As a continuation of our series honoring the history of Black artists and theater-makers, and in recognition that March is Women’s History Month, this post is dedicated to the work of Suzan-Lori Parks.
The first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Suzan-Lori Parks has collected top honors throughout her career: Obies, nominations for the Tony and Drama Desk awards, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, just to name a few. Her plays vary widely in subject and style, but many are preoccupied with history: the interplay between the “official” versions of past lives and events, and the untold or unrecorded history that needs to be excavated or imagined. In her essay “Possession,” Parks discusses her role as a playwright who “makes” history:
Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theater, for me, is the perfect place to ‘make’ history…because so much of African American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as a playwright is to–through literature and the special strange relationship between theater and real life–locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.
Her 1996 play Venus does just that, exploring the story of Sarah Baartman, a Khoi-San woman from South Africa who was exhibited in Europe under the name “The Venus Hottentot.” Her body was dissected and displayed after her death in 1815. The play “re-members” her dismembered life and body, as it weaves together her life story from many different voices and perspectives. As Parks describes it in an interview, “Most of it’s fabricated, it’s questioning the history of history. The play doesn’t just swallow the story whole and regurgitate it onto stage. It embraces the unrecorded truth.”
In November 2019, Venus was performed by Waterwell’s Class of 2021 at the PPAS Auditorium. The role of Venus was split into three parts, so that a different actor played Venus at each stage of her life.
This cast- composed of high school juniors at the time- tackled the play’s difficult subject matter centered around the abuse and sexualization of bodies of Black descent, as well as unlawful, racially-biased power dynamics. One of Venus’ main themes is the exploration of what is means to love and be loved in a colonized society, and how white supremacist belief systems often conflate possessive, dominating actions- like the objectification and fetishization of people of color- with affection or love. In Venus, you can also see one of Parks’ common literary techniques in action: “repetition and revision.” This stylistic technique involves the repetition of characters’ dialogue and actions numerous times throughout the narrative, but with slight minor revisions in every reoccurrence. This technique helps to support Parks’ often non-linear way of storytelling: when something is repeated over and over, it can take on the significance of “incorporation of the past” for the both the characters and the audience to reflect on.
9-Minute Listen, podcast by NPR interviewing Suzan-Lori Parks about her play, White Noise
Suzan-Lori Parks In Person: Interviews and Commentaries, edited by Harvey Young & Philip Kolin
The America Play and Other Works, Suzan-Lori Parks
365 Days/365 Plays
Topdog/Underdog (2002 Pulitzer Prize winner)
The Book of Grace
Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical
In the Blood (2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist)
Venus (1996 OBIE Award)
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990 OBIE Award, Best New American Play)
The America Play
Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)