Why you Should Read THE AMERICA PLAY AND OTHER WORKS by Suzan-Lori Parks

America Play

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

REVIEW: Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara

Gorilla my loveGorilla, My Love
Toni Cade Bambara
First published 1960

I first read this collection of short stories when I was in college, back in the late 1980s. It stunned me so deeply, I’ve remembered it—especially the title story—for decades. I should write a letter of thanks to the college professor who first turned me on to it, but I no longer remember who it was. Well, I’m sending thanks out to the universe, anyway, because the stories of Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara have rumbled around my head, flavoring everything I’ve written and everything I’ve read since.

Fifteen short stories, each told in the first-person voice of a different character (or sometimes a 3rd-person limited omniscient, as if privy to the thoughts of a character), make up the collection. It feels as if all the characters are neighbors, all know each other, and are all talking smack about each other (though the collection isn’t set up that way).

What resonates most for me about these stories is, first, the voices and, second, the rhythm.

The voices seem so believably right. The title story, “Gorilla, My Love,” is told by a young girl (Hazel) who feels betrayed by the adults in her world. She goes with her brothers to see a film she thinks will be a gorilla movie (perhaps like King Kong, but even better), but is furious to find out she (and the entire audience of rowdy kids) has been tricked. “So the movie come on,” the narrator says, “and right away it’s this churchy music and clearly not about no gorilla. Bout Jesus. And I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don’t wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff.” She and her brothers—and the whole audience—start a little popcorn-and-kicking riot, the harmless kind of tantrum one is inclined to throw in the face of powerlessness and betrayal.

Layered in an around this narrative is the story of the narrator’s loss of her Hunca Bubba, who gets married and starts going by his full proper Christian name (Johnathan Winston Vale). He’d promised, probably jokingly, to marry the narrator when she grew up, and was always the adult she could count on for friendship and understanding. Suddenly, he’s gone deep into the adult world and she’s left on the outside. Hazel has nobody but the other kids, all of them feeling the sting of the things adults promise but don’t really mean.

Every narrator’s voice feels true in this way, pulsing with the character’s needs, passions, anger. But it’s not a bitter collection in the least. It feels wistful. It feels true. It’s sometimes funny with a gentle, kind humor (the kind that doesn’t have to knock anybody down to make its mark).

As for the rhythm, I don’t simply mean the rhythm of the prose itself—though that is beautifully done. I remember when I was studying writing in college, and someone suggested to me that the major concern of poetry was at the level of the sentence and language, but the major concern of fiction was at the level of concept and story. I still think that’s wrong—good poets and good fiction-writers should always be concerned with both the big picture and the details. The best fiction writers, I think, compose every line of prose as if it were a line of poetry, that carefully. In Gorilla, My Love, words matter.

What I mean by “rhythm” is both the language-level rhythm (which, here, is masterful) and the ig-picture rhythm. Each story opens, build and closes in a sigh or a scream. The stories of the collection build upon one another to make a greater picture, so that the final story, “The Johnson Girls,” takes some of its effect from the momentum built by the stories that came before it. The last line—“’Right,’ say Gail, and lights my cigarette”—doesn’t sound particularly important until you’ve been carried to it by the story, by the whole book. Ending the collection on this line, then gives it extra weight, and I usually break into tears at the resignation it suggests.

I mean, you kinda have to be there (read it) to get it.

I’ll be at NY Public Library, and You’re Invited

Hey, all!

Come join me, Nisha Sharma, Adriana Hererra and Damon Suede for a collaborative talk/Q&A about queer and PoC folks in romance.

CHANGING FACES IN ROMANCE FICTION

Minday, February 11

6:00pm til ?

(because I love invitations that say ” til ?,” so full of undisguised hope! Like, when will it end? We dont know because it will be so awesome!)

For details, see https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2019/02/11/mid-sentence-modern-lovers-changing-faces-romance-fiction

Where my New Yorkers at?