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Reviewed by:
  • The Book of Grace
  • Soyica D. Colbert
The Book of Grace. By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by James MacDonald. The Public Theater, New York City. 7 March 2010.

The Book of Grace marks a turning point in the theatre of Suzan-Lori Parks that is both a departure and a return, journeys well worth the ride. Parks is a leading voice—perhaps the leading voice—in contemporary US theatre, so the evolution of her drama marks a significant shift in theatre more broadly. In an online interview for The Public Theater's website, Parks describes The Book of Grace as a companion piece to her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Topdog/ Underdog. While both plays draw from psychological realism and take place within a domestic setting, the production of The Book of Grace at The Public Theater incorporated technological innovation to situate the play at once in a home in south Texas and along borders—the US/Mexico border, the brink of familial disintegration, the tipping point of an abusive father's rage, and the brink of national disaster. The stage featured typical markers of US domesticity—a stove, sink, television, iron, ironing board, sofa, and rug—but all were carefully chosen to bend the normal into the fearful and the quotidian into the extraordinary. For example, the iron became a weapon at the end of the production, and the trap door under the rug (note Parks's signature use of geographical humor) hid a scrapbook that one of the central characters, Grace, compiled as evidence of good things in the world.

The trap door in the middle, the sandbags along the sides, and the sand on the floor of the stage troubled the realism of the domestic space, figuring it as a liminal locale. While Parks is well-known for setting her plays in unusual places, The Book of Grace mediates the confusion created by the more obscure settings of The America Play (in a hole) and In the Blood (under a bridge), presenting instead a familiar site of domesticity. Yet Parks's latest play mobilizes the same rhetorical wealth of its predecessors by layering the domestic sphere with references to the US/Mexico border offstage and with projections that appeared upstage on a screen. Through the intermingling of sites on and off stage, the play takes an important next step in the development of psychological realism, rendering the setting, narrative, character development, and language itself as variable and contingent on the performance.

The production challenged the static nature of geographic location (in a home or along a border) by displaying nonsequential chapter titles that introduced each section of the play. Similar to Parks's use of chapters in Venus, the system of ordering in The Book of Grace establishes disorder and therefore calls the audience's attention to the missing pieces of the story. Yet The Book of Grace urges audience members to create their own books of grace to evidence good things in the world and complete the work of the play. From Parks's modes of direct address in Venus to her development of theatre as a daily practice in 365 Days/365 Plays, Parks continues to fashion practices that blur the line between theatre and the quotidian, between what occurs onstage and what happens in her audience members' daily lives. By situating theatre as a part of the everyday, the imaginative possibilities made available in her plays become open to all of us.

The collaboration between the audience and the play does not and cannot impact the play's central [End Page 666]

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Amari Cheatom (Buddy) in The Book of Grace. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

[End Page 667]

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Amari Cheatom (Buddy) and Elizabeth Marvel (Grace) in The Book of Grace. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

familial conflict, which the play depicts as a battle among the three characters, Vet, Buddy, and Grace, over boundaries and containment versus building bridges. Vet, the figure of containment, is a border guard. His psychic compulsion toward order manifests itself through the physical abuse of his wife Grace and sexual abuse of his son Buddy. While Vet serves...


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