- Suzan-Lori Parks
Deborah R. Geis's book, Suzan-Lori Parks, provides an in-depth analysis of Parks's theatrical work. In exploring the common themes and theatrical devices used by Parks, the book serves as a useful guide for scholars, teachers, students, directors, and actors in approaching Parks's often challenging and enigmatic plays.
In the introduction, Geis describes Parks's childhood as a daughter of a teacher and an army colonel who, like many military families, were required to move often. This biographical knowledge—her "nomadic" childhood—helps to explain Parks's diverse subjects and characters in her plays. Geis also lists some of the literary figures who have influenced Parks's writing, including Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, and James Baldwin, placing Parks's work in the broader context of modern and contemporary African American drama. [End Page 778]
Throughout the book Geis provides excellent insight into Parks as a person and playwright and charts the trajectory of her playwriting career in a way that allows Parks's use of metaphorical and symbolic language to become intelligible and accessible, particularly for those who plan to stage the plays. Geis devotes the rest of her book to a literary analysis of Parks's entire work, from Betting on the Dust Commander (premiered in 1987) to her recent dramatic projects including Getting Mother's Body (2003) and 365 Days/365 Plays (2006). Geis also discusses Parks's other literary works, including novels and screenplays. Geis, in her analysis, compares Parks with the absurdist drama of Ionesco and Beckett, and argues that Parks's absurdist approach to language and character allow her to highlight the "hole in American history," which according to Geis is the recurrent theme and motif of Parks's works.
In the beginning of the book, Geis identifies her main focus, which is how acts of "re-membering," "digging," and "resurrecting" are used along with "postmodernist use of intertexts," such as "signifyin," "rest," "spell," and "footnotes" (14) by Parks in her work. She identifies these theatrical devices as critical to the mission of Parks's playwriting; that is, to "re-member" "African Americans who have been deprived of full membership as citizens" through the act of "putting them back onto the roster, back into the historical narratives from which they have been displaced and rewriting (re-membering) those historical narratives in the process" (11). This meta-theme is the center of Geis's argument throughout the book and provides the context for the author's analysis of the individual plays in later chapters. For example, concluding her analysis of Venus, Geis argues that the play is "an act of remembering Venus/ Baartman, of recollection and of putting the parts back together with a concomitant awareness that it is never possible to do so" (92). Emphasizing this central theme in the conclusion, she ends her analysis of Parks's works by underscoring again Parks's long-time interest "in digging and holes"(163). Geis explains that it indeed "evokes sexuality, death, resurrection and history" that have been "all thrown into a kind of bottomless pit, shades of Beckett" and also helps her to create a "new kind of archaeological practice," a "new way of 'digging' the past to look at the world" (163).
Overall, Geis's analysis is solid and detailed, but often seems too literary. Geis includes reviews of some productions in her analysis, but not as a means to explore the theatricality that goes beyond the written text. For example, Geis refers to the USA Today review of Fucking A, which praises S. Epatha Merkerson as Hester, but Geis's use of this review seems intended to serve instead as an elaboration on Geis's character analysis. Another issue is that her selection of productions seems random, as she uses both professional and college productions as examples. The sample productions might be the ones that she herself attended, but there otherwise seems to be no explanation for her selection of productions.
The difficulty of analyzing Parks's works may be unavoidable, as Geis herself seems to...