Suzan-Lori Parks has long been my favorite playwright and one of my favorite authors of anything. I used to teach “The America Play,” which students sometimes found confounding to read—perhaps due at least as much to my own inability to teach it properly as to its difficulty as a text. I think, if one were to see it on stage, perhaps it would be easier for some folks to grasp. (I know this was true for me of another Parks play, “Father Comes Home from the War,” one part of which I saw in a small off-Broadway theater and loved—it was, like many of Parks’ plays, a layered thing. In this one, meaning came not only from the actors’ words and actions and the mis-en-scene, but from text broadcast above the stage (given as stage directions and footnotes in the written play).)
Still, I’ve pulled The America Play and other Works off my bookshelf to write about today because it is a collection to which I’ve returned and returned, recommended infinitely, and loved so much my copy is just a series of loose pages held together by a rubber band wrapped around the cover. It’s a collection of Parks’ plays and essays which feels ever more relevant in the moment (though, to be clear, it never stopped being relevant, like a river running underground is still running even if you don’t see it, is still nourishing what grows in the soil above, still filling the wells from which we drink. But, knowing all this, I’d say the words feel as though they’re speaking to this current time.
The essays are deadly brilliant. “Possession,” “Elements of Style” and “An Equation for Black People on Stage” all are more than worth several readings. The ideas have guided me as a writer and as an audience/reader ever since I read them. “Equation,” for instance, begins with this assertion:
“The Bulk of relationships Black people are engaged in onstage is the relationship between Black and the White other. This is the stuff of high drama. I wonder if a drama involving Black people can exist without the presence of the White—no, not the presence—the presence is not the problem [.…] The interest in the other is. The use of the White in the dramatic equation is, I think, too often seen as the only way of exploring our Blackness; this equation reduces Blackness to merely a sate of ‘non-Whiteness.’ Blackness in this equation is a people whose lives consist of a series of reactions and responses to the White ruling class.”
Boom. Suzan-Lori Parks hits the nail on the head, but it’s a nail of which so many of us (including me) were ignorant until she hit it.
Perhaps my two favorite plays in the collection are “The America Play” and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.” I won’t go into great specifics about each of these, simply because I’m hoping the titles alone will provoke your interest and lead you to read them for yourself. “Last Black Man” features some historical Black figures (like ‘Queen-then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut’) mixed in with some stereotypes of American Blackness (characters like ‘Black Man with Watermelon,’ or ‘Woman with Fried Drumstick,’ or ‘Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork’) speaking. They are reminders, they are mourners, they are echoes speaking back to us—as much as they also feel like just people. The whole scene is set in something called “the Great Hole of History” for which Parks gives no stage directions: how to set this scene? what does the Great Hole look like? In this Great (W)Hole of History (oh, golly, I love that pun, by the by) are all the narratives and people left out of Official Western History. The characters speak in near-poetry, unnatural and beautiful. It feels like a play, like a self-conscious display of something, and that is, I’d venture, pretty intentional. Though tempted, you’re never permitted to get lost entirely, to suspend disbelief. The work does not follow the conventional Western plotline, nor the conventional Western 3-act play structure. If you come to “Last Black Man” expecting the simple satisfactions of such a structure, you’ll be disappointed, and it will be your own fault. You’re always reminded: THIS IS A WORK OF ART. THIS BEARS THE ATTENTION OF INTERPRETATION. For this, I truly love it.
“The America Play” centers on The Foundling Father (oh, Parks, your puns! I just adore!), a Black man who is a grave digger and an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. He becomes particularly popular among white people who want to re-enact Booth shooting Lincoln—even better if they can shoot a Black Lincoln to boot! The Foundling Father soon disappears from the stage, and becomes a central figure in absentia, like the Great Hole of History he’s tried to replicate: what has been removed is what makes the thing (like a hole is not a hole unless things have been removed to make a hole). Lucy, his wife, and Brazil, his son, spend the last act alone. They are professional mourners, hired to gnash and moan at funerals to make others feel the dead had been important. Their lives are full of death and mourning. Their business, all, is absence, is the hole, is acting as if rather than simply getting to be.
I could write forever about these plays, having taught them and thought about them for so long. (And just so we’re clear, teaching the text does not mean I know anything about it—teaching was a way of figuring things out, thinking about things, so I mention it only to suggest I’ve spent many years thinking about these beautiful plays. Even so, they exceed my ability to think through them—I never “get” the whole thing, because if I think more, I discover more in them.) I won’t dissertate. Instead, I’ll simply urge you to read them—or any of Parks’ writing, for that matter. They plays and essays are genius postmodern works, rife with wordplay and exactly-needed difficulty. They are passionate and deeply felt strikes at the world’s stoicism.
More people should know, read and (inevitably) love Parks’ work.
Find Suzan-Lori Parks at http://suzanloriparks.com/
Find her books everywhere. Here, try Alibris: https://www.alibris.com/booksearch?author=suzan-lori+parks&mtype=B