- Staging a New Literary History: Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, In the Blood, and Fucking A
The early plays of Suzan-Lori Parks often are referred to as “the history plays” in which the playwright reconstructs historical events to fill a lack or hole in history caused by the exclusion of any African-American presence.1 These nonrealistic, experimental plays feature characters that are alienated from the history that they (and Parks) revisit, deconstruct, resurrect, and reconstruct. Parks claims, “Through each line of text I’m rewriting the Time Line—creating history where it is and always was but has not yet been divined.”2
Beginning in 1996 with the production of Venus, Parks’s plays began to explore new directions. Venus, in its depiction of a historical character, has much in common with the earlier history plays; however, it serves also as a transition to In the Blood and Fucking A. In these three plays, Parks places African or African-American women center stage in order to question representations of women’s bodies as possessions, as objects of desire, and as bloody biological battlefields. Parks also questions the place of African-American women in literature. “So much of the discussion today in literary criticism,” Parks explains, “concerns how the African- American literary contribution should be incorporated into the canon. The history of Literature is in question” (4). These three plays are experiments in dramatic form as well as content and as such belong to a new category of writing for Parks that could be called the “literature plays.”3 “If we can allow painters to have different periods,” Parks declares, “then we can allow playwrights to have different periods, too.”4 Exploring a few of the literary references and the structures of these plays in progression reveals [End Page 181] that Parks draws from diverse literary sources to reconstruct a classical poetic epic in Venus, a classical tragedy in a contemporary setting in In the Blood, and an example of Brechtian epic theater in Fucking A. Parks, by utilizing forms established by Western European males throughout history, creates additional works that constitute a new literary “tradition” to fill the absence where the presence of African and African-American women frequently was omitted.5
Parks views the theater as a place where history and literary history can be revisited and rewritten. In part because the African-American cultural tradition was oral rather than written, much of this tradition was not included in the Western literary canon as it had been conceived prior to the postmodern era. Nor were African-Americans historically in positions of power that would foster publication and respect for their stories. Parks claims, “I’m working theatre like an incubator to create ‘new’ historical events. I’m re-membering and staging historical events which, through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history.”6 In Venus and in the history plays, Parks draws heavily on historical records and scholarship, but she makes no claim to writing factual accounts of actual events. Rather, she sees history in a phenomenological manner that insists that the present exists in the future and that the past exists in the present. In response to those who criticize her for distorting history, she says of her work, “I think it is just as valid as what we are told happened back then. I think it has an equal weight.”7 Parks believes that because theater is an ephemeral art that exists only in a present moment, it has the ability to bring the past and possible futures to life in the present, thereby reconstructing our perception of who we were, who we are, and who we wish to be. This, in turn, potentially alters who we may become. This is what Parks would have us question, and in doing so, she is reconfiguring and critiquing the primarily androcentric white European tradition that, prior to postmodern interrogation, had been accepted as the Western literary canon.
I. Venus: The Epic Poem
Parks begins her creative reconfiguration of the canon with the earliest form of Western literature that developed from an oral tradition: the classical narrative epic poem...