The Creative World of Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks
“She is an original,” said August Wilson of fellow playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. “[Her] fierce intelligence, and fearless approach to craft, subvert theatrical convention and produce a mature and inimitable art that is as exciting as it is fresh.” Inimitable is an apt word for this boundary-crushing artist whose plays earned her the distinction of being the first African American woman playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize. Parks’ bold revisions of familiar figures, innovations in expressing dialogue on paper, and penchant for exploding theatrical norms have cemented her place as a trailblazer in the field. As Vogue magazine put it, “Parks has burst through every known convention to invent a new theatrical language.”
Though her subversive style is often described with words that lend an air of wildness to her work, Parks’ deconstruction is far from reckless. The playwright’s method of transformation stems from a tradition that has a long and rich history in the world of jazz music: repetition and revision.
Known for its improvisational structure, jazz music draws on a medley of sources for inspiration including ragtime, blues, West African musical tradition as well as military songs, and blends them together into a single piece of music. Often, jazz will take a familiar tune and riff on it, altering it slightly with each iteration of the melody — holding notes longer than expected, adding trills and musical detours to make it new. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. summarizes in his seminal book The Signifying Monkey,“when you repeat a prior work of art, you bring it and all its connotations back, so that there are always two dimensions, past and present, repetition and revision, working at the same time.” It is from this rhythmic and explorative aesthetic that Parks developed the process that she has playfully renamed “Rep & Rev.”
In an essay entitled “Elements of Style,” Suzan-Lori Parks delineates how she uses Rep & Rev to create a “drama of accumulation,” where the story does not simply move logically from one scene to the next, but rather builds both in tension and in theme. These tools can be used to explore the meaning of a line or phrase within the play, as Parks illustrates when she asks:
“What does it mean for characters to say the same thing twice? 3 times? Over and over and over and oh-vah.” Wordplay frequently punctuates Parks’ dialogue — she finds both jokes and bleak ironies by altering a single letter in a repeated word. This process can also be used, as with jazz, to take people and images familiar to the audience and reimagine them within her story. “Rep & Rev are key in examining something larger than one moment,” Parks explains. “Rep & Rev create space for metaphor.”
History serves as a fruitful excavation ground for Parks; reinvented and recast figures from the past populate many of her plays. The Rep & Rev process, when applied to history, allows Parks to create life in places where history is silent and to challenge traditional stories. For this reason, many critics view her plays as efforts to reclaim a white-washed American history, or what Parks refers to in her America Play as The Great Hole of History. As the African American voices of the past have so frequently gone unrecorded, and therefore unremembered, endeavors to evoke these voices often necessitate imagination. “One of my tasks as playwright,” Parks notes, “is to…locate the ancestral, burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones, [and] write it down.”
The originality that critics and fellow playwrights alike have found in Parks writing lies in her power of re-imagination. She mines the English language, American history, the human psyche for that which is familiar and — like a jazz musician — creates in the space around it, until it is something entirely new.
— SARAH SCHNEBLY