Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, 51, was born in Kentucky and raised in Germany and the United States. She attended Mount Holyoke College, where she studied under James Baldwin, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2001. In 2002, she became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama with her play Topdog/Underdog. In addition to her numerous works for theater—she created 365 plays in 365 days and has had her work staged worldwide—she has written screenplays for Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey and is the author of the novel Getting Mother’s Body. She lives with her husband and young son in New York, where she teaches at NYU. Her three-part play Father Comes Home from the Wars—set during the Civil War and inspired in part by Greek tragedy—plays through March 1 in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, but I don’t know where I am on the list. I might be number 100. Could’ve just squeaked in there.
I have no clue. I don’t think too much about what I do. I just do it.
365 plays in 365 days… I suppose that’s an example of innovation. Or insanity. Even more insane, we produced them all over the world, in 700 theaters from Berlin to Beijing to Boston to Myanmar.
Not that I know of. Like so many of the things I write, it started as a joke. It was like, “Isn’t that funny? It rhymes!” Same with the idea of adapting the book of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Hahahahaha!
It wasn’t a play. It was James Baldwin, who was my professor. He suggested that I might be good at it. I was not a theater person, but I was very animated in his creative writing class. He suggested I try my hand at it, and that’s still what I’m doing today: trying my hand at writing plays.
I am. I play guitar. And one of the things I’m most excited about with this play is that it has songs in it I wrote. Both the music and the lyrics. I’m pretty proud of that.
Do you ever get writer’s block? I have a 3-year-old. If you’re a writer and you’re having problems, all you need to do is get yourself a 3-year-old. You’ll look at writing as a piece of cake.
The biggest difference is scale. When I write plays, I see it in my head as if it were being performed live, on a stage, and when I write a film, I see it as if it’s up on a screen. When I wrote my novel (and I’m working on a second one), it’s like a video game, a second life.
Thank you for asking that. We were asking that question with real sincerity about four years ago. My personal opinion was “Hell, no!” A lot of my friends were like, “OK, another angry black woman.” But my sincere opinion was “Maybe you decided not to worry about it anymore, but I still have to try to get a cab on the street.”
I don’t know. I guess it’s “Well, gosh, I’m so tired of hearing you guys complain!” [Laughs]
I think people don’t know how to talk about others as people first and foremost. It’s basic. Most people of European descent don’t know how to talk about people of African descent as just people. They’re “black people.” And it’s not just a race-relations problem. It’s a human-relations problem. It even has less to do with race than we’d like to believe. It exists between women and men, straight people and gay people, whatever. People just don’t tend to think of each other as human beings.
It’s profitable. Racism is a money-making disease. You pit one group against another, somebody’s makin’ money. Scholars have written brilliantly about this.
When you have the workers set against each other, unable to unite, the 1 percent are profiting from it. It’s very advantageous to keep everyone separate. Keep women disliking themselves. They’re more likely to go out and buy shit. Ka-ching!
I’ll quote a play I wrote, called Fucking A. “Freedom isn’t free.” It’s responsibility. Which is a great joy….I think we free ourselves by becoming mindful. That’s what freedom is: mindfulness.
Depends. I’ve seen a lot of art that’s deeply enmeshed in the bullshit. The Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, the Tonys? Do we not all think that they’re deeply beholden to the system? It’s just not as nurturing, loving and supportive as it could be, and with no loss of revenue. It’s amazing people don’t realize love can make you lots of money, too. Oprah does it. Bill Gates does it. The pope is a rich man, and he knows he can get a lot richer if he’s open and loving. The bell went off in his head—I’m gonna hug some people, open my heart, and the Church gets a little richer, because people are like, “I’m in!” It’s just smart.
I love Chekhov. But the Greeks are a bigger influence, and Shakespeare is huge. He’s my main dead white guy that I love.
What a great question. That distinction is very important to me in this play. Honest, to me, means you are respectful of the system. You play by the rules. You don’t lie or cheat, even though the rules are screwy at times, which means that honesty doesn’t necessarily mean your behavior is going to be laudatory. True, on the other hand, means being true to oneself and something greater than oneself. It’s more idealistic, perhaps. Then there’s faithful, which means belief in the great love. The love that is bigger than a system. An absolute unconditional love. That’s the spectrum in my play.