- “A” is for Abject: The Red Letter Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks1
“I think my plays are preverbal. From my guts.”—Suzan-Lori Parks2
Since her national debut nearly a quarter century ago, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has captured and held the attention of audiences, critics, and fellow artists, offering, with astonishing regularity, plays of dazzling theatrical imagination, linguistic inventiveness, and social and cultural significance. She is the recipient of a host of awards and honors, including two Obie Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, and a Pulitzer Prize (for Topdog/Underdog, in 2002). Referencing her recent “marathon cycle” of 365 Days/365 Plays, Parks scholar Philip C. Kolin proposed that, excluding Tennessee Williams, Parks may be “the most prolific and diverse playwright America has ever produced.”3 Not surprisingly, Parks has garnered considerable scholarly attention, culminating in the recent publication of three full-length studies devoted to her work that together fortify her reputation as perhaps the foremost American playwright of her generation.4 Considerable focus has been given to Parks’s satirical and surreal rewriting/revisioning of history as well as literary phrases and texts (what Parks calls “rep[etition] and rev[ision]”) in plays such as The America Play (1994), The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990), and Venus (1996).5 Of great interest, also, are the representations of gender and racial identities manifested in her work. Fragmented, abstracted visions, simultaneously critiquing and evoking racist stereotypes, with parodic names like “man with watermelon,” and “woman with fried drumstick” recur in Parks’s dramaturgy, as well as the somewhat more realistic, urban masculinities portrayed in Topdog/Underdog or the impoverished and/or exploited female characters in Venus or The Red Letter Plays.
Parks’s Venus, as Carol Schafer has noted, marks a turning point in Parks’s career. Although Venus, a dramatization of the story of the “Venus Hottentot” (Saartje Bartman), is still a revisioning of history, its focus on gender—as Schafer [End Page 31] writes, its questioning of “representations of women’s bodies as possessions, as objects of desire, and as bloody biological battlefields” links it to Parks’s next two plays, In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000), both loosely inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and published in a single volume in 2001 as The Red Letter Plays.6 Parks’s depiction of Saartje Bartman, whose corporeality, especially the size of her derrière, led to her exploitation as a star attraction in late-nineteenth-century Europe, was particularly controversial. Scholar Jean Young strongly criticized the work for “re-objectifying” the historical Bartman and for presenting her as complicit in her exploitation, an opinion that was subsequently challenged by W. B. Worthen, Harvey Young, and others.7
Undaunted by the controversy surrounding Venus, Parks gives us in The Red Letter Plays two equally controversial female characters, both named Hester: a homeless, black, welfare mother (In the Blood) and a professional abortionist (Fucking A). Both are illiterate, both are sexually and economically exploited, and both kill their children. The two plays are closely bound in their common links to Hawthorne’s novel as well as other literary and dramatic works, more overtly literary, as opposed to historical, “rep and rev.” The plays also serve as important intertexts for each other, representing another distinguishing feature in Parks’s dramaturgy, as seen in her relocation of the plot device of a character impersonating Lincoln from The America Play (1994) to Topdog/Underdog (2001). The representation of gender, race, and class identities in The Red Letter Plays have prompted scholars to wrestle with the aesthetic and political implications of these representations.8 Their stylistic admixture of realist, absurdist, surrealist, classic, and Brechtian elements have inspired a burgeoning body of genre criticism; the plays have been analyzed as classical and modern tragedies, as parables, as epic theatre, and as literary intertexts.9 Other scholars have offered explorations of significant themes, dramaturgical techniques, or images within the plays, including use of language, the function of the chorus, the symbolism of blood, and the significance of money.10 In addressing questions of artistic and...