remember looking at Suzan-Lori and she looking at me—saying, “Who’s Marge?”—before we realized that Marge was a kind of quintessential subscriber that he wanted to have access to this world. I understood that, and I wanted Marge to go to this gym. But I didn’t want it not to be a gym. I wanted her to embrace going to the gym. This was hard.

We had huge issues relating to the design of The America Play. At Yale Rep, Ricardo Hernandez designed a beautiful container for this show, which takes place in “The Great Hole of History”: what a suggestive and beautiful phrase from which to imagine a set! But the play also seems to take place in a hall of wonders. And so Ricardo created a conflation of those two images, a sort of mausoleum type space with white formica walls reaching up to the ceiling, very rectilinear, very sterile, shiny black coal on the floor. At the Public it just became the black hole. We started chucking the black coal at the wall, obscuring what we had created at Yale and going for the one metaphor rather than the two or three or four. I continue to debate with myself as to which world I prefer. I loved the strangeness of the former, but I found the latter space really haunting and dark and more psychologically disturbing.

Regarding some things that were said earlier about Venus and Suzan-Lori: when we were talking about Venus as she was working on it, one of the things I remember exciting me about the play was its relationship to her own journey as an artist. In Venus Suzan-Lori explored that scary moment when an artist achieves, if you will, the apogee of her fame and celebrity, the moment when she suddenly moves from being a subject to an object. In a grotesque way, the objectification of the Venus occurs at the very moment she is at the height of her fame in London. This moment, when everybody knows her name, begins the tragedy of her disintegration. I want to say that, despite Disney and other would-be destroyers and dissectors of Suzan-Lori’s body of work and soul, I’m not too worried about her. I don’t think she’s going to suffer the same fate as Saartjie Baartman. I think she’s tougher than that. I also think she’s more conscious than Saartjie had the fortune to be. She’s used her privilege, her fabulous education, and her amazing poetic gift to undertake an ongoing exploration of who she is. And it’s continuing in the novel, obviously. I don’t think she apologizes for the more commercial work she’s done, and I don’t know what she’s going to do next. I want to think that something completely astonishing is going to come out of this genuine happiness in her life, a sense of place, a sense of recognition that she’s won from the world. I hope it does.

Leah Gardiner:
Today, I am interested in providing you a visual representation of how I chose to direct Topdog/Underdog. I have with me slides of various aspects of the show in hopes of showing you how I, as a director, took Suzan-Lori’s language to inform my approach to the play. I was interested in the theatrics of the piece. This defined a clear sensibility for the piece. As you can see from the first slide, Hunter’s own Louisa Thompson, our set designer, created a proscenium within the proscenium. It was a clever way of enhancing the performance within a performance—very much present in Suzan-Lori’s language.

In this next slide, Seth Gilliam, who played Lincoln, performed sitting in a chair, and there was an exaggeration of his character projected on the back wall. For me, this represented the idea that, here we are with a black man who is attempting in many ways to make himself larger than life and the only way in which, in our society, he can do so is by making a whole lot of money or by pretending. In this scene here, he’s pretending.

Moving on to clothes: the costume designer, Andre Harrington, decided to use the layering effect by creating different odd costume pieces. If you look at the Lincoln character by the street playing three-card-monte, he has cuffs around his wrists which have been cut off from a shirt, and he wore a dicky over that in place of a jacket. The cuffs for us represented shackles, historical shackles that slaves wore. For me they represent not just that but also the huge number of incarcerated black men in the United States today, whom Lincoln and Booth could very well join at any given point in their lives. So once again, this was taking a naturalistic thought and blowing it up in an attempt to react to Suzan-Lori’s sensibility.

Then there was the sound. The final thing that, for me, set each section of the play very much had to do with history, and with different forms of the black community. I have a song that we played at the very beginning of the show, that our composer made and our sound designer overlaid with historical voices—from slave narratives of women all the way through to the voices of Shirley Chisolm and Angela Davis. We chose women particularly in honor of Suzan-Lori. There were a few men, but we kept them in the background. We wanted that effect: seeing these two black men on the stage while hearing the voices of these black women. So here’s the song [plays tape], and just imagine hearing this over the sound of slave ships, old historical voices of women, just a very rich mixture that turned into a much thicker, more contemporary sound and set the tone for the production.

Finally, I want to read my director’s statement, which will give you an idea of what Suzan-Lori means to me and what this production meant to me: “Everything old is made new again. Fashions return but with a different twist. Musical phraseologies which seem new emerge from the history bank of sound. Slang words from last week live in our culture for years. How often are we reminded that the old really isn’t old, and that the new is not always new? As in anything rooted in the past, Suzan-Lori Parks takes her interpretation of what was and assigns a new voice to it. In Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln and Booth are not the historical characters as we know them. They are instead two modern-day brothers who after several years of separation come back together to revisit their past and redefine their present. Their history dictates their future, making that which appears old appear new. Like a jazz riff, Topdog/Underdog flows like a con game both inside and outside our consciousness. We swim in the river of the blues with a lot of stops and starts along the way. Soul music allows us to go deeper into their humorous sensibilities. Hip-hop guides our understanding of what these men endure, living in a confined space placed against the backdrop of urban America. We are presented with the culture of black life, musical traditions influencing the presence, the language, the sound and the rhythms of truth. We are participants, not merely spectators, in a historical-theatrical storybook, one which unfolds delicately but powerfully before our eyes. As with any epic drama, Topdog asks us to face the successes and the failures of our society. In its specifics, it presents boldly drawn characters who represent the beauty and poetry of our country. We are asked to celebrate life in its purest form through the eyes of these two brothers, peeling away at a historical backdrop made anew.”

I’ll stop for the sake of time, but I did have some ideas about the actors and the language. One person said during one of our talk-backs in Philadelphia: “there’s no hip-hop in this play!” And I had to stop and think, but there’s a beautiful exchange between the brothers when they are shooting the dozens—a term in the black community which plays on language: Lincoln says, “Sure, sure yer sure?” And the exchange is: “sure yer sure. Ya sure?” Booth says, “I’m sure.” “Ya sure? Sure yer sure?” And there’s the hip-hop, that rhythm—da duh, da duh da duh, da duh, da duh da duh da duh—which has its origins in bebop. That musical combination alone, in my opinion, takes this play out of naturalism and moves it into much more of what Suzan-Lori really represents, that is a non-linear, a more theatrical approach to making plays.

Bill Walters:
Well, I’m going to be very brief because, when Jonathan and I were first talking about this conference being organized around the production, I was very excited but I actually asked if I could be excused from appearing on the panel and just let the work downstairs speak for itself. As the time for the conference approached, though, I felt like I didn’t want to seem like I was hiding and should at least make myself available for some questions. I’ll say a couple of things about the experience I’ve had in working on Venus and then after that, let the work speak for itself.

I found very interesting what Professor Brustein was saying earlier this afternoon, that there has been a shift in the type of directors who have undertaken Suzan-Lori Parks’s plays. This is a theme we’ve heard all day, but he made the point that so-called avant-garde directors were interested in her earlier works and more mainstream directors have been more interested in her later works. I would enjoy situating myself in the former group. I enjoy working with original texts, my own texts, adaptations, but in the university setting where you usually pick a preexisting play, I like picking plays that I can really push against and pull at and tug and stretch really to their breaking point and sometimes beyond—big plays, Shakespeare and other texts that can stand up to that kind of pressure, or else plays that are open-ended enough to leave you enough room to play. The last play I did with a group of students was Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights by Gertrude Stein which I think has more in common with Suzan-Lori Parks’s earlier plays than with her later ones, since we’re following that theme.

Venus has been said to be a kind of middle-ground, transitional play. The experience I found in working on it—and I knew this was going to happen, going into it—was that I actually had a lot less to do than I usually do as a director. In many ways she had already done the work that I usually try to do, which is push and pull at something until it’s all twisted up and bent around. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading her works, and going to watch her works. I definitely feel a sort of kinship with her artistically. So in looking at Venus and starting to work on it I really felt more than ever that my job as a director was to simply get out of the way and help the thing stand on its own legs, which are very strong I think. I don’t find it as open-ended as a lot of her earlier works, and I would actually enjoy working on some of her earlier works for that reason. I felt like I was there mostly to help it stand on its own.

With that said, I’m already thinking—and we opened only three days ago—of all the things I wish that I had done and what I would do next time. Maybe I didn’t let it be as crazy as it could have been either. Saying that I tried to simplify it is not to say there wasn’t a lot of work to be done. I think it’s actually a pretty difficult text to approach. Luckily, I felt a connection to it, and the main job was working with the design team to come up with a physical space in which this could live and its themes could resonate and its structure could take shape physically. Also, there was the work with the actors. Actors, especially younger actors, generally tend to try to make any kind of text feel natural, feel realistic. So one of my jobs as a director was to keep them away from that—let them flirt with it so it could seem like that if they needed it to but then move away. So there was quite a lot of work to be done. But I think, largely, it was kind of my job to stay out of the way.

One of the things that really draws me to all of Parks’s work is the connection she insists on between form and content, which a number of people have mentioned today. She talks about how in her work the container, the vessel, shapes what is being put in it and vice versa, what she’s writing about dictates the form that it takes. That’s part of what I’m speaking about as a director. I usually like to mess with the structure a little bit, and in her work she has already done that, and I find that quite lovely and artistically exciting. One of the difficult things in Venus in particular is the way she has twisted it around and looped it back on itself. I think that can frustrate or infuriate some viewers because, as has already been said, it doesn’t come out as a victim play. And it doesn’t necessarily come out as a straightforward issue play. We had some really lovely discussions with the cast right from the beginning. Especially since I was working with students, I really felt like I had to address the topics and the themes of the play with them, and of course, as you can imagine, we never reached any kind of consensus whatsoever. And that’s exactly the point of the work, as Suzan-Lori Parks says. She intends to raise questions and questions and more questions, but she refuses to provide pat answers. I have found it very rewarding to be walking down the halls at Hunter over the last couple of months and hear the various discussions coming out of the doors from various different classes discussing this. Several people have asked me over the course of this semester why I chose this play. And did I really feel like I had a right to choose this play? I think I’ll leave that to the judgment of others, but I’ve had a wonderful time working on it and I think that in an educational setting particularly, it’s been wonderful and rewarding. I definitely thank Jonathan for letting us follow through with the decision to do a difficult piece like this.


Jonathan Kalb:
I would like to use Parks herself as my way into the discussion phase of this panel and quote one of her essays, called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” She writes in this essay: “someone once told me, ‘Venus isn’t really a Suzan-Lori Parks play.’ To which I responded: ‘There isn’t any such thing as a Suzan-Lori Parks play.’ What I mean is this. I don’t discount the plays I’ve written but I do realize I am growing and changing as I grow. Once Miss X starts thinking that she can/should/must only write Xian literature and anything that is not clearly Xian is a betrayal of the great Xian tradition . . . once Miss X buys into the existence of an Xian style of writing and once that purchase keeps her simply and stupidly repeating her last best hit, then Miss X gets really stinky.” Parks is talking here about getting out of the way. She’s describing herself as a moving target, a river of spirit that we and part of her have to get out of the way of. So in light of that, I’d like to put this as a question to the director’s panel. Is there any such thing as a Suzan-Lori Parks play? Can we take this quote at face value? We’ve been talking a lot today about early plays versus late plays, but Leah challenged Robert Brustein’s statement about that and said that there really are things that thread through all the works that are very important, characteristic explorations of Suzan-Lori Parks. Leah sees them in Topdog. So is there a Suzan-Lori Parks play?

Richard Foreman:
I only know one Suzan-Lori Parks play well, so I’m not the person to ask. But I’m interested in this issue of “getting out of the way,” because even though some people say my theater is totally solipsistic and I’m writing from a very personal base (I don’t think so), I think the task of all writers, all artists, is to get out of the way. This is an issue that is interestingly revealed by Suzan-Lori. An awful lot of stuff can come through when you get out of the way. To me, art is interesting when you get out of the way and conflicting contradictory forces are what come through. They’re not necessarily you, but they’re contradictory forces. It is not, however, interesting to me to get out of the way as a writer or a designer, in such a way that you “go with the flow” of the surrounding cultural milieu. People have spoken today about development of a play in terms of the conflicting commercial or experimental worlds. To me, in the commercial world one hooks into the flow of the engine of the culture that is going along, chugging along in a certain direction; certain things are happening in the culture. But letting the work come to life by letting all the contradictions come through—this is not "going with the flow." It’s allowing yourself to be upended by all kinds of things, like the strange way that Venus’s dialogue appears on the pages of the text, things like that. And it’s my own continual battle for art and against normal theater. I would make a comparison between Suzan-Lori, the experimental Suzan-Lori, and the way I did Dr. Faustus too. The other person who’s more like Suzan-Lori than people realize is Kathy Acker, who mostly wrote novels and did a few plays. I did an adaptation of one of her novels. Acker is a writer very close to Suzan-Lori in generating this energy and getting out of the way so that contradictory things can collide.

Leah Gardiner:
Suzan-Lori told me the most interesting thing with Topdog. She said that the play was channeled through her. She moves around a lot when she writes, she’s constantly moving, and I’m curious about whether each of her previous works was channeled the same way she described. With Topdog, she said, she was moving around, moving around, moving around, and all of a sudden something said, “sit!” And she sat, and the play came out, and she was just a vessel. She said it’s as if a hole in her head opened up and the play just came through and within a few days the play was done. So if, in fact, that is the process in which she wrote the other plays, I would wonder if, in fact, that helps define what a Suzan-Lori Parks play is.

Richard Foreman:
I’ve gotta try that. [laughter]

Liz Diamond:
I’ve done, what, five of her plays, and a couple of them in different configurations, and there are ways in which tremendous images and poetic strategies go through them all. There’s a musicality that happens in some of her more elegiac writing that you can hear from play to play to play. I can give an example. In Imperceptible Mutabilities, Mrs. Smith, in one of the most gorgeous speeches in the play, which is said more than once, says: “On thuh horizon any day now soon. Huh. You girls know what he told me last furlough? Last furlough I got off that bus and thuh sky was just as blue—wooo it was uh blue sky. I’d taken thuh bus to thuh coast. Rode in thuh front seat cause thuh ride was smoother up in thuh front. Kept my pocketbook on my lap. Was nervous. Asked thuh driver tuh name out names of towns we didn’t stop at. Was uh express. Uh express bus. ‘Mawhaven!’ That was one place—where we passed by. Not by but through. ‘Mawhaven!’ Had me uh front seat. Got to thuh coast. Wearin my brown and white. ‘You ain’t traveled a mile nor sweated a drop!’ That’s exactly how he said it too. Voice tooked up thuh whole outside couldn’t hear nothin else.” Etcetera.

Then in Black Man, you get this amazing speech where Black Woman with Fried Drumstick says, “Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in thuh whole entire world. Uh! Oh. Dont be uhlarmed. Do not be afeared. It was painless. Uh painless passin. He falls twenty-three floors to his death. 23 floors from uh passin ship from space tuh splat on thuh pavement. He have uh head he been keepin under thuh Tee V. On his bottom pantry shelf. He have uh head that hurts. Dont fit right.” Etcetera, etcetera. For me there’s a voice there that’s unmistakable. I don’t know how to articulate it outside the words themselves. Now in her writing, lots of different figures speak in lots of different ways. This happens to be an extremely fluid melodic, vowel-filled, open-sounding song, right? Then she’s also got speeches that are extremely clipped and staccato. Like the speech in Black Man, “Do in diddley dip die-die thuh drop. Do drop be dripted? Why, of course.” Staccato, rhythmic, high-speed riffing is replicated across the plays. You get it in Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, in Aretha Saxon in the second play. So I do think that there are these gorgeous, poetic and musical sounds and a strategy of wedding sound to sense and insisting on the plasticity of language and on the way the actual sound of a word creates, if you will, character (as in Shakespeare), that informs all of her writing.

Richard Foreman:
Well, like all writers, she doesn’t always know what she’s talking about when she’s talking about herself. Of course there’s a Suzan-Lori Parks play--and what you describe is these two different versions. But I heard everything you were talking about in the second staccato version already present in the first version.

Liz Diamond:
Yes indeed. Fair enough.

Leah Gardiner:
Here I would argue that Topdog is very much within the same genre. “Watch me close, watch me close now, watch me close.” It’s the exact same duh-du-duh, duh-du-duh. It has the same kind of rhythm. There are lines that have the same musicality, staccato, the jazz. It’s consistent throughout her plays.

Richard Foreman:
And I would propose that when she says, “There is no such thing as a Suzan-Lori Parks play,” she’s saying it for polemical and justifiable reasons, and all of us experience this. Every play has to be approached and dealt with—as an audience member or as an artist working on a play—inch by inch. It’s the inch-by-inch work that distinguishes goodness from badness, not, “Oh, I have a great theme in this play, I have a great overall structure.” Nonsense. It’s the inch by inch--Is it true? Is it really happening? Does it really reverberate with other things in the play? Any artist wants to say, “No, you can’t make a simplified global pattern out of me or my work”—a global Suzan-Lori Parks play. She doesn’t want anyone to say, “I’m going to see a Suzan-Lori Parks play tonight and I can relax because I know what I’m going to get,” because that stops you from doing your inch-by-inch work.

Question from the audience regarding the difference between the experience of directing Suzan-Lori Parks plays and directing other authors’ plays.

Leah Gardiner:
Well, I had a great first day of rehearsal. One of my actors, who is a television actor, an intelligent actor, sat down as we were about to read through and said, “I would just like to let you know something. I have no idea what this play is about. I have no idea.” And I could’ve done one of two things then. I could’ve shot myself, or I could’ve just said, “Right, well, let’s just dive in.” Luckily I just decided to dive in. But that was the first time I’ve cast actors who I’ve not auditioned, and it was also the first time I ever had an actor say, “I have no idea what she’s saying, what this play is. I don’t understand it.” The one thing he did understand, though, was the rhythm and the music.

Liz Diamond:
I imagine it’s changing a lot over time, directors’ experiences with actors on this work. Back in the early nineties--which was, you may remember, some of you who are old enough, a period of very passionate exploration of ethnic and political identity: feminist plays, African-American plays, Asian-American plays--there was kind of an explosion of work in this way. When I started working with Suzan-Lori there was some question on the actors’ parts about a white director working on Suzan-Lori’s plays. I remember the first rehearsal for The Death of the Last Black Man up at Yale Rep, we had a lot of student actors in the show, along with some wonderful professional actors. There was a very interesting tension in the room. The kids who were in this very traditionally white institution had been doing Shakespeare and Moliere and all this stuff, and they were finally getting to work on a contemporary play with a contemporary voice, telling stories which in many ways they considered theirs. And there I was. The professionals, the older actors, had really no issues with this whatsoever but watched and waited. But there was a lot of tension around the table about this. A student raised her hand at one point and said, “I’ve just got to express a certain concern here that, Liz, I mean, Suzan-Lori, why’d you pick her? Why’d you pick her?” Suzan-Lori talked about that for a minute and said, “What are you asking?” And the student said, “Well, she’s not black.” And Suzan-Lori turned and said, “You’re not?” And it was a great diffuser—at that time a kind of necessary moment.

I found it very exciting. There was a lot of cultural border-crossing I got to do, a lot of learning while working on these plays.The actors would pour out their stories and their relationships in connection with this text. Sometimes Suzan-Lori embraced that and sometimes she wanted to stop it because she felt that it was getting in the way of the work. In particular, there were actors who would look at the writing on the page, as Alisa described, you know you look at a word like “t-h-u-h” and extrapolate from that that a kind of black vernacular was being asked of them. And Suzan-Lori would get very angry and say, “They’ve gotta read it. They’ve gotta read it word for word.” Inch by inch. Inch by inch. Absolutely hew to what’s on the page. She said, those spellings are not a license to speak, carte blanche, in a kind of youthful black vernacular across the play. It’s somewhat abstracted. So it was interesting that that would raise great hackles, particularly among young actors, who would get very concerned about what she was saying about that speech. So quite ahead of anything that would happen in the transaction between audience and stage, there was in the rehearsal hall all this material about art and race raised in those early days, and perhaps now as well, these great emotional issues surrounding the politics embedded in the aesthetics in the writing.

Jonathan Kalb:
Liz, you mentioned before that Suzan-Lori did not want the extroverted emotional expressions of the black Baptist tradition in Black Man when you directed it. And yet that play is very ceremonial. Suzan-Lori is clearly interested in ceremony and ritual. Everyone in the play is, in a sense, looking for the ceremony that Black Man needs to be finally buried, and with that the women can find rest too. So when you talk about abstracting black vernacular, I wonder if maybe what she wants is not actual ceremonial expression from life but rather something that’s intentionally artificial, that she has invented, and that you therefore have to find and define in the theater. Is there a parallel here?

Liz Diamond:
One of the first things we did when we worked on Black Man together was to go up to St. John the Divine and St. Patrick’s and attend some masses together. She was raised Roman Catholic. So was I. We were both recovering Catholics maybe. Both of us had certain kinds of deep attachments, I must say, visceral attachments to certain aspects of what you might call Catholic ritual—the drag, the fancy clothes, the gold, the incense, the Latin in my case. I was old enough for that. And a certain terribly stately, slow process. I think in her case it was very much connected to rhythm. She was resistant to bringing Baptist rhythms into the piece, particularly at the end. She wanted more the call-and-response of the Catholic church, which is very slow and cadenced. I don’t know how to describe it musically, but it’s kind of a formal, strict, metric rhythm, as opposed to the more propulsive bending rhythms you might hear in a Baptist church. And that’s what we went for.

Question from the audience requesting clarification of Leah Gardiner’s remark, “We are participants, not merely spectators,” in her director’s statement for Topdog/Underdog.

Leah Gardiner:
Well it’s interesting—if I can piggyback on what Liz was saying about religion and the Catholic Church. If you think about how the Catholic Church works, you participate by going up each week for communion. You go to confession. There’s a kind of participation in the ritual that exists within the Catholic Church. I think that with Suzan-Lori’s work, in particular in Topdog, it’s important for the audience to participate in what’s happening up there. These are familiar characters, familiar people to us who cross racial boundaries. Their economic plight relates to any country, any place in the world where poverty exists and people are struggling. We all understand what that is, and if we are conscious beings, we can be participants in that and not necessarily spectators. It could be the artist in me who’s hoping that everyone in the world does that. I could be idealistic in that sense, I suppose, but I do feel like in this particular play, in order to get the more visceral response to what’s happening on stage it’s important to see yourself as someone who’s up there and in there. I think that the music is the thing that draws you in and makes you a participant and not necessarily a spectator. In our production, people were tapping their toes and swaying just because the kind of music that we chose allowed them to participate like that.

Question from the audience requesting clarification about a director “getting out of the way.”

Bill Walters:
For my part, I certainly didn’t intend to say that you just show up at rehearsal and sit back and watch it all unfold. There are still a lot of choices to be made and there’s still a lot of listening to be done to the text. And in a text like Venus, all the things that we talked about, the way that it’s set on the page, the spellings, the rests and spells that she includes, everything goes into the structure of how she’s built this thing. It has something to do with, I think, listening to exactly that, the tensions that she had built into the script in creating an atmosphere in which these things can start to come to life on their own. Essentially, she has given you all the chemical ingredients and it’s a matter of setting up the appropriate environment for them to do their thing. But that requires very meticulously creating that appropriate environment.

Richard Foreman:
If I could just add to that: this is very important for all artists. It’s one of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a director. I’d be sitting there in rehearsal all the time looking with a focused attention, saying, “Why is she doing it that way? No, no. What can I do to make it better?” Then at a certain point you realize that’s wrong, and you sit back, and instead of focusing on that and figuring out why it’s not working, you open your field of vision, use peripheral vision, use a wide field of vision. You go into a semi-daze. You glaze over. And you say, “Oh, she’s doing it that way and she’s bad, that’s bad, but in that badness there is a necessity and a goodness that we have to learn how to exploit.” So you, the director, have to go back and forth between making decisions and letting it be what it wants to be, the material, the performer. You often forget that--you have to let it be.

Jonathan Kalb:
I think that’s a great closing comment. Thank you very much to all of our panelists.