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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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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
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Suzan-Lori Parks Interview

Pulitzer Prize for Drama

June 22, 2007
Washington, D.C.

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  Suzan-Lori Parks

Thank you for being here today.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Thanks for having me.

Topdog/Underdog has been your most acclaimed play to date; it won the Pulitzer Prize. Let's talk about that play and the relationship between the two brothers. One of them was a three-card monte player.

Suzan-Lori Parks: There are two brothers in the play. It's a two-hander. Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, African American men, in their 30s, kind of, and one is a booster, meaning he goes out and steals things. What do you call it? Shoplifts things, putting them under his coat and whatnot. And the other gentleman works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade where people come in and shoot him. It's complicated. So he works as a Lincoln impersonator, but he used to throw cards, meaning he used to do three-card monte, like the shell game, but with playing cards. He used to throw cards on the street, and he was the best that ever lived. He felt one day that that was going to be his death, so he swore to never touch the cards again.

The difficulty in the play is that he's remembering himself basically. Through the course of the play, this young man remembers who he is, and what his calling is, and he is called to throw the cards again. It proves to be very difficult for him. If he could just not remember who he really is and keep on impersonating Abraham Lincoln, he would be all right. But it's not enough.

He's sort of dragged down. There's a force like gravity, isn't there?

Suzan-Lori Parks: It is almost, or drag almost. He's pulled into himself. He's literally "re-minded." He remembers who he is.

Was Adam reminded of who he was? Adam like the "Adam-in-the-Bible" Adam. Was he reminded? Is that what the snake did? Did the snake remind him of who he was? So was he dragged down into his own humanity and to his own -- what do you call it? Mortality? Because that's what happens to this gentleman, Lincoln, in Topdog/Underdog. He is reminded of his own self, which means -- that's right, 'cause Adam ate from the tree of life and learned about death. And that's what it is. He's reminded of himself, so he moves from the historical into life. Anyway, when I think about the play, then I start going, "Woo!" but I don't really think about it that much.

There seems to be almost a cosmic aspect to these brothers, because somebody named them Lincoln and Booth.

Suzan-Lori Parks Interview Photo
Suzan-Lori Parks: Their father named them that. Their father named them Lincoln and Booth. It was a joke, Lincoln is the older brother, and Booth is the younger. Their parents had a very difficult relationship, and they have been on their own for a long, long time and have had to make their life, just the two of them. But their father named them as part of a joke.

Maybe names aren't something we should fool around with that much.

Suzan-Lori Parks: They have power. They have a lot of power, as does name-calling. There's a lot of that in the media these days, people calling people things, mostly unkind things, and who has the right to call who what? Context is everything -- everything. We have to be aware that names have a lot of power.

What was it about Lincoln, as a historical figure, that captured your imagination?

Suzan-Lori Parks: What is it about Lincoln that hooks me first? It's his costume. That's not irreverent or dissing Lincoln. You know what I'm saying? It's his costume: the hat, the beard, the height. This is from a person who as a child was very drawn to mythic characters. So the hat, the beard, the height, I think that that has burned itself in the imagination of the universe in a very deep way, and even if he had been just -- I don't know. Then the other things around it I think -- I don't know -- but I think that we can't dismiss that, because all the world's a stage, and the costume is very, very important. And he freed the slaves and whoo! You can imagine that. There they go, running free.

You know, he spoke in a high voice. That is always a little piece of the puzzle that makes me go "Hmmm." How high was his voice? Can you imagine a man that tall speaking like this? They say in some African countries that the dead speak in nasal tones, and I always find that fantastic that he had a high voice. And he was shot in a theater by an actor. That's what draws me to him a lot, also. Costume? Free the slaves? That's icing on the gravy. Shot in a theater by an actor. How good is that? If you're a playwright, it just doesn't get any better than that.

You mentioned Adam in the Bible. There is almost a sense in your play that the historical Lincoln was destined to be shot by Booth, that there was almost a sense of original sin, maybe that he was too pure for this world, that there was an inexorable tragedy that was going to come.

Suzan-Lori Parks Interview Photo
Suzan-Lori Parks: I think that's another reason why he captures us. These are things that we overlook in the things that are listed in history books. We forget these deep things that are the same reasons why music affects us in a certain way. You play a certain note, you feel a certain way. We forget these things, these things that resonate that we can't quite quantify. That's one of them. It's almost as if we, or he, knew his end, which is one of the deep great things. It's why the Greeks loved to go see Oedipus. They knew the end. There is something deeply satisfying in that, like dawn or nightfall. You know where it's going, and there's something incredibly satisfying in the human structure that needs that and enjoys that. I think you're right. I think there is something in him that knew that. He was the one who kept the country together, but a part of his destiny was to be blown apart. The costume and the hat and the theater, it's too good. But I think he knew. I think he knew, and he was part of the pageant. I think he got that, and that is why we connect with him. Do you know what I mean?

The same way with John Lennon. His costume wasn't quite as elaborate and dramatic and amazing, but I think he had an awareness of himself as part of the pageant. I think that's why we connect to people like that. I think you're totally right about Lincoln, but that's not what people want to hear. "Talk about how he freed the slaves and stuff." Well, that was part of it, but it wasn't the deep thing, you know. It wasn't the deeper or bigger thing.

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This page last revised on Oct 10, 2007 12:03 EDT
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