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October 27th, 2006

HILTON ALS ON SUZAN-LORI PARKS

I love Hilton Als’ writing in the New Yorker and I’m interested in playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the Pulitzer for Top/dog/Underdog, a MacArthur "genuis" grant, and wrote 365 plays in 365 days (soon to open all around the country). This week’s New Yorker has Als’ profile of Parks. The first two paragraphs are here:

Down in the gray-green gloom of the New York City subway system, anything can happen, and frequently does. A bit of hucksterism. Alms for the poor. Sometimes, even unsuspecting critics have to field questions from that rarest of birds, the black female playwright. Late one night in 1987, on the way home from an event at Franklin Furnace, an avant-garde arts center, the writer and theatre critic Alisa Solomon was riding the subway, minding her own business, when a young black woman approached her. “I saw you at the theatre, so I was kinda hoping I could ask you a question,” she said, and sat down next to Solomon, who described the encounter in the Village Voice two years later. The woman leaned in “uncomfortably close,” before adding, “I’m trying to ask anyone who might know. I’m a playwright. Do you know where I can send my scripts? They’re kind of unconventional.”

That young woman—Suzan-Lori Parks—has since become renowned for her audacity, both on the page and in the world. The author of nine full-length plays, most of which are taught at drama schools across the country, and one of the founders of a wave of multilayered, historically aware, and linguistically complicated theatre, she aims to defeat what she calls “the Theatre of Schmaltz”—“the play-as-wrapping-paper-version-of-hot-newspaper-headline.” Parks was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama—for her 2001 play, “Topdog / Underdog”—after having been short-listed for “In the Blood,” her 1999 reimagining of “The Scarlet Letter.” A writer who crosses cultural boundaries, as well as social ones, she has had her work produced everywhere, from the smallest avant-garde stages to Broadway. Her voice is both idiosyncratic and eerily familiar, one of few in the popular theatre to fully exploit the power of spoken black English. (A typical passage from one of her plays reads like this: “In my day my motherud say 16:15 and there wernt no question that it was 16:15 her time. Thuh time helpin tuh tell you where you oughta be where you oughta be lookin and whatcha oughta be lookin at.”)

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