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Season 2 of the American Masters Podcast looks at the artists that challenge and shape our thoughts through the power of the written word. We begin with a new interview with Pulitzer Prize-winner and MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog, The Red Letter Plays, Venus), who discusses her writing, inspirations and teaching the arts, and performs original music.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Thank you for having me here. This is lovely.
Michael Kantor: Let me start with the big question. OK why do you write?
Suzan-Lori Parks: Why do I write. Sometimes I feel like I have like I'm a haunted house. And writing helps me deal with the spirits that reside in the house. That's one of the answers I'm trying to find answers to this. It's not something I think about too often. Sometimes I feel like I have the flu. And writing is like a viral infection and it helps me get well. And sometimes I feel like there's something that I want to remember and writing it down helps with that. Sometimes I feel like there's something I want to forget. And writing it down helps with that. I don't have an answer to this question. Maybe I'll have one later.
Michael Kantor: No those are great answer. What about in terms of your identity. Does it help you to shape who you are or is it reflecting who you are.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Wow. Yeah. Emerson said do your originally originally e said thing but do your work so that I will know you or do your thing so that I will know you. And so by doing my thing I come to know who I am. It's not like I have an identity that I'm trying to express. It's like I have a self that I am trying to discover. It's not like I have something that I need to say. It's like I find out what I need to say by reading what I wrote it's true. And It is what's odd is that you know maybe I might have said that same thing maybe you know 30 years ago when I was fairly new to writing and I'm saying the same thing now and because it's the truest answer I can find in that question.
Michael Kantor: A number of your plays sort of involve violent catharsis. Catharsis Yeah. Is that something that do you have a particular desire to wrestle with violence in our society or is that come from somewhere. Oh that just makes great drama.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Well yeah the violence yeah several of my plays well they're they're tragedies I'm a great fan of as a child a great fan of Greek myths great fan. Got a little older great fan of Greek tragedy. Not such a fan of the Greek comedies. You know great fan of tragedies you know Oedipus Media Antigone. And then of course got a little older started diving into Shakespeare. Great fan of the tragedies and the histories enjoying the comedies but so when I started writing my own stuff I enjoy the yeah the wrestling with the angels that was happening in all those plays. And granted I always tell my my students right now I'm teaching at NYU I've been there for a while actually. But I tell my students you know I've just lost my train of thought. Something about violence. Tragedy. It'll come back to me I have a five year old you know. So a lot of there's a whole bandwidth devoted to all the care and feeding of the five year old. Yeah. Which actually feeds in and nurtures the other bandwidths and actually provides me with more and greater bandwidths in other areas. But sometimes the thoughts do slip away and I just let them go.
Michael Kantor: Well while we're thinking family and children and so on. Tell us a little bit about where you're from and how your upbringing influenced your work.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure sure sure. I was born in Fort Knox Kentucky. My father was a career Army officer. Initially I heard recently that they no longer have a lot of gold in Fort Knox which is kind of a buzz kill bummer. But you know so when I was born in Fort Knox Kentucky apparently that had a lot of gold there and it was also right down the road from Lincoln's birthplace which is cool. So. So. So anyway I was born there and then my dad was an army so we traveled all over the world living in all kinds of different places like you know a year here year there and he had you know long before he was born he had a tour in in Korea during the Korean conflict and then during the Vietnam War he had two tours of duty. And when Dad was in Vietnam we went to live in far west Texas with my mom's family. My dad's from Chicago my mom's from Odessa Texas or "Slow Death of Texas" as they call it. Since that I go back there every once in a while. And I also go back to go to Marfa Texas where they have Marfa Public Radio. It's a great town. Have a lot of friends there who are so so I grew up and I have an older sister and a younger brother and we just traveled around and we were you know we were like often the only black people that some people had ever seen live. You know we would live in places like Vermont and people would just stare. I remember we went to the fair one year the Champlain Valley Fair that's what it was and lovely you know fair. And these two lovely women these two women of European descent walked up to me and I just had to be still I didn't know them. You know they weren't like my teachers or anything. And they began to pet me on the head and I stayed very still and I didn't ask my mom my mom. She's a professor. She lives in upstate New York now. My dad passed away 12 years ago from Parkinson's it's very sad. But my mom and dad at the time you know my mom's like this you know she used to be. So she's brilliant. And she used to be like a homecoming queen she's very beautiful and brilliant. She didn't say anything then there were these ladies were petting my head. But at home we went home and she said My dad sat me down because I was like you know I didn't say at the time "W.T.F.” You know I didn't say that I was in like four I was in fourth grade. So I was like mom and dad. Well what was it. Wait what were they doing. And my mom and dad said you know you are the ambassador of your race. I was like OK. Which of course they meant that not a lot of folks see black folks live in Germany it was the same thing at the time and this was before television was everywhere. This was before MTV was in every home you know. And people would just stare and look. Also a couple of years ago I went to Cambodia and I was walking around the temple of Angkor Wat which you know fabulousness. I was walking around. And there were a group of tourists and I asked them where they're from they're from a relatively large town in China. But anyway they were one of them. The tour guide we had a flag you know for the group and he they saw me he saw me and he pointed and screamed and they ran towards me with such intensity and I just stood there and I thought first they're looking at some beautiful object behind me because after all we are in the temple of Angkor Wat. There's a lot of gorgeousness here. They were running toward me and I stood very still and stared at them and they surrounded me and began taking pictures and of course video. So and I just stood there and smile thinking and they said you know the gentleman the tour guide they we're very lovely. And the tour guide said you know we've never seen one of you in the flesh you know so yeah I don't know. That the longest from where I'm from so that's kind of where I'm from.
Michael Kantor: Do you ever feel in your work now that do you feel that same sense of you need to be an ambassador for your race. Or that's not really a duty anymore.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah yeah you know when coming up and my parents you know it was very specifically it was something specific to you you know the African-American race. That's what they were talking about. But now as an adult I realize that I'm an ambassador for the human race. That is one of my callings, crafts, jobs, passions. That's who I. I will stand for us if necessary. When the aliens come and they're coming they're already here. You know no if they want to see examples of you know who who who are you guys. But anyway point being it's taken a bigger the words expanded as words do yeah ways that your parents give you to understand the world when you're a child have to be expanded upon when you become when you grow into your adulthood and some things are discarded. You know and some things are tucked away and some things are you can repurpose them like you guys do in American Master take the stuff and you go hey we can do a new thing with this. It's very cool.
Michael Kantor: Tell us about how you first got involved in playwriting.
Suzan-Lori Parks: I first got involved in playwriting. As a child I very much wanted to be a writer. I started writing songs and singing and writing songs. And then I got into my. And then around the same time that the women and lovely women in Vermont were petting my head my mom and dad for Valentines Day one year I was in the fourth grade. They gave me a James Baldwin Nikki Giovanni "A Dialogue" for Valentine's Day. These are my parents. So I you know I read so I was in fourth grade I you know I read some of it. It was big it was deep but mostly I flipped over the back and on the back was this wonderful picture of James Baldwin. I think they also gave me "The Fire Next Time." That's right. And on the back of that that's where his picture was and this beautiful man James Mr. James Baldwin writer you know. So anyway so fast forward 82 1982. And I am doing short story writing at Mount Holyoke College because that's where I went. I went to Mount Holyoke College and one of my teachers Professor Mary McKenry told me Mr. James Baldwin he's going to be teaching a short story writing class a creative writing class. And now why don't you send in one of your short stories and maybe you'll you know get in kind of thing. And he was teaching the class at Hampshire College which was right down the road from Mount Holyoke part of the five college consortium I think they called then and we could take classes at each others' colleges. So. So I set my my short story and cros- you know fingers crossed and I found out a couple of months later that I had gotten in the class and there were 15 students admitted. Three from each of the five colleges we sat around a library table. We met every Monday afternoon I think it was. And I was you know just in awe you know because he was the guy on the book. You know it was like 10 10 years later I'm like whatever old however old and you know I'm like 18 I'm taking his class. And the first day of class he walked in and I thought he was going to be you know like his book a mountain of a man you know because he was so present on that book jacket cover and he walks in and he's he's very fine boned very he was petite well not petite my height. Really just like about five six and very fine boned. And you know he had eyes that could see through your best BS you know and he sits at the head of the table and we have class. And each week as everybody knows the short story creative writing classes you know one week it's your turn. You know one week is my turn to present your work and when I present my work I was always really animated. You know I would like gesture a lot you know. You know do the voices of the characters and all this kinda stuff do the funny voices all this stuff and like halfway through the semester maybe he just pulled me aside after class and he said Miss Parks have you ever thought about writing for the theater. It's like oh man I was you know I was crushed.I was crushed because I thought he was telling me that I was like a sucky short story writer. Right. Get thee to a theater kind of thing. I was devastated. I didn't like theater at all. I mean I'll just say that out you know I'll stand by it I theater I mean I'm not at all but theater to me from the outside looking at the men and women who I knew who did theater. There's a lot of drama. There's a lot of drama off the stage. I didn't appreciate that there was a lot of attitude. There were folks who were for the most part American young men and women who told me darling darling darling a lot of fake-a-tay. Not into that wouldn't into that. And I just despaired at the thought that I was it was being suggested that I join the fakers when I just long to be real. But you know funnily enough I figured I'd give it a try. And well here I am still doing just that giving it a try.
Michael Kantor: What was your first play.
Suzan-Lori Parks: It was called "The Sinner's Place." I think I was an undergrad at Mount Holyoke I wrote it for my and my. You know what is it called the thesis project. You know because I was an English and German literature major. We were we lived in Germany. I became fluent in German anyway. So it was "The Sinner's Place" and it was it was just a family drama kind of play but there was a lot of digging in the play. So I had suggested that there might be a lot of earth on the stage and I remember sitting in front of the I don't know what you call it the review board. You know you go and you have to defend your thesis kind of thing. The head of the department the theater department didn't approve of my play because he thought what kind of play would have dirt on the stage. And you know to my own you know taking 50 percent of the responsibility. I didn't have enough knowledge about theater to talk about you know for example "Happy Days" Sam Beckett's play "Rite of Spring." Yeah I know the list goes on but I you know I did not have that knowledge to answer appropriately. And he just said why would you have dirt on the stage and I said Well that's what's going on the play. There must be a place. There must be a theatrical reality in which that would be appropriate. And he just you know it doesn't you know I just there you know you've got to live your life you walk your path. There are people who help by help and there are people who help by getting in your way. It's all good.
Michael Kantor: Now you're teaching what words of advice do you have. You know now that you're in that same chair now somebody how do you feel what's most helpful in terms of encouraging young aspiring playwrights.
Suzan-Lori Parks: I there was a professor at another university who said do you tell them whether or not they have it whether or not they've got it. And I said What do you mean. She said well that's your job you know you should tell them whether or not they've got it. And I said No I don't make that decision. I don't I don't render that judgment. The world will tell them that kind of thing. But what I do tell them I encourage them a lot and I encourage them you know like I you know so I have a five year old you know so when when Durham my son was learning to walk like I guess most parents right. You "come on come on you can do it you can do com e one come on there you go alright!" like that. So a lot of that this is kind of the way I I I encourage my writing students I "come on come on come on you can do it." They will encounter the demons on the path they will encounter them. I do not have to create them. I also encourage them to work incredibly hard. I'm a very diligent and hardworking writer I also encourage them not to put themselves in a box you know because I write plays and screenplays and stuff for TV and songs and written a novel and essays and you know so they don't have to just stick to dramatic writing you know or play writing. It's all beautiful it's all good it's all writing or if they want to also do a painting or whatever they can they're going to encounter the same demons issues things stuff they're going to encounter their stuff if they continue to dig. And that's where the gold is. I also do Watch Me Work" I teach at NYU and I do my my "Watch Me Work show in the lobby of the Public Theater where I'm the master writer chair which is a great honor.
Michael Kantor: How does how does "Watch Me Work" work.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah oh it's my it's my joy. I've been doing it for I think seven eight years now. So "Watch Me Work" is I sit in mostly in the lobby of the Public Theater and I have a typewriter in front of me. It's two things. It's a show. It's a play. And it's also a free creativity workshop where we invite folks to come in. It's FREE. You can just come as you are. You know you don't have to reserve a seat or anything. And so I sit at my writing table with my typewriter mostly and then the other creative folk they might be writers or choreographers or musicians or whatever. They sit around and I set I say we're going to create a play. And first we're going to create the action of the play together and then we're going to create the dialogue of the play together. And first the action will be I'll set my little egg timer my little kitchen timer. We will work together for 20 minutes and so we do that night. I write on my typewriter partially because I love writing on typewriters and because it also uses both sides your brain at once kind of like playing the piano. And the other reason it creates a sound bed which I find very helpful to the students. So there's this bed of sound that they can lay their minds in and be sustained by this so there I am creating the sound bed and then the timer goes off ding. And then they ask me questions about their work or their creative process and it's their work or their creative process that they ask me questions about not mine. They asked me a question about mine or like when you wrote the America play what did you do. I say well it sounds like you're writing a play and it sounds like you're having difficulty getting the characters to talk to you for example. And every week we do it once a week mostly Mondays. There's a core crowd and then there are folks who come in from all over the world we live stream. So people who can't actually physically make it to the space can come in you know through the Internet and we answer their questions on Twitter and it's lovely you know encouraging people to go forward in their creative process. I remember when we started doing it a lot of people got a lot of odd emails from people or at that time I was on what do you call it Facebook. People would send me weird Facebook posts like why should we watch you right. Why should we watch you work. I was like you didn't read the description of the show. It's not about me it's about you the me and the title is you. I tell them it's lovely. It's really lovely. It's a way of giving back but it's more than that it's like a way of you know just helping people create a sustainable practice.
Michael Kantor: Tell me I read a piece a very short piece you wrote that I think would be great for the broadcast which is your aha moment that led to a Pulitzer Prize winning play "Topdog/Underdog" that you're essentially at a I have it here somewhere. Oh my. You were offered a job at the theater. They wanted you to be a playwright in residence. But then it turns out they didn't want to do that. And that was this moment where you dove into.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah yeah. Well that's that moment when you just reminded me of it because I forget this things is a way to sustain oneself in a life of in a life period not a life of creativity in a life. This story. And when you just reminded me of it it kind of brought like because it remind it to come back to this story and remind myself that this is how we might keep on keeping on. To me is a story. Yes. So I was a much younger writer and the theater seemed very graciously wanted me to be the writer in residence not a theater in New York City. And so I went you know I would have to live there and all that and it was lovely. And they were going to they said you know they were going to produce my plays and all this stuff and I got there and for whatever reasons and theatres have so many issues that are going on behind you know the posters you know their financial issues and all kinds of things. Well for whatever reason they decided that it wouldn't be feasible to produce my plays there. I was devastated. Much devastation. I was devastated. See but the word comes up and I was devastated and then I thought well I'm here in this community what why might I do. And that wasn't like you know Tadada the triumphant moment that was bleak. I'm lying down with my face in the dirt lifting my chin just a little bit going Well I guess I'm here. Might there be something nice for me. So I looked around and there was of course always every theater. There was a literary office. Yay. Back in the day when I was moving around a lot I didn't have any friends to speak of. But I always had the library thumbs up for the library thumbs up for the public libraries too by the way. So I always had a library so a place of refuge was always where the literary thing was happening. So in this theater it was no different. I kind of presented myself to the literary manager and I said hey you know I'm here. And they said of course we know that and I said I won't really be having a lot to do. So I thought maybe I could come and help you guys with something you know. And they said well we have a big pile of script. We have some cleaning up to do. Their office was a mess. So I went out and I We have a big pile of scripts you can help us read. We have some tidying and vacuuming and you can come and hang out with us whenever you want. So I went out to the store I bought them a teakettle and some cups because I thought every day we can have tea and we can sit and read scripts and make it like a little salon and you know make it fun. So I did this and every day I would just help them clean the office basically. And then one day I was doing something I was cleaning something and I and I looked at the literary manager and I said two brothers Lincoln and Booth. And I started laughing. One of my really I can't really do it. I can't fake it. Let's see if I can do it the laugh that a fish has when they're hooked you know that laugh because the hook you know if God is if the spirit is a fisher woman or a fisherman and they send the hook down you know and they have the hook all the lures are floating around in the ether. And one of them hooks you deep down deep and they pull and you go I'm hooked. Or like when you fall in love the same kind of thing. Oh I'm hooked and it's sweet and it's a little scary and so there I was laughing like that. And the literary man you said sounds like you're you need to write something. And I said Yeah. And she said go home go back to your apartment and write. I said yeah and I went back to my apartment wrote it in three days. It was effortless writing and a great gift.
Michael Kantor: For people who don't know anything about the play just give them the broadest sense. What's it about.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure. It's two brothers two men of African descent who are also brothers blood brothers. Their names are Lincoln and Booth their father name them Lincoln and Booth as a joke. And you know we know American history and those of you who you know from other lands who aren't up on American history as you know that it doesn't make any sense because we're not even up on American history. But anyway Abraham Lincoln John Wilkes Booth I'm not good at giving little short things two brothers. They don't get along. And one of them Lincoln is very good at throwing the cards. Meaning he's very good at this shell game basically this scam basically called three card monte. He's amazing at it but he doesn't want to do it anymore because he knows it's going to be the death of him. And Booth is not really good at anything. Well he's really good at shoplifting. But other than that he's not really good at anything. And so he wants to become good at something. And so he begs his big brother Lincoln to teach him the cards man just teach me the card and Lincoln don't want to teach him the cards. And so finally Lincoln does teach him the cards. And it's it's a real lesson for everybody. I don't know I'll think of a better way to work on that. It's a tragedy but it's also very funny. I mean all my plays they might have violence in them but they also have a lot of jokes. A lot of humor. It's what happens when you come close to the bone and when you're in a real place there is you know humor. Right along with despair. In my experience anyway.
Michael Kantor: So how would you say your works unconventional like the "365 Plays/365 Days."
Suzan-Lori Parks: Exactly. Exactly. That's a great question. I think. I guess it came out of a very simple impulse 365 days 365 plays after I won the Pulitzer in '02 I wanted to say thank you to theater. And I thought well how should I do that. I'll just say thank you every day. How will I say thank you everyday I'll just write a play a day for a whole year. This is how my mind works. So I sat down at my desk right that very day and I wrote a little play and then I wrote another and another and another one and the whole year went by and I had all these plays I'd more than 365 because I some days I wrote two. So summer. And they're very experimental and interesting and beautiful and form some of them comment on the on the goings on of the day. Some of them don't just a little asterisk this year I started writing a play a day starting on inauguration day and I've written 100 days 100 plays for his first 100 days and those directly comment on things that are going on on our on our world landscape. But with the 365. My dear friend Bonnie Metzger he was a wonderful writer and producer. She said a couple of years later. Did you ever write those plays. And I said yeah I did. She said What'd you do with them. I said oh they're just sitting in a drawer at home and she rolled her eyes like a good producer would said we're going to put them on and we're going to do a world wide festival. So we called people we knew and they called people they knew. And before we knew it we had folks all around the world who had committed to doing either the whole year or a section of the place or they formed a theater company exclusively to do the plays and it was a beautiful unifying festival. We didn't make a dime. You know we didn't we just let the place be done for perform for free. You know there was no money that we were trying to make but we were making community and it was beautiful I still run into people again who say oh I did that when I was in you know it was really great. I did week 37. I was this character is really beautiful.
Michael Kantor: A recent play of yours "Venus" just finished a run at the Signature Theater here in New York. Right. And can you briefly describe that that show for people.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure sure sure. See that might be easier. "Venus" is based on the true life historical story of a woman named Saartjie Baartman who is from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa southern Africa takes place in 18 early 1800s. And little Sarah was taken to England and exhibited as a freak in a side show and she was from a people's people called the Hottentots or the Khoisan people who some of them mainly women were physically remarkable because of the large amounts of subcutaneous fatty deposits they had on their behinds or its called Steatopygia. And so anyway so she was taken to England and exhibited. And people would gawk at her bottom. And so it's a story of the Venus Hottentot or the Hottentot Venus and it's also a play about love and the way love works sometimes. You know what I really don't do I don't think about my plays or my novels or my songs too much. I don't I what I do a lot of as I write them and I work on getting the words right on the page or I'm talking to my fiance this morning he says you said you're a hacker trying to recode the system trying to get us to sync in more effective ways.
Michael Kantor: No it's great. Now it's wonderful. Upcoming at the Signature or "The Red Letter Plays." Yes. And one of them includes another language within the play right. Right. Can you just tell us a little bit about those plays and why it sort of makes sense for them to be done now. And what that use of another language within a play does.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yet another. Yeah so. Well I'll tell you. I'll tell you because because the plays that we're doing it saying I'm in the middle of a residency one at Signature which is Signature Theater. It was started by founding artistic director Jim Houghton who is passed who passed away last year and about a year and a half ago I guess it was Jim came to me. We met in a coffee shop in the Waverly diner on 6th Avenue and Waverly Place. I guess it is. And he said I really want you to do a residency one atSsignature which is where they do they pick one playwright and they do like four of your plays four of your old old plays like your deep state plays you're deep bench plays you're like like oh plays you wrote like 20 years ago maybe they're going to pull them out. It's very exciting. It's very terrifying. But I he said you know I want to do I want you to do residency. And I said Great maybe no. But then I thought about it and I thought it would could be a beautiful thing to look back or at least allow the folks coming up to see some plays of mine that they had perhaps only read. So that's why we're doing the plays we're doing this season because that was Jim's wish to do those plays. But "The Red Letter Plays" as they're called which is "F'ing A" and "In The Blood." So I was in a canoe in like Nantucket years ago and I was paddling in the canoe. I was in the back of the canoe. I had a friend paddling in the front and I said to her you know I said I'm going to write a riff on "The Scarlet Letter" and I'm going to call it "F'ing A" that laugh again. I'm laughing like that which means I've been hooked. We get the canoe back to shore. I'm walking on the you know the muck or whatever it is. And I'm thinking it's still a pretty good idea. So what do I have to do to write this play. I have to I have to I have to read "The Scarlet Letter." Because I hadn't ever read "The Scarlet Letter." So I figured I'd go home and read it. So I read it and love love it loved it and started writing this play called "F'ing A" which was nothing like "The Scarlet Letter" at all of course. And then I but I was having so much trouble writing it. I would write draft after draft after draft. And finally I decided to take a draft on the screen of the computer and delete all the things that didn't work so delete delete delete delete delete. Like an hour later I deleted the whole play. I was up to the title I said. That still works. So the title was still had still hooked me. I said What's the story. And I had thrown everything out so to speak. Off to the left side this is all in my head. You know psychologically so it was like there was a waste paper basket on the left side of my body and I just kind of discarded everything. So out of that trash heap I heard this voice you know like writers hear voices. I hear this voice said I've got five children by five different men you know. And I said wow that's. But that's not "F’ing A." And the voice said No it's called "In the Blood." I went oh wow. So I wrote that play very quickly. So Hester La Negrita has five children by five different men right. And in the play that's the other thing she said. The actors play the children and their parents. OK. Wow. So I had that play and once I had that play then "F'ing A" was very easy to write because it was like two children in the womb and they were trying to both get out and couldn't get out. So "In the Blood" had to come first and then "F'ing A" came out very nicely. So what about this language. So in "F'ing A". Yes in "F'ing A" it's a it's a it's a play about a woman named Hester another Hester. Her name is Hester Smith though not to be confused with any other Hester and she is an abortionist and wears because she's an abortionist in this land. This this this fabricated country she wears she has been branded with the letter A A in the language of talk this made up language you're referring to A refers to die abinozica abinozica which is the abortion. And so all the abortionists are branded with this letter A so that people know who they are and can either discriminate against them or go to them seeking assistance. And so the language that they speak in the play the language that women speak is called Talk. And it's yeah it's a made up language. And they when they have things to say that they don't want the men to understand when they might curse each other out in the street they'll blurt out things in talk. And so sure that plenty of men learn talk we'd say these days maybe they'd be more of the the men who learn talk who take the time to learn talk the language of women are the enlightened guys the cool guys you know. So not all the guys are are cool like that but there's a few lovely men in the play who have taken the time to learn talk. But mostly it's a language that women use when they got to speak when they got to preach.
Michael Kantor: Great. Wonderful That's a lot. No that was a great answer. So so many writers playwrights now are drawn into you know this golden age of television. Sure. With one camera or episodic what have you. What's your take on sort of the importance or the value of plays and playwriting play. You know theatre as a medium as opposed to all the various you know so many different electronic mediiums to share a same language.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure. There is there's there's a lot of great media great media media great ways to tell your story out there right yeah like you said there's a film they've been out there for a long time and in television now is amazing and fabulous. And then all the different quote unquote networks or whatever they're called these days that offer content and then sure. Then there's yeah there's the there's like YouTube and the radio there's nothing to my mind. I mean and I think it's all great and I enjoy writing for all of it. There's nothing quite like being alive meaning being alive and being alive. Watching someone else who is living doing something and that is theater that's or it that's life depending on where you are you know. So there you are sitting in your seat let's just say in a conventional theatrical experience and there is the actor. There she is on stage like last night Elizabeth Marvel doing Mark Anthony. Boom girl we were all like yeah there's nothing like that. I mean surely if we had seen it in the film or on a TV show yes we would have been equally well we would have been excited but the level of excitement that we were feeling because kinetically energetically she was transmitting the spirit you know I mean I grew up as a Catholic you know. So I say like the Holy Ghost you know I mean you know or they say in contemporary culture we say girl on fire you know but you think of the saints. You know there she was transmitting the spirit. You know all the actors there there they are doing that. They're transmitting the energy that kind of transmission Shaktipat you know old school like there is a guru holding the light so that you can see your soul. You don't really get that from any other medium. There's a lot of you can get that light shone at you through film all that light up there in the screen. You can see into yourself in a new way. But alive you know a living person sitting next to a living person there's something to that. There's that old oh it's like don't just be like Jesus where two or more are gathered in my name. You know "Yah Mo Be There" I mean he didn't say that but you know what I mean. So that kind of he understood that is how the spirit that is a beautiful way for the spirit to be communicated. That's what theatre can do. And on top of all that the beautiful stories and the dancing and all that but that's just I think a secondary tertiary that extra that's icing on the gravy. You know the story all that it's just real time. There's something still powerful about real time.
Michael Kantor: For you how is writing music and creating music for your shows or otherwise different from writing.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure sure. How is writing music different from from writing yeah just writing down on paper like writing a screenplay or tell a player or play just dialogue right. In in my experience the cool thing about it is that it's all the same process. It begins in a variety of ways sometimes I'm in a canoe Sometimes I'm in someone's literary office making tea. You know or dusting the cobwebs out of the corners so the spark happens. Then after that I get hooked. Right hahaha. I get hooked. And then what happens is my I start to look for a groove in a play or a movie because I love outlining. People don't think I but I outline like a mofo I love it because Van Gogh made sketches yo if Van Gogh can make sketches I can make an outline no problem. So but what I do is my mind my whatever you call it my writing thing is moving around like a divining rod trying to find the groove. It's not a river it's not a stream it's a dry riverbed. And my mind is searching like a divining like trying to find the groove or a like a vein almost you know a dry vein. No blood in it yet no water in it yet. Then I find it and me writing the several drafts is the looking for it sitting at my with my guitar in my lap in front of the music stand just strumming chords mindlessly is looking for that groove and then I find the groove and I settle into the groove and then I just ride the groove and I settle into the groove and ride the groove and the water comes and the blood comes I'm just it's the same process. So what's different though is with the with in writing a song and a motion I'm doing the gestures I talk about I'm actually strumming the guitar and I have help because the musical the changes the chord changes are the musical groove and I used to write also on the piano but then I didn't have a piano for a long time so I just just use the guitar mostly now to write and I would just try to find some changes that felt right. And once I found those changes and a rhythm it's usually some kind of you know first starts with the rhythm right the rhythm will tell me and the changes are going to. And I can get that. And then the words just come. That's with a song with a play or a movie. I don't have the music to go by with or to help me. So it's more like just finding that riverbed finding that riverbed and then OF find it and I don't know if that's really helpful.But that's what it. That's what happens. And it's also it's also oral So it's like finding the riverbed and then I can hear it. I have these tattoos on my arm my left arm that say it's from the yoga sutras and it's the same tattoo three times it's just printed in different sizes. Anyone who speaks Sanskrit or Hindi is like Anyway my pronunciation is awful. It is Ishvarapranidhana, Ishvarapranidhana which is yoga sutra the yoga sutra by Patra by Patanjali Yoga Sutras one two three. Number one chapter one verse twenty dot two three anyway. Yoga sutra one two three Ishvarapranidhana which means submit to the will of God or go with the flow. Go with the flow. So I had this tattooed on my arm three times and it's a joke because it's it's where people well people wear watches again these days. But when I got the tats people weren't wearing watches for a little while. And so the joke was what time it is. And then you look where your watch is supposed to be any you go it's time to go with the flow like that. So I would do that for years. But anyway the point is is that finding the flow. Whatever I write I have to find the flow. And so and that's beyond that's that's that bypasses many known forms of dramaturgy. You're out there you're like listening to the big spirit talk to me. I'm here. I'm ready. You find the groove you write it and then it will assemble itself. And what's interesting is what I found over time those dry riverbeds are old stories because a lot of my stories or plays or songs they're what I call. And there's an English word for this. Abhangig (von). Abhangig (von). It's a German word. But what I say when I say it means like dependent upon. But actually when I say it Abhangig (von) like a like a coat hanger. You can hang a coat on. So the dry riverbed is like a place where an old old story used to live and or where. It's where the water was. Right. And so I got to find where the water was and then I have to write there. So there's not a lot of conventional thought that goes on in my writing process. There's a lot of adherence to the bigger voice. So yeah.
Michael Kantor: That's great. I thought that that's the perfect segue to hear a song.
Suzan-Lori Parks: So this is a song from "F'ing A." That play has about 10 songs in it that I wrote for the play and this song is called "The Making of a monster" so granted. Again this just Asterisk I wrote this play in 1999 something like that. OK so it's an old for me it's an old play. So but this one the character who sings the song in this play. His name is Monster. And the deal with Monster is he was incarcerated as a very young man. His name used to be Boy. And he was incarcerated as a very young man for a very small crime like he stole some you know meat or something from the butcher shop. OK. So a very small crime and a little girl a little rich girl saw him. She told on him as she was instructed to do by her parents and the the authorities came and got him and they locked him up. And the circumstances of this this invented world which is a world of the play are that you can't see your loved ones unless you pay a certain amount of money. So the mother Hester Smith in this play is always trying to save up enough money to see her son. And anyway how can I say this Monster. Boy grows up into Monster and he gets out of jail and he reconnects with his mother and sings or this song but about the groove. Yeah I the song songs into a long time ago. But. You can hear the rhythm. I like that chord the A-minor chord always works for me. So and then the words just kind of like they bubble up out of the ground like you know the Beverly Hillbillies are like up from the back up from the ground come a bubbling crude like that that that's just how I. So he sings this to his mother. You think it be hard to make something horrid. No it's easy. You'd think it would take so much work to create the devil incarnate. No it's easy. The smallest seed it grows into a tree and a grain of sand pearls in the oyster. And a small bit of hate in the heart it will inflate and that's more so much more than enough to make you a monster. When I was a child I ran in a the wild and I played nice in the forests with the beasts. But when I grew old I knew I'd do just as I was told so as not to bring no terror to the priests. Because the smallest seed grows into a tree. And the grain of sand will pearl in an oyster. And a small bit of hate in the heart it will inflate and that's more so much more than enough to make you a monster. And now that I'm grown up with a child of my own I'll own up thatI don't always practice what I preach. Because It's the say that we will never stray but the ways of the world have their hard knocks to teach and the smallest seed grows into a tree. And a grain of sand will pearl in the oyester. And a small bit of hate in your heart will inflate and that's more so much more than enough. To make you a monster. Think it'd be hard to make something horrid. No it's easy.
Michael Kantor: Well I don't know how to follow that. That's like. It's such an old song. I know but it beautiful.
Suzan-Lori Parks: But it's like an old song you know. I mean for me it's like a you know I wrote it in like whatever 1999 and I just started singing it this past year and a half with my band Sula and the Noise. We have a little band and people were like woah did you just write that. I'm Like no. It's old. I wrote a long time ago.
Michael Kantor: When you were deciding to put music in that play. Yeah. Were you literally thinking you know Bertolt Brecht and I want to sort of model it after something or what was the inspiration to add to.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure. Well I've had music like my very first play "The Sinner's Place" had a song in it so I've always you know in a way hidden songs in my plays like my writing just on the pages. People say it's very musical. I've always thought I'm writing opera without the music. Like "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World" AKA "The Negro Book of the Dead" is very much an opera without music. I'm I'm always tucking songs in the plays and yes when I got to "F'ing A" and I really want to write more songs. Chorus Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Vile were my models again growing up in Germany learning German. Being fluent in German. Big fan of Bertolt Brecht. I tell my students this is maybe what I tell my students. Yeah they're Shakespeare Euripedes Sophocles Brecht DWM they are. They are dead white men. But they also were damn good writers. D G W's. And so let us just acknowledge if we're going to acknowledge one let us acknowledge the other. So I'm really. Yeah Brecht is awesomesauce and so yeah. Sure. Big fan of his.
Michael Kantor: This season we're we're kind of looking at writers who were revolutionary in a way maybe unconventional. Sure. And we're wondering in terms of women writers are there those who have been most inspiring to you or whose work you think just broke the mold and you're sort of standing on their shoulders or.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh well in that. In that I really appreciate you asking that question because I don't think I get enough of an opportunity to sing the praises of people who come before me and made my journey in the arts you know easier a little bit easier a lot easier. You know like Ntozake Shange I think she blew the mold out of the frickin park yo. I like Adrienne Kennedy blew the mold out of the mold out of the mold. You know what I mean. You know these they were those two women especially coming up. Well those two artists coming up for me when I was getting started when I finally said OK I guess I'll try writing those two artists were the ones I looked at and went Wow. They're doing extraordinary things. And I can learn a heck of a lot from them. So I will always be grateful to to their shining examples.
Michael Kantor: If you think back to what James Baldwin sort of left with you if you search for inspiration one day what did you get from him apart from just saying do do playwrighting.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Well he wrote you know you know from the I'm sure it's all well people. He where he was teaching in Hampshire College you didn't give grades you gave evaluations so he had to write each of his students an evaluation and he wrote well mine says an astonishing beautiful creature who may become one of the most influential artists of our times something like that. I don't I don't read. Anyway point is blew my mind. The point is he believed in me. I read somewhere that Abraham Lincoln had a similar experience someone when he was coming up thought he just might make something of himself. And Abe Lincoln didn't have the heart to prove him wrong. And I think James Baldwin that's the most. Well two things. One he encouraged me and again like I said and he encouraged me and I didn't have the heart to prove him wrong. And he also taught me. How to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit you know the great spirit the thing whatever you want to call it the thing that knows more than you and however you want to define that. The thing that is bigger than you. How to conduct myself in the presence of that great thing how to be respectful and mindful and attentive like you would be attentive to a lover to be just awake. You know we have that saying these days you know get woke get woke every day every step you take every hand you shake every person you whose eyes you come into contact with. It's an opportunity to. Wake up and see yourself in them. It's a big job. And I'm glad I'm one of the people doing it and I got to say.
Michael Kantor: Well thank you for joining us.
Suzan-Lori Parks: Thank you guys. You guys are awesome this is such so wonderful.