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The Watcher & The Watched in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks

“Watch me close,” Booth intones as lights come up on Topdog/Underdog. He is alone, throwing cards on a makeshift table, and practicing his 3-card monte patter. “Watch me close now.” The opening lines of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play usher the audience into the performative world of the playwright. “There is a lot of watching,” notes Parks of her work. “I think that’s what theatre is all about. It’s about one person looking at somebody else.” Throughout the sensational career that has earned her two Obie Awards, a screenwriting gig with Spike Lee, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, Parks returns again and again to the themes of watching and performance.

Parks first caught the eye of the theatre world with her unique style and a dramatic sensibility that disregards the confines of traditional theatre. Drawing on archetype, stereotype, and historical figures, Parks builds symbolically rich characters, from Black Man with Watermelon in her Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World to the Foundling Father of The America Play. “I like Greek myth, so I like larger than life characters,” Parks explains of the figures she creates. With an ear for rhythm and the poetry of dialogue, Parks rounds out her heightened characters with lyrical, dramatic speech. In many cases, the theatricality of the characters stems from their role as a performer within the world of the play.

By writing performers into her stories, Parks is able to investigate the nuances of the relationship between the performer and the audience in each of her plays. In Venus, her 10th play, Parks confronts the reality that performance can have a negative and dehumanizing effect. The play follows the story of the Hottentot Venus, a young girl from South Africa exploited for her “exotic” body on British and French stages. Near the beginning of the play, a chorus chants, “Lookie-Lookie-Look-at-her,” and a single chorus member adds, “A spectacle, a debacle, a priceless prize.” The chorus, eager to catch a glimpse of Venus’ spectacular body, sees her not as a human being, but as a prize. Showing how the sideshow business objectifies Venus allows Parks to critique this aspect of performance within her own theatrical world.

While Parks tackles the consequences of voyeurism in Venus, Topdog/Underdog offers a different take on the relationship between the audience and the performer. Lincoln, the older brother and topdog of the play, spends his days dressed in white-face, reenacting the death of Abraham Lincoln as carnival attendees pay to shoot at him. Financially dependent on the act, Lincoln fears that his employers will fire him and enlists his brother to help him practice dying more effectively. With this character, Parks allows her audience to peek behind the curtain and witness both the effort of creating a performance and the stakes of making the performance good.

While the characters of Venus and Lincoln might appear vulnerable in their roles as performers, Parks also challenges the idea that the audience holds power over the artist in Topdog/Underdog. Both the sardonically named brothers practice and perform the art of the 3-card monte hustle. In the traditional con, a dealer proficient in sleight of hand performs the game with help from his shills, luring a mark into betting all his money. “Watch me close now,” belongs to the verbal script the dealer uses to draw in his audience, tricking them into believing they have the power to win.

Perhaps the relationship between the 3-card dealer and his mark is not so different from Parks’ own relationship to her audience. Parks captures the sounds of speech by using phonetic spellings within her dialogue, guiding her actors into specific and realistic performances. Yet she also laces her characters with allegorical significance, lending a powerful context to each of the figures onstage. In many ways, Parks holds the trump card, the power behind the characters she reveals to her audiences. As she writes in her satirical essay “New Black Math:” “A black play ain’t playing your game, it might look like it’s playing your game, but if it look like that to you, then that means you been played, honey.”

– SARAH SCHNEBLY


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