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Labor of Love

Los Angeles audiences will soon witness what the rest of the world already knows: Suzan-Lori Parks is a voice to be reckoned with. The playwright behind such groundbreaking works as Venus, Fucking A, and Topdog/Underdog has been produced all around the world, garnering numerous awards for her unique brand of storytelling. But the author, who has been writing plays for more than 20 years, has been woefully underproduced here; the only local production was her Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, staged in 1993.

That's all about to change—indeed, over the next few months, it's going to be difficult to not hear Parks' name mentioned in a wide variety of media. Her first novel, Getting Mother's Body, recently hit bookshelves to rave reviews. In July the loud*R*mouth Theatre Company will present Parks' searing drama In the Blood at the Edison Theatre in Long Beach. In February 2004, Center Theatre Group will present the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, directed by George C. Wolfe, who headed the New York Public Theater and Broadway versions. The Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater (REDCAT), located in the new Disney Hall Downtown, hopes to begin staging her works as early as next year. In addition, Parks is currently at work on no fewer than three major projects, including two screenplay adaptations for Oprah Winfrey's production company and Hoopz, a stage musical about the Harlem Globetrotters for Disney Theatricals. All this, and she still finds time to teach a new generation of writers at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

"I'm working on several things at once, but usually only one thing at a time," Parks explained on a sunny day at her home in Venice. Parks had spent most of the day doing interviews for her book, though she managed to squeeze in a meeting for Hoopz and some time to write. Asked about her process, she said simply, "I just write. People are like, 'Ah, you must do something special.' No. Every day I get up and write. It's nothing fancy, nothing special, and it doesn't even have to be any good. I don't wait for inspiration."

It's been more difficult to focus on writing with the book tour in full swing, but Parks keeps it all in perspective. "You get busy and your attention gets pulled, but I'm not too hard on myself. I used to get up at 4:30 and write. On a book tour, I have to get up at 4, not to write but to get picked up in a car to go to another city. But I don't call myself lazy, I don't sweat it. I just figure my energy is getting pulled right now. But I still write, even if I'm writing longhand because I don't have my computer."

Parks is so busy, she estimated, she has about eight agents to handle everything from her novels to her films to her speaking engagements. She has long been represented by George Lane (currently at CAA) for her playwriting but keeps all her worlds in check. "You can't expect the woman who represents me on this book to know about a speaking engagement I'm going to do in Miami," she reasoned. "For a long time, I didn't have an agent. I didn't need one. I needed to get my plays done. Agents are very necessary, but I think at a certain level it's about generating a lot of work and making sure that work is of high quality. I met George Wolfe, he liked my work, and that's how I got my plays done at the Public Theater. He liked my work, not my agent. People think they have to go out there and go to the right parties and position themselves correctly. I'm like, 'Position yourself correctly at your desk in front of your computer or a piece of paper.'"

Earning the Pulitzer

Parks came to playwriting during college, at the advice of author James Baldwin, who taught a creative writing class at Mount Holyoke. Her first play, Imperceptible Mutabilities, premiered in 1989 and won the 1990 Obie for Best New American Play. She snagged the same honor in 1996 with her play Venus, an allegorical fact-based tale of an African woman who was put on exhibition in 19th century England largely as a result of the fascination over the shape of her body. Parks' most recent play, Topdog/Underdog, is the smart and ferocious story of two brothers obsessed with both the con game of three-card monte and their own history, set entirely in their cramped apartment. The script won Parks the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as the first African-American woman to do so.

"It was a great thing and a wonderful thing," Parks enthused. "But I didn't feel for a minute like this wasn't happening to me, because I had started writing plays in 1982 and won a Pulitzer in 2002. That's 20 years of playwriting. Granted, some people have been writing plays for 80 years and never won a Pulitzer, but I put in 20 years of work, doing plays a lot of times for no money or little money. So when the award comes, you figure, Yeah, it's a good play. I've had people tell me, 'Gosh, whenever I win an award I feel like a fraud. Why me, I'm not worthy?' I didn't feel that at all. I felt like I put in the time, I've done the work, it's a good play. I'm not winning it because they finally decided to give it to a black woman. I felt like it was a really good play, and I'm glad that they recognized that. And that will bring this play to a lot more people."

At least it's helped bring the play to Los Angeles, which begs the question: Why hasn't Parks been produced locally more often? "Maybe if I cared more, I'd have more plays done here," Parks said. "A lot of people think I should care. Why should I care? I have fantastic productions in New York that I go to. But I'm rarely involved with productions outside of premieres. I don't have time. Fortunately my plays are going to be done in L.A., which is wonderful. But for me, creatively, it doesn't really help me to see a play I wrote over and over. It's great for actors, though. I think I write good parts for actors, and it gives actors something good to do."

Not only are the parts good but the works are challenging and thoughtful, written in Parks' distinct, almost-poetic style. "The characters' speech and dialogue is written in a way that the actors are almost forced to expel the characters' correct voice that Suzan-Lori Parks wanted them to have," said Laura Marchant, director of the loud*R*mouth production of In the Blood. Parks, an accomplished songwriter, draws characters who often speak in different ways, including song. "Sometimes words are enough to contain the story the characters want to tell, and sometimes they're not enough and the characters start singing, like in Fucking A," said Parks. Her ability to play with the English language has caused some to classify her as a "language playwright," a term that means little to Parks. "I don't understand the term. It sounds like you're talking about Shakespeare to me. Or Oedipus Rex; you really want me to believe that a guy would kill his father and marry his mother? That's an unreal situation. And then stab his eyes out and go wandering in the desert, which is located offstage? You really expect me to believe that? All I'm saying is, as the term is explained to me, it sounds like Shakespeare or Euripides or Sophocles. And I don't mind being lumped with them."

Shakespeare's Sister

The Shakespeare comparison pops up again, this time from Susan Solt, dean of the School of Theater at Cal Arts, where Parks is about to enter her fourth year teaching playwriting and serves as the head of the A.S.K. Theater Projects Writing for Performance Program. "Her work is like Shakespeare," raved Solt. "The work can be at the highest level and it can be accessed by anyone who is a caring, cognitive human being." When Solt interviewed for her position in 1995, there was no playwriting program at Cal Arts. According to Solt, Fran Bennett, director of the Performance Program and head of Acting, had long lamented the lack of Parks' works in the curriculum and had seen to it that Parks' plays became part of the studies. Said Solt, "Her genius, her singular voice, her reinvention of form every time she writes essentially embodies the values of our school, and the opportunity to have a writing program was predicated on the idea that there would be a great figure in that positions. And there was just no question as to who we were going to approach about this job."

The opportunity brought Parks to Los Angeles and into an environment dedicated to nurturing new artists. "It's like a conservatory environment, not like a little university with a theatre department," said Parks. "Everywhere you walk, you bump into an artist. I teach a class called Loving the Living Playwright, which is a lab class where we have actors, directors, designers, playwrights, producers, and stage managers all gathered together to workshop the works of the playwrights. And we learn how to work on a new play. And work with the playwrights, giving rough, tough, but constructive criticism and helping them get to the next level."

For those who can't wait to view Parks' works onstage, Getting Mother's Body should help tide them over. Influenced by William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Parks' debut novel tells the story of Billy Beede, a pregnant and unwed 16-year-old girl eking out a living in 1960s-era Texas. Told with multiple narrators, one who communicates largely through song, it's a poignant and insightful tale that also happens to be almost impossible to put down. "Suzan-Lori gave me an advance copy, and I told her she'd ruined my sleep," said Solt.

The plot of Getting Mother's Body is partially a road trip, the Beede family setting out to find the treasure they think is buried with Billy's mother and encountering many obstacles along their journey. "A lot of people, when they read the book, are surprised that these people keep going," noted Parks. "What are they supposed to do, quit? That's what I love about these characters, and I do not judge them. There's not a character in any of my plays or my book that is my mouthpiece. I don't believe that's good writing, in my personal opinion. Like Shakespeare—he was everywhere and nowhere. He was in every character equally. In Getting Mother's Body you are literally invited to step out of your own body and travel along through the bodies of these Beedes. In the end, when you come out the other end, into your own body, your experience of being who you are is different, because you realize you're all of them. I'm all of them, you're all of them. No one is better or worse, they're all just who they are. I like them all equally. I have to as a writer. I've seen my students do it a million times where they're writing a play and they're having a hard time and they say, 'I hate that character.' Why? You've got to embrace that character, because if you sit there and hate them it's just going to come out as a cardboard character. You have to love them, there's something about them that you have to identify with. I love all these people because they're just living their lives." BSW

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