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If you like Suzan-Lori Parks's story, you might also like:
Edward Albee,
Maya Angelou,
Rita Dove,
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Whoopi Goldberg,
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Rosa Parks,
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Harold Prince,
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Oprah Winfrey

Suzan-Lori Parks can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Suzan-Lori Parks's recommended reading:
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Related Links:
The Show Woman
The Pulitzer Prize
Barclay Agency

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Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks
Profile of Suzan-Lori Parks Biography of Suzan-Lori Parks Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks Suzan-Lori Parks Photo Gallery

Suzan-Lori Parks Biography

Pulitzer Prize for Drama

Suzan-Lori Parks Date of birth: May 10, 1963

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  Suzan-Lori Parks

Suzan-Lori Parks Biography Photo
Suzan-Lori Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Her father was a career officer in the United States Army, so the family moved frequently when Suzan-Lori was growing up. She went to school in six states, seldom spending more than a year in the same school. While her father served overseas in Vietnam, the rest of the family lived in Odessa, Texas, near Suzan-Lori's maternal grandmother. The rhythms and similes of West Texas dialect made a lasting impression on Suzan-Lori Parks, whose work as a writer overflows with colorful dialogue, exploiting the rich resources of African American vernacular speech.

A lively, imaginative child, Parks was an avid reader of mythology and folklore, and amused herself writing songs and stories. In 1974, her father was posted to Germany and the whole family moved with him. Suzan-Lori and her brother and sister attended local schools, where they soon became fluent in German. Both of Suzan-Lori's parents emphasized the importance of education. After retiring from the Army, Mr. Parks became a professor of education at the University of Vermont. Her mother later became an administrator at Syracuse University. In high school, Suzan-Lori Parks dreamed of becoming a writer, but was discouraged by an English teacher who found fault with her spelling. Temporarily abandoning her dream, Parks entered Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts as a science student, but soon rediscovered her love of poetry and fiction, and decided to major in English and German literature.

Suzan-Lori Parks Biography Photo
By her own account, the highlight of her college career was a fiction workshop taught by the esteemed novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin. Baldwin set a formidable example of self-discipline and artistic integrity. He encouraged Parks to find her own voice and to explore writing for the theater. At the end of the year, Baldwin called Parks "an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time."

Following Baldwin's advice, Parks educated herself in the art of the theater. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Mount Holyoke in 1985, she spent a year in London studying acting, not with the aim of pursuing an acting career, but to deepen her understanding of the stage. Returning to the United States, she settled in New York City, working secretarial jobs by day and churning out one-act plays by night. She haunted the small theaters of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway and produced her first plays in bars and coffee houses. A chance encounter with Village Voice theater critic Alisa Solomon led Parks to an association with the Brooklyn Arts and Culture Association (BACA). It marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with director Liz Diamond, who directed Parks's first full-length play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom at BACA in 1989. Described as a "choral poem" of African American history, cast in metaphors drawn from the life sciences, Mutabilities brought Parks immediate acclaim. Critics praised her uninhibited, imaginative language, and highly original stage imagery. The play won Off-Broadway's Obie award for Best New Play.

Suzan-Lori Parks Biography Photo
In 1991, Parks became an Associate Artist at the Yale School of Drama. Her work attracted support from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. Her next play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1992), also premiered at BACA, but her work was quickly spreading to theaters outside New York. In the same year, her play, Devotees in the Garden of Love, debuted at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Suzan-Lori Parks had also captured the attention of playwright and director George C. Wolfe, whose work -- particularly his 1986 play The Colored Museum -- had close affinities with her own. When Wolfe was named to head the New York Public Theater in 1993, he was eager to schedule a new play by Suzan-Lori Parks. Her association with the Public began with a production of The America Play, directed by Liz Diamond, in which Parks first introduced the notion of a black man who works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, an idea that recurred in her later work, Topdog/Underdog.

Suzan-Lori Parks Biography Photo
Her 1996 play, Venus, wove a fictional narrative around the true story of a 19th-century African woman, known as "the Hottentot Venus," who was exhibited as a curiosity, caged and naked, in Europe in the early 19th century. Venus opened at New York's Public Theater to intense publicity and won Parks her second Obie Award. That same year saw the release of a feature film written by Suzan-Lori Parks, Girl 6, directed by Spike Lee. The playwright's imagination continued to range over a panorama of literary and historical topics. For a number of years, she had contemplated a re-interpretation of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale of adultery and atonement in Puritan New England. Her inspiration eventually produced a very different story. In the Blood, produced at the Public Theater in 1999, tells the story of a homeless woman with five children by five different fathers.

Topdog/Underdog marked something of a departure from the exaggerated language and surreal imagery of the playwright's earlier work. Set in a single room, it explored the conflict between two brothers, ominously named for President Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. It opened at the Public in 2001 with actors Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle as Lincoln and Booth, directed by George C. Wolfe. After a sold-out run at the Public, it moved to Broadway's Ambassador Theater, with rapper and actor Mos Def replacing Cheadle as Booth. In 2001, Parks received the coveted "genius grant" of the McArthur Foundation. Topdog/Underdog was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Suzan-Lori Parks was the first African American woman to be so honored. Time magazine named her one of its "100 Innovators for the Next New Wave."

Suzan-Lori Parks Biography Photo
After the success of Topdog, Parks and her husband, blues musician Paul Oscher, moved to Los Angeles for six years, where Parks broadened her creative activities and taught a graduate playwriting seminar at the California Institute of the Arts. While seeing nine of her full-length plays produced, Parks has not confined her efforts to the live theater. In Los Angeles, Parks wrote a television adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005), produced by Oprah Winfrey, and starring Halle Berry. Her own book, Getting Mother's Body, a Faulknerian "novel in voices" set in West Texas, was published in 2003.

At the same time, Parks undertook her most ambitious theater work to date. She set herself the daunting task of writing one complete short play every day for a year. She held herself to this rigid program while fulfilling a demanding travel schedule, writing in hotel rooms and even while waiting in airport security lines. The resulting work, 365 Plays/365 Days, was produced by 700 theaters around the world, in venues ranging from street corners to opera houses. With major theaters in the largest cities acting as "hub theaters," coordinating the efforts of smaller groups throughout their metropolitan areas, it is the largest grassroots collaboration in theater history.

She followed this massive project with Ray Charles Live!, a stage musical based on the life and music of the late Ray Charles. She has since completed two more plays, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 8 & 9) and The Book of Grace, and is reportedly at work on a second novel. Meanwhile, she is in constant demand on the college lecture circuit. A sample of her dynamic style as a public speaker can be heard in the Audio Recordings area of this web site, as well as in our Podcast Center.

This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:07 EDT
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