What’s the big idea?

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks goes after stories with a commitment to discovery and to the power of dreamy moments.
By Patti Hartigan | Published: March 17, 2015


Parks hi res (credit Stephanie Diani)Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks will be the first to tell you that she’s never had a single “idea,” despite the fact that her numerous plays have been produced all over the U.S. and that she won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Topdog/Underdog. She is also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” and two Obie Awards and has written screenplays and a novel. But ideas? Nope. She’s never had one. Not her.

“When most artists say they have ‘ideas,’ they have something to prove,” Parks says, pointing her finger for emphasis and taking on the voice of an imaginary writer. “‘I want to say that homelessness is bad, or the government is corrupt.’ You fill in the blank. I have never had a quote-unquote ‘idea’ like that, but I always have something I want to show.” When she says the word “idea,” she draws imaginary quotation marks in the air.

For Parks, the process of writing is not an effort to pontificate about high-minded concepts or political opinions. It is a journey of discovery. That journey can be miraculous, as when a revelation appears to her in the dreamy moments of the early morning. Or it can be long and circuitous, traveled over many years and many drafts until the exactly right ending comes to her in the eleventh hour.

The distinction is important to Parks, whose plays are ripe with rich language and symbols and metaphors but are not conscious efforts to examine some preconceived grand design. Sometimes she starts with a character or a single line or phrase, such as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, the evocative title of her 1990 drama. The phrase came to her one morning when she awoke from a deep sleep. She says she saw it written on the bedroom wall, and her play emerged from that image.

Her most recent theatrical outing, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3), began with memories of her father, an Army colonel who moved the family from country to country while Parks was growing up. He frequently went off to war, including two tours in Vietnam, and Parks has vivid childhood memories of him leaving and eventually coming home. She wanted to explore that and see where it would take her. “This is very personal,” Parks, 51, says.

In 2009, she wrote a one-act play about a slave named Hero who returns to a Texas plantation after accompanying his white master to fight with Confederate troops during the Civil War. The Public Theater in New York presented a workshop of the play that year, and many involved thought the play was ready to mount as a full production. But Parks wasn’t ready. In the original play, Hero comes home wearing a gray Confederate coat on top of a blue Union coat, and Parks wanted to explore that further. “Everyone loved it and said it was a perfect piece of writing. Boom! Gorgeous. Funny. Moving. You name it,” she says. “I knew it was going to be a nine-part cycle, and I needed to write more. I needed to know where he got his coat. Everyone thought I was going to write forward, but I wanted to go backwards and see what he was like on the day he left and what he was like on the battlefield.”

That led her on a journey to unearth the unknown. Parks is ever questioning, looking for answers. Why did Hero go off to war? Who hugged him goodbye? What alliances – or misalliances – did he leave behind? Who was with him on the battlefield? And how, as an African American and a slave, did he reconcile the fact that he was fighting for the wrong side? She ended up writing two new acts that precede the original work. It took several years to complete the trilogy, which debuted at the Public last year in a co-production with the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ "Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)" won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for a theatrical work inspired by American history.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)” won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for a theatrical work inspired by American history.

The trilogy is loosely related to The Odyssey. The first two parts show Hero on the day he leaves and in the war zone, and the original one-act play is now Part 3, depicting Hero’s homecoming. As with Odysseus, he has a devoted dog, but in the play, the talking dog, named Odd-See, is a canine griot who instructs and entertains. But Parks doesn’t want to pigeonhole the play by calling it a modern retelling of The Odyssey. It also refers to Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, postmodern theater and contemporary street life. In fact, she resists labels of all kinds. She doesn’t like to overanalyze her work or say what her plays are “about,” per se. Instead, she is interested in the stories and the impressions they leave on the audience. It’s a journey, an odyssey if you will, for both playwright and audience.

Because she starts with a fragment or an image, her path to discovery is never the same. “Sometimes it comes out of my fingers,’’ she says of her writing. “Sometimes it is being poured into my head. With Topdog/Underdog, I felt like someone was standing there with a silver gravy boat pouring it into my head.” She wrote Topdog in just a few days, but it’s not always like that. “Other times, I have a little pickax, chiseling every word,” she explains.

She wrote much of the trilogy in the lobby of the Public Theater, where she holds the Master Writer Chair and where she conducts Watch Me Work, a combination performance piece/seminar/writing session that is open to the public. She writes while people watch, and if folks ask questions, she answers their questions about writing but doesn’t talk as much about her own work.

To Parks, who was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer for drama, writing is both a physical and spiritual endeavor. She meditates and practices yoga daily, and she sports a tattoo written in Sanskrit that she says loosely translates to “Submit your will to the will of God.”

“I create hand in hand with the Spirit,’’ she says. “That is my way. Some writers start with a message and go from there, but we should know as artists that there are different roads to take. There is not one road.”

She defines the Spirit as a universal entity that unites all humans. “Spirit begins with an S,” she says. “It is like self. Who are you? Who am I? Who are we and what are we doing here? I am myself. What does that mean? I’m talking about self with the little S. I am the person who walked over here in the snow, has a toddler, is happy about the babysitter, has something stuck in my teeth. That’s the little S. But then there is Spirit with the big S.’’ She pauses and traces an S in the air with her finger. “That’s the part of us that is part of everybody, the big part. I write from the big part of the Spirit. . . . It’s not about lofty ideas, but the big self expressed in the minutia, the specifics of every day.”

The Spirit – with a capital S – is an all-embracing state of being. “I want people to use their whole experience to experience my plays,” Parks says. “If it comes from an idea – like ‘Racism is bad!’ – how far is it going to get? If I wanted to say that, I would write an op-ed. It doesn’t help any of us to reduce it to a sound bite.”

Her plays are rich with symbols and metaphors, but they are not forced. She doesn’t consciously think about the deep meaning of her words. She listens to the Spirit and contemplates the characters, phrases or lines that come to her. She searches, but she does not analyze. “Suzan-Lori writes from a very instinctual place,’’ says Jo Bonney, who directed the recent productions of Father Comes Home from the Wars and the workshop staging at the Public Theater Lab in 2009. “She writes through her guts and emotions. She is smart, and her writing is sophisticated, but the story just comes to her fully formed.”

After the writing is done, the final product is a literary critic’s dream. Words take on double meanings. History becomes his story. The character of Hero is misplaced. He leaves not just his home behind, but also his identity. “It is endlessly delicious material to work on,” says Bonney. “You are constantly finding the different meanings and possibilities.” The language is rich, taking cues from Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and the great classics. It is lyrical and formal, yet it includes surprising colloquialisms and moments of slang. Characters may wax poetic, wrapping over each others’ lines like the chorus in a Greek tragedy one moment and then saying “Tru dat” or “Snap” the next.

Of course, the names also have meaning. Topdog/Underdog featured brothers named Booth and Lincoln. It was their father’s idea of a joke to name his sons after the 16th president and the man who murdered him. The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World features characters named Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork. In Father, Hero’s faithful dog is Odd-See, or Odyssey dog. Another slave is Homer, after the poet. Hero’s wife is named Penny, which evokes both Penelope in The Odyssey and the image of Abraham Lincoln imprinted on a copper coin. And the master is simply known as the Colonel, putting him in the same league with the nameless refugees simply known as The Runaway Slaves. But while the character names are thought-provoking, Parks doesn’t belabor them: “My very first friend growing up in west Texas was named Penny Lincoln. I was 6 years old, and I was grooving to her name. Penny Lincoln was a poem to me.”

She is less interested in analyzing her character name choices than in wondering about their origins. Hero’s first master, for instance, called him Joe, but the Colonel named him Hero. In Part 3, however, he renames himself Ulysses, ostensibly after Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Parks says she didn’t think hard and long about the name change. It just came to her. “Interestingly enough, it is also Ulysses in The Odyssey,’’ she says. “What a lovely thing. That was heaven-sent.”

717_150122ART_FatherComesHomeDressThe unique spelling of her own name, Suzan-Lori, was the result of a typo. A printer misspelled her given name, Susan-Lori, on the posters for one of her earlier plays, and she just went with it. “These little things people obsess about have no interest to me,” she says. “It’s no big deal that there was a mistake, and I rolled with it. It didn’t crush me. So many things come up in the writer’s path, and we take it as a sign that we should not be on the path. Roll with it. Join the tradition of stone rollers or people who carry rocks in their pockets.” She pauses. “Jesus. Virginia Woolf. It’s a spiritual thing.”

Parks had an itinerant childhood, growing up in the world’s cradle as her father’s career in the Army moved the family from place to place. She was always fascinated with writing, and she first realized she was a playwright when she was taking an seminar with James Baldwin as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College. She describes herself as a physical writer, all about movement, and during conversation, she gestures and moves her body in time with her words. Baldwin noticed that and suggested she write for the stage. He was, in fact, so impressed with his student’s work that he described her as “an astonishing and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.”

She also is influenced by Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and William Faulkner, and her plays are multilayered with references to history and literature that reveal the width and breadth of her knowledge. But her ethic is simple: Put in the work. “Sometimes it is easy. Sometimes it is difficult,” she says. “But the one constant that produces ‘success’ is putting in the time. That is constant. Showing up. That is it.”

And she practices what she preaches. On Nov. 13, 2002, she woke up and decided to write a play every day for a year. That effort culminated in 365 Days/365 Plays, a collection of short works that was ultimately produced by a network of theaters nationwide. “Some days I didn’t feel like doing it, and yet I did it anyway,’’ she says. “You have to get in the habit of showing up. It’s a muscle you have to develop.”

Bonney, her director, says it seems like the writing is effortless when she reads it, but she knows it is not. “I never see her struggle with her writing,’’ she says. “On the other hand, I don’t underestimate for a minute the amount of work that goes into it. She is drawing from a great world of knowledge. She can put Greek references next to Civil War period references and pop cultural references. That is just her knowledge of the world.” And she doesn’t stop working until she feels she has completed her journey of discovery. With Father, that journey was not complete until the trilogy was already in rehearsal last fall. Tickets were sold. Press releases had gone out. But Parks woke up in the middle of a deep sleep one night and had a “Eureka!” moment, just as she did when she discovered the name of her play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World. She suddenly knew that she had to change the ending, which originally wrapped up with one character dead and another doomed to a life paralyzed by guilt. “These kinds of revelations don’t happen often,” Parks says. “Most of the time I am awake just working. But I woke up, and there it was.”

All along, she had been looking for a way to liberate her Hero, and she finally found it during the darkness of night. “I didn’t know in 2009 when I wrote it initially that I was looking for a way to free Hero,” she says. “Ideas come after with me. I have ideas about it now, but those thoughts were not involved in the creation of it. It is important that writers understand my process and understand that all I knew was that I had to free Hero. I am not an intellectual writer. I am a physical writer. It goes through my feet, circles around in the little roundabout of my heart, and then it spouts.” As she speaks, she gestures with her hand, moving it up from her feet, around in a circle at her chest, and – voila! – up and over her head.

In rehearsal, she ran her new ending by director Bonney and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. “It was obvious immediately,” Bonney recalls. “She was testing the water. She was looking for a first reaction from me, in terms of ‘Oh no, that is a terrible idea’ or ‘That is really interesting.’ It was amazing to discover a new end to the play. It allowed her to follow it to a natural end.”

That final scene didn’t require a huge rewrite. Most of the lines were already in place, but with slight tweaks, the entire conclusion of the play changed. Parks made the changes instantly. “The writing was already there. It was just a different outcome,” Bonney says. “It is not that she came up with it in two seconds. It was the culmination of the process of working on it over all that time. She wanted to give the characters hope.”

Parks knew at that moment that her journey had reached the right place, at least for this part of her opus, which she plans as a nine-part drama. The next six parts will move forward in time, depicting the descendants of her characters as they live through Reconstruction, the Civil Rights era and contemporary times. “What is important to me is that I found the right end,” she says. As for the rest of the cycle, she doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s still on that journey. And talking about it will sound too much like an “idea.”

An excerpt from Father Comes Home from the Wars

The OLD MAN enters.

OLD MAN
Why you all crouching away from me?
It’s just the Old Man here.

LEADER
Are you dead, Old Man?

OLD MAN
What kind of foolish question is that?
Good thing you all ain’t free.
Good thing they days ain’t they own to fill.
Good thing they time is still owned by the Boss-Master,
Cause, if they time ever was they own, mark it:
They’d be filling it all up with foolishness.
Seeing me standing here but thinking me dead.
Goodness, people, I was just out walking, out looking for Hero’s dog.

FOURTH
Hero’s dog, the dog called Odd-See.
We all know where Odd-See Dog is at:
Hero’s dog is by Hero’s side, just like he always is.

OLD MAN
The dog’s run off,
Where he’s gone to I don’t know.

THIRD
That’s hard to believe.
Hero’s dog,
The dog with eyes that go this way and that?

OLD MAN
Hero’s only got one dog.

SECOND
There must have been something he was chasing.

OLD MAN
He weren’t chasing nothing
I heard something like a scuff.
Like Hero had kicked that dog.
And then the dog run off.

THIRD
Old Man, you know Hero don’t kick his dog.

OLD MAN
And Odd-See, his dog, he don’t run off neither.
But I’m telling you: both them things happened, mark it.

LEADER
Strange news. How will it sway your bets?

FOURTH
Strange news on any day but especially today.
Cause of the bond Hero and Odd-See got between them.

THIRD
The Dog is always by Hero’s side.

SECOND
The Dog lives in Hero’s footsteps.

FOURTH
All his food comes from Hero’s plate.

LEADER
And the shade he takes comes from Hero’s shadow.

OLD MAN
And the dog is Hero’s good luck charm.
Don’t forget about that.

LEADER
Now that’s just some superstitious nonsense!

OLD MAN
I’m telling you what I know for true.
Listen up:
Penny, she comes out the door
And when Hero said the dog had run off she got worrisome.
Then, Hero and Homer together, they headed on up to the house.
And Penny, left alone, she fell on her knees and prayed a quiet prayer:
For Odd-See to come back.

THIRD
And Penny, she prayed and then went back inside?

OLD MAN
She finished praying on her knees
Then she went praying on her feet.
She walked off, went looking for the dog.

THIRD
And you didn’t follow her?

OLD MAN
You see me coming back from looking, don’t you?
I followed her but I followed slow.
Got tired, headed back, here I am.

LEADER
How are you betting, Old Man?

SECOND
Will Hero stay or head to the War?

OLD MAN
I ain’t ready to reveal my say.

LEADER
Still thinking about that dog.

OLD MAN
It’s a consideration.
That dog is Hero’s luck.
It’s as simple as that.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Suzan-Lori Parks © 2009/2013.

Patti Hartigan’s work has appeared in American Theatre, American Way, YM Magazine and Harvard Education Letter. For many years, she was a staff arts reporter and cultural critic for the Boston Globe, and she continues to cover theater for the paper.