|PULITZER WINNER FOR DRAMA|
April 11, 2002
| JIM LEHRER: Now, another
conversation with a winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in the arts,
and to Elizabeth Farnsworth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This year's Pulitzer Prize for drama went to Suzan-Lori Parks for her play "Topdog/Underdog." The play is about two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, they're con men: Booth a wannabe card hustler, and Lincoln, a reformed one. Lincoln has given up card hustling for another job: Playing Abraham Lincoln at a boardwalk arcade where tourists can pay to shoot him with cap guns. The play opened on Broadway last Sunday with Jeffrey Wright and Rapper Mos def playing Lincoln and Booth. In this scene, Booth tries to help Lincoln spice up his performance so he isn't replaced with a mechanical dummy.
BOOTH: You've got to show you're boss, that you can do things the way a dummy can't do. You're always do stiff with it. You've got to add spice and [No audio].
LINCOLN: Like what?
BOOTH: Like when they shoot you, I don't know, scream or something.
BOOTH: Try it. Bang!
BOOTH: That's good.
LINCON: A wax dummy can scream. They can put a voice box in and make it like it's screaming.
BOOTH: You can curse. (Laughter) Try it, I'll be the killer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We're now joined by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. She's the author of 15 other plays and heads the dramatic writing program at the California Institute of the Arts. She's also received two Obie awards and Macarthur and Guggenheim fellowships for her work. Congratulations, Miss Parks.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Thank you, thank you very much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What went through your head when you heard you'd received the Pulitzer?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Well, I said thank you. That's the first thing I said. I was very appreciative.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: ( Laughs) Were you surprised?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Well, surprised? I think "Topdog" is a pretty good play, but it's always wonderful when someone recognizes you for your efforts. You know, everyone had been talking about it all week. "Oh, you know, you're nominated. You're nominated. There's a big article about it in the Times or whatever." And I was so focused on opening the play, because we opened on Sunday, that I just didn't have time to focus on, you know, Pulitzer Monday. So I was just focused on Sunday and actually getting over the big opening night party we had.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want you to fill out for us a little bit the story of the play. An African-American man in white face playing Abraham Lincoln and people can come and shoot at him, and he really likes the job. Tell us a little more on how this came... how did this come to you?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Well, hmm... it came to me... I had written a play in 1994 called "The America Play," which has a similar character, a Lincoln impersonator who actually impersonates Lincoln way out West. I was thinking about that play when I thought, "you know, what would be fun? I could have Lincoln and Booth and they'd be brothers, and they'd, you know, who knows who would happen." So I was thinking about that and I thought, "yeah, and Lincoln could be the same kind of... have the same kind of job, a Lincoln impersonator." And I just thought it would be something fun to watch again on stage.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then you wrote it very quickly, I understand.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: I did.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I read that you said some plays are torture, but this one came really quickly.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Yes, this one was an easy birth. Some plays take... I've written plays that have taken six, seven, eight years, you know, eight, nine, ten, twelve drafts. And this one was... took three days.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you explain why.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Why? I don't know. God was smiling upon me during those three days, that's why. It was sort of like it was just poured right into my head. I was very fortunate.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you explain what... go ahead, sorry.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: No, I've heard about those experiences. You know, Handel when apparently he wrote... I think some story... or Mozart, you know, that people have these moments of heightened awareness. And that was one of them for me anyways.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And can you explain why Lincoln and Booth?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Well...
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The names.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Oh, the names. Well, their father thought it was, you know, they were named Lincoln and Booth because it was their father's idea of a joke. I thought it would be funny to have two brothers named Lincoln and Booth and see how their story would play out. Would it play out as the original Lincoln and Booth-- the Abraham Lincoln and the John Wilks Booth who had an encounter in 1865-- or would this one play out differently? So it's fun to know that those are their names, feel the weight of history and the weight of destiny, and yet watch them live their lives and see what happens at the end.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's so interesting to me that this play is so very funny. I laughed when I was reading it. I haven't seen it. But it's so very sad. There are lines, just one line in the middle of all the humor that made me cry, but they're never victims these characters. And you've said you don't want to write African-American victims. Explain that.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Well, I think that when we just show ourselves -- any group of people -- when you just show yourself as a victim and focus on... you're really focusing on the victimizer. When you show yourself as a person, you focus on your humanity and your possibility, and the possibilities of the world you live in. You might only have this much choice in your life, but if you exercise a bit of choice that you do have, then you have a life that is everything it's supposed to be rather than everything someone told you it was going to be. And that's what interests me about these guys. They were named Lincoln and Booth by their father, which sort of sets a certain life into motion, but they have choice -- each moment of their lives they can exercise the choice.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is there something in that about-- what you just said-- about why you... that explains why you like writing plays. I mean, you write screenplays, you write short stories, but you've said that you really like writing plays. Why? Is it because you can watch them change this way on stage?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: My favorite thing about plays is that they're live. They are alive. You look out in the house and you see all kinds of people who have come to see your play: Hardcore elderly theatergoers, and young kids with their hats turned around backwards, and this is the first play they've ever seen in their whole life. And it can change at any moment. It's a fluid and alive thing, like life is. It's a real mirror of life. And also at the end of a play, what I love the best is when the action is over, the lights have gone out for the last time and then the actors stand up and take their bows, reminding the audience that it is a work of art. It is a play. It was just a show. Now you've got to go. And that's what that bow is. You know, because in movies the actors don't come on and take their bows at the end. We're just sort of left in darkness with credits rolling. So there's something really magical and vital about theater and playwriting for me, although I love writing movies, too.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who would you say have been the main influences on you?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Oh, gee... dead or alive?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Both, both. Either way.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Both. Well, I go way back. I love the Greeks. I mean, this to me, "Topdog/Underdog," is very much a Greek... in the Greek tragedy mode. Like "Oedipus" when you go into the theater, you know what's going to happen, and yet you delight in the journey of Oedipus. So I loved "Oedipus" and "Medea" and those kinds of plays, bloody, tragic, you know, heart wrenching. You know, I like plays like "Titus Andronicus," "Lear" and things like that. And then of course the people who have written in our... well, we're in another century now, but people like, you know, certainly James Baldwin, who was my teacher over at Mount Holyoke College, and Tennessee Williams. Of course, Mr. August Wilson. Mr. August Wilson, who I have deep respect for. Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Lorrainne Hansbury. There are so many great American playwrights. Sam Shepherd, you know, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller. I love them all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Parks...
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: I do, I do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: ...What's the main significance for you in being the first African-American woman to get a Pulitzer?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: In drama.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In drama, right. Sorry. In drama.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: African-American in drama, right. I think it opens a door, but I also think that it's everyone's responsibility to walk through a door. If one person opens a door or one person could be said to be the door opener or the doorman or the doorwoman, it's your... everyone's responsibility to walk through that door. But I really feel that while it's a wonderful moment for African-American women playwrights or African-American people.
It's also a great moment, I think, for all kinds of people, for American theater, because American theater, I feel, has taken a huge leap forward because this play, written by an African-American woman, only has, you know, two people in it and they're both African-American men. So already, I'm leaping out of myself to write the play. And the subject matter and the story is something that everybody can get something from. So it's just a very exciting moment for theater I think. There are kids who see this play, they've never seen a play before and they're like, "yeah, now I'm going to see all plays, man. I'm going to see all plays." You know, and that's thrilling. That's really thrilling for me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Suzan-Lori Parks thanks for being with us and congratulations again.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Thank you very much for having me. Thank you. Bye-bye.