From the Archive: Suzan-Lori Parks by Han Ong

Suzan-Lori Parks revisits her 1993-94 interview by Han Ong. She assures us that “all these years later I’m still growing as an artist, as a person. XOXO”

BOMB 156 Summer 2021
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For BOMB’s 40th anniversary, we’re revisiting iconic interviews from our archives and celebrating the voices that are essential to our legacy.

When this interview was recorded for BOMB, Suzan-Lori Parks had just finished writing The America Play, and her previous work The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead, a fever dream fueled by hard-as-rock lyrical language, had brought her accolades. Parks’s elliptical structures recalled Beckett and excavated the collective memory embedded in her characters’ psyches as well as in America’s history. Her interview by Han Ong was published in BOMB’s Spring 1994 issue, and Parks’s portrait was featured on the cover—shot by the late, great photographer David Seidner.

Suzan-Lori Parks is one of our greatest playwrights and has been duly recognized as such. In 2001, she received a MacArthur “Genius” Award, and a year later she became the first African American woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for her play Topdog/Underdog. More recently, she wrote the screenplay for The United States vs. Billie Holiday, in which her talent for calling up the past as it mingles with the present is on full display.

The silver marks in the following, slightly shortened version of the original text show changes Parks made in May 2021.

Betsy Sussler
Cofounder and Editor-in-Chief,
5/13/21

Published April 1, 1994

The quality of Suzan-Lori Parks’ imagination is unassailable. Her plays provide ample proof: Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Devotees in the Garden of Love, and The America Play. Through them she reaches an articulation she doesn’t quite approximate in real life, a great horn sound, drunken and lucid at the same time, and they in turn speak very well of her.

There is nothing like reading Suzan-Lori’s work. Actually there is nothing like hearing Suzan-Lori read them. Picking at them for yourself, you hear horns. In her voice, the words take on the quality of bells, still low, but with an extra ping of recognition arching between phrases.

She sits somewhere in the fifth ring, all alone amongst her generation, peerless. Her back is ramrod straight. She is alone. She is always alone, although, intermittently, critical Christmas lights snake their way to her feet, knowing someone for whom to illuminate, to gift with the company of praise.

—Han Ong

OCTOBER 1993

Han Ong I want to talk about the physical world of writing. Are you aware of how you sit on your chair when you write?

Suzan-Lori Parks I usually don’t write sitting down. To me, language is a physical act. I do this with my own writing and I try to get my students to do this when they write—to move around, so that they are focusing on the breath of the characters, on the physical life of the character, and are putting themselves in an approximation of that character’s physical experience. That’s where the words come from: movement. I dance around, dance around, dance around, and then I know what the character’s saying. I act it out, then I get it in my body, and then I take it up and get it in my head … then I sit down and go, “Oh yeah, right … ”

HO Playing the secular piano.

SLPThe chair is just there so I can rest my ass somewhere when I do sit down.

HO It’s the middleman.

SLP Right. I figured out part of The America Play the other day just by putting on Ricki Lee Jones’s “Tigers.” I worked it out by moving through it, not by sitting down and thinking it through.

HO It’s evident to me that your writing is a kind of music. Let’s talk about the correlation between playing music while you write and the words evolving.

SLP It’s a different music for each play. For The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, it was a lot of jazz. I listened to Ornette Coleman practically all the time when I was writing that play. The play moves like that.

HO It’s ornery. And for The America Play?

SLP It took me so long to write that play. I started in 1990, and here it is 1993 and I just figured out what happens at the end. It’s taken me about a year to figure out the final moment, the last breath. Working on it, I listened to a lot of different stuff. Opera, opera, opera—I love it. The basic shape of each sound, of each line, is operatic, but then I had to cut underneath which is why now I’ve gone back to Ricki Lee Jones. She’s way out there, and also she’s very much along the ground. I needed to come back from the spheres and hit the last footprint.

HO What propels you to variegate your musical inspiration?

SLP There are aspects of music that I borrow and use in my work: repetition and revision. A big part of jazz, soul, and blues is repeat and revise, and repeat and revise. That’s what my work is all about. But similarly, you can get the same idea in Wagner or Mozart. Don Giovanni’s motifs are played over and over.

HO What you see as music, I see as architecture—scaffolding. You can go back and do other things, like take longueurs from the main narrative, and still take comfort because there is an inherent structure.

SLP Right, and all music has that. It’s really the height of the ceiling or width of the building. Opera is a very high ceiling, and with jazz, the interior of the building looks different. That’s really why I go to different types of music. The feelings I want to evoke are different.

HO When the characters come to you and into your body, do you lose yourself in them or is there still a sense of self?

SLP That depends on how you define “you,” and “self,” and “them.” Because they are me, and I am them. It’s just more of me. When they come up, when they appear or speak to me or however you want to put it, it’s not that I’m losing myself into them. It’s that I’m hooking up to more of me.

HO You’re just accessing you? Just going deeper … ?

SLP Or further, or wider, or opening that door. I don’t feel that I lose myself so much, because I don’t really know who I am. I know that what I am is not just this person in this outfit, or even the name, the social security number, I know that I’m something else …

HO Let’s talk about how you put twelve characters’ bodies on stage. How you make them stand or sit or carry a watermelon. How do you put one body in relation to another?

SLP Well, I leave that mostly to the director. And I like working with directors.

HO Do you see their bodies when you write?

SLP I feel their bodies, I know what their bodies are going to be doing. 95 percent of the action, in all of my plays, is in the line of text. So you don’t get a lot of parenthetical stage direction. I’ve written, within the text, specific directions to them, to guide their breathing, to guide the way they walk, whether or not they walk, whether or not they walk with a limp, whatever. They know what to do from what they say and how they say it. The specifics of it are left up to the actor and the director. The internals are in the line, the externals are left up to them.

HO It helps people to hear this because I think a lot of critics write out of ignorance …

SLP I think what happens is when you’re new, you’re weird. And as we grow as playwrights, so do our critics grow in their understanding of our work. That’s really how it should work. They educate us through their writing about theater, and we educate them through our view of the world and our writing. They are learning how to look at us. The problem these days is that they have not yet figured out the words with which they can talk about what we’re doing. I see it in so many articles now, people are actually struggling to find the words to talk about my work. It’s evolving from talk of “black” and “race” to, “Look what she’s doing with non-linear time.” “Look what she’s doing with the whole idea of the structure of a play.” It’s all about the structure of the play!

HOLet’s talk about why you write plays …

SLP I’ve said I write plays because I love black people. I just figured it out fairly recently. Not that I had any other reason before that, but I realized why I want black people on stage—because I love them. And it probably sounds very vague, but it’s true.

HO That’s why you get paid the big bucks.

SLPNo, I get paid the big bucks because I am vague abstract  and yet, everyone understands can dig in. That’s poetry, see. I’m a poet. I’m not a journalist. I’m vague playing in the gray but you know exactly what I mean. I write because I love black people. I don’t know, tThat in itself will take me a long way.

[ …]

JANUARY 1994

HO When you read a piece of work, there are what I call emanations. There are vapors coming from it. Your vapors seem to me to be so strongly about joy.

SLPRight, and not about “Oh my God, I’m a black woman and I’m having a hard time.” John Wideman had an essay in the New York Times a while ago where he was talking about the black writer and the magic of the word: that when
faced with problems of the English language, African Americans manifest this drama in two ways, complete fluency or complete silence. The second thing that he said was that in African American life and writing, the yoke becomes a joke. I’m paraphrasing, but that relationship, that love of play, we are encouraged to forget.

HO Because serious art …

SLP Serious art is more about issues and messages and subjects. If you’re a serious artist, you deal with issues. Because of the history of African Americans in America, or Africans in America, however you want to say it, a lot of great writing has been done in that vein. But we forgot that we are also people who love the relationships between yoke and joke. To me, that’s the whole. That’s it. That’s everything.

HO Maybe it’s also because people feel that joy or levity is a violation of the memories of suffering.

SLP Actually, humor is the only way to remember, because the relationship between throwing up and laughing is so close. (laughter) Humor crosses that gap between what you know and what you think, what you know and what you don’t know. Laughter and that joke crosses that gap. That’s the way I work; other people work in different ways. Part of it is working with the director, Liz Diamond. She has helped me develop my sense of humor, to put it lightly. We both love the dumb gag, the knee slapper. There’s a lot of power in that, and there’s a lot of really serious stuff going on in The America Play, but I swear, I can only think of the jokes. The jokes led me to write America. The relationship between “nigger” and “digger” was the whole play for me. When I could allow myself to have a little chuckle about “nigger” and “digger,” I knew who those people were in the play.

HO That play is the distance between nigger and digger. I don’t mean to pat you on the back, or via you, me, but when you’re an ethnic writer writing in the theater, what people expect of you is an exploration of ideas racially linked in terms of oppression or marginalization. What they don’t expect, in fact, what they don’t want you to do because it fucks up their perception, is formal experimentation.

SLP I honestly believe that form and content are the same thing. In stepping out of the, “I’m a black person, I’m oppressed, and when I represent myself on stage, I’m going to represent an oppressed person,” you are also stepping outside of a particular form. To explore the form is to explore “digger” and “nigger,” and to explore where that’s going to take you. It’s all linked.

A Black man wearing stands with a rope tied around his neck leading out of frame. He holds the hand of a Black woman in a white dress sitting next to him in a rocking chair. Both have lamenting expressions on their faces.

Leon Addison Brown and Fanni Green in Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theater.

HO These issues of marginalization have become so internalized that they have stopped becoming abstract groupings; they’ve become felt things. Marginalization is present not as an illustration of whitey beating down a black person, but Woman with Fried Drumstick trying to get Black Man with Watermelon to eat in Last Black Man. It’s about the idea of the black man having his mind so much elsewhere that he needs somebody to remind him to eat. That thing that takes up his mind might not necessarily be oppression, but ultimately it’s linked to that.

SLP But what is it that he’s thinking about? He’s thinking “Who am I? Where am I? What is this thing in my lap? I don’t feel very good right now. Is this melon a part of my body? You know what, wife? I think you should dig me a hole.” In Last Black Man, the black man keeps saying, “Make me a space six feet by six feet by six.” Please Ddig me a hole, woman.

HO He knows it’s a grave?

SLP Oh, yes, because he has to. He’s got to lie down, but what’s funny is that Last Black Man is and the joke/truth is that he knows the “Plot.” He knows the story. The Plot of Last Black Man is the grave, the burial plot. He knows the plot, he knows the story, he knows where he’s going. He knows how it goes. When we did the revival at Signature in 2016, directed so beautifully by Lileana Blain-Cruz, I made the title of the play even longer. Now it’s The Death Of The Last Black Man In The Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book Of the Dead. Which is more accurate. And it’s also my response to the current belief espoused in drama schools that only plays with one-word titles can be successful. The 30-year anniversary of Last Black Man was timely and thrilling. We were running the night Hillary Clinton lost the election. And then, four years later, during COVID and to encourage a more recent and better election, we got together on zoom and performed the play aloud. The play continues to speak truth. Many of us were moved to tears. When I originally wrote Last Black Man. I was laughing cause it’s about the creation of the hole and then the next play I wrote, The America Play, takes place in a huge hole, an excavation.

HO You had to deal with the aftermath of digging the hole.

SLP Yes. The America Play is like Last Black Man, continued … He says “dig me a hole.” Now we have a hole, so what are we going to do with it? You spend some time in it and then you leave. (laughter) That’s so funny.

HO But that’s so telling. Maybe that’s the journey that you’ve taken, or that I’ve taken. Okay, I’ll cop to it. I want a hole dug, which is to say, I want to show you what this country is doing to me. I dig a hole. I put myself there. I’ve spent time in it. Now I want out. I want alternatives to the hole. What is the antithesis to the hole? It’s humor.

SLP It’s both sides. The joke with the hole is that it’s not only h-o-l-e, but it’s w-h-o-l-e. I want everything. I want the whole thing, the whole hole. It’s not just that the hole represents what this country is doing to me and all that. I don’t even think that. I think the black man wants a hole, because he wants to rest.

HO I’m saying that the realm of ideas can be so internalized, that it doesn’t flick up the writing. A lot of people allow their ideas to exist on the level of journalism. It’s not only easily gettable, but it is stated as such, without the leavening of rhythm or poetry.

SLPBut, I’ve always been sort of relaxed about what other people do. Certain people have certain needs, and those needs are met by certain kinds of plays. In our first rehearsal for The America Play, after a cold reading, one of the actors pointed to the play and said, “This is for us.” I had forgotten that, of course, it is for him. It’s exactly for him. I have to feel I’m fulfilling a need. The need sucks hard—like a black hole—and that’s why I write the way I do. If there weren’t the need, I wouldn’t write this way. I wouldn’t be sucked into it.

HO You need the play.

SLPCan’t live without it. Play helps us go deep. Ask the big questions. Well, who am I? It’s the question at the very center of every one of my plays. Who am I? Am I Black Man with Watermelon? Well, I don’t know. Yeah, sometimes.

HO That’s a distinct thing. I know who I am. That’s where my plays proceed from. I am all of my characters.

SLP I’m not saying that I’m some of my characters and not others. I’m saying that the question at the center of my play is: Who are we, where are we?

HOWe. Who’s we?

SLP Well, that’s it. It takes a suspension of ego. In the old days, it was, “willingly suspend your disbelief” But now it’s, for me, “get out of the way.” It’s Zen. Suspend your ego long enough to ask the question, who am I, really? I write for me. Well, who am I? I’m not just Suzan-Lori Parks, thirty years old, whatever. It’s all those who came before me, because my family comes from all over. I don’t take any of those things for granted, none of them. I think that’s why I tend to write the way I do.

HO There are phrases in the plays that I read, or hear, that stick with me, that stand out like a thumb, like hitchhiking. One line that thumbed a ride with me was, “If you don’t write it down..” (from Last Black Man).

SLP “… then we will come along and tell the future that we did not exist.” Right, right.

HO That’s one of the most political statements I’ve ever heard, at least in the theater. I was about to say radical, but it’s not radical, it’s simply true. It doesn’t have to shake up any of the old structures. It just reminds us. You’re witnessing.

SLP That’s the perfect word. I’m witnessing. I’m not judging. I’m not proclaiming. I’m not messaging. I’m just saying, “Here it is.”

[ … ]

HO Your plays are very present tense.

SLP Actors have told me that my plays require them to be there moment to moment. They can’t start at the beginning of a scene, and say, “My character’s angry in this scene and I’m going to play the whole scene angry.” It won’t wash. They have to say, “I’m angry here. Oh, this word, I’m mad. This word, I’m really happy. This word, I’m fuckin’ pissed off” They have to do it word by word. It’s a challenge because it requires them to be completely present. I do play with time, but it’s because it’s all happening right at once for me. Everything that ever happened, it’s all happening right now.

HO Somebody told you they saw The Death of the Last Black Man and did not understand a single word.

SLPIt was a young guy, and I told him it was okay that he didn’t understand a single word, and it was really great that he could stand up in a room full of people and say that to me.

HO I also felt that one of the reasons he brought that out was that he hoped you would explain it to him.

SLP I can’t because I don’t understand all of it. I just know that it’s something that happened and that I’m witnessing. It’s like Revelations. Someone just wrote it down. Then the biblical scholars throughout the ages explained it to us. I’m not a theater scholar. I’m a theater writer, so I just write it down. But it was nice that man did that. That took a lot of courage. He stood up and said, “I didn’t understand one word.” (laughter)

HO One of the things that I interpret as a clue to how your brain engages words and transfigures them is when we were just lounging around, and you were reading the Oxford English Dictionary, looking up a certain word. And indulging the wordness of the word. I think that comes from a love. Or pathology. Or both.

SLP It’s both. Words are charms. Spelling is like a magic. InThe America Play and with Last Black Man too I started creating these moments. Where we see the characters’ names repeated with no dialogue. I call them “Spells.” I’m sculpting the silence. Also, I’m making this joke, cause when I was in high school my English teacher told me not to become a writer cause I was such a lousy speller. So there’s a joke I’m telling, creating these Spells. Casting these spells. Making myself a great speller. Ha ha.

HO Words to me are like little plants. I touch them and they move this way.

SLP It’s different. It’s Words are not outside of me. I ingest them and digest them, and they move me literally in my bowels.

HO So they’re food?

SLP It’s like food. It’s very religious. Christ is the wafer and you eat him.

HO I don’t believe that the wafer is the body of Christ. What I believe in is the ideal. I need to be in love with the idea of transubstantiation, because it’s magic.

SLP What’s interesting is that at a very early age I learned that I, to survive, had to make everything my own. That’s why I can love the idea and the “reality” of transubstantiation, because right from the get go, I made things mine. They made sense to me. Words make sense to me. Me! They’re mine. They’re not the property of Catholicism. I don’t go to church; I think Cardinal O’Connor is full of shit and the Pope is tired, but the idea of ascending into Heaven, and sitting at the right hand of the Father is some of the best poetry that I’ve ever read.

[ … ]

HO Another line of yours that hitches a ride with me is from Last Black Man. “You, I waved at you, and you waved at me, and I haven’t seen you since.”

SLP The Queen is over on the African coast and she’s saying to the others, “I saw Columbus comin’ over to meet you. ’To borrow a cup of sugar,’ so he said. But, “—and I’m paraphrasing—”I knew better. I waved my hands in warning. You thought I was just saying, ‘Hey.’ You waved back, and that’s the last I saw of you.”

HO Politics resides so plainly in your work. It’s almost subliminal, like in that line, “Write it down and hide it under a rock.”

SLP I read the play to a good friend of my mom’s, the anthropologist John Langston Gwaltney, who used to teach at Syracuse. He’s blind, actually. It was great to read a play to a man who would never see the play. But after I was finished, we talked a lot, and then he sang this song, “I went to the rock to hide my face, the rock said to me, ’No hiding place.” That was his take on “Hide it under a rock.” I don’t know. Last Black Man is such a double-edged sword. The end of it is, “Hold it, hold it, hold it,” which means “Embrace,” and “Wait a minute,” at the same time. It’s both of those motions at once. I’m not sure what I meant by, “Hide it under a rock.” It could mean hide it under a rock for safe-keeping.

HO That’s what the strongest reading is.

SLP Probably.

HO What do think about the state of American theater? This is coming from somebody who is really in the thick of things.

SLP Right, I’m in the thick of American theater. (laughter) I’m in the thick of theater, thick. You thick of theater?

HO Are you sick of theater?

SLP I got into theater because there are things about theater that I love, and that I can do. You sit down. You write. You think about how a play has to work to be effective. That’s what makes it the most difficult form. Plays have to be soft and loose and completely flexible and completely taut, to withstand the minds, and hearts, and souls of thousands of hundreds of people, and actors getting in there and saying, “What’s my motivation?” And directors going, “What are we going to do at this moment?” Think of Shakespeare. He was such a good writer because he was a playwright.

HO I’m completely blind to whether or not it’s the hardest form, because I think it’s the one form for which I have a natural fluency and a gift. Even though it might be harder than some novel writing, I sit down and the plays come out of me.

SLP I’m not saying they’re hard to write. I’m saying it demands the most of a writer, because it’s not just, “Is it a nice story?” It’s not just, “Do the words rock and roll?” It is not just interesting message. It’s not just clear point. In playwriting, it has to really work night after night and you have to be able to interpret anew every night, every minute, every day. It’s like someone who’s practiced Yoga for nine million years. They’re incredibly strong and incredibly flexible at the same time. That’s what a play has to be. I’m talking about a kind of playwriting that really demands something of itself, too. And now, in the many years since this, I’ve written a novel, I’ve been writing songs for my band, as well as scripts for film and television—I even did some show-running (Genius: Aretha). Playwriting is still the biggest challenge. Cause the possibilities are wide open. The form has so many freedoms. Although, your audience, unlike movies or tv, with theatre you’ve got pretty much a captive audience.

HO By virtue of your gift, this could legitimately be called the Suzan-Lori Parks era.

SLP (laughter) I don’t care about that.

HO Bullshit. Yes you do.

SLP No. I don’t have to claim that. I honestly don’t. I’m really excited by and proud of all the writers who have come up since this interview. So many really fine talented folks. I still do care about writing as well as I possibly can.

HO Are you writing the best you possibly can right now?

SLP Right now, I’m writing better than I possibly can. I spend three years on a play, and I look at it and can’t believe I wrote it. I wonder where it came from. I feel like I’m writing beyond myself. And I still am. All these years later I’m still growing as an artist, as a person. XOXO

047 Spring 1994

BOMB cover #47: Suzan Lori Parks by David Seidner, 1994.

Han Ong is a novelist and playwright. He is the author of the novels Fixer Chao and The Disinherited (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) and more than three dozen plays, which have been widely produced across the US. He is one of the youngest recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, awarded to him in 1997, when he was twenty-nine.

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