- Suzan-Lori Parks in Person: Interviews and Commentaries ed. by Philip C. Kolin and Harvey Young
Philip C. Kolin and Harvey Young introduce their book of interviews and commentaries on playwright Suzan-Lori Parks with an essay titled “Watch Me Work,” which takes its name from one of Parks’s more recent performance projects in which she sits on an elevated platform in the lobby of a theatre and performs the act of playwriting for anyone to watch. This title also moves to the central objective of Suzan-Lori Parks in Person, which is to provide primary insight into the methods, techniques, and inspirations for Parks’s prolific and award-winning body of work. As they set the stage for her thoughts, confessions, and revelations in the collected interviews, Kolin and Young bring focus to Parks’s literary influences (which include Baldwin, Kennedy, Joyce, and Faulkner), the stylistic innovations of her “new…stage language,” and her sustained mission to fill the “great (w)hole of history” through “radical inclusion” across her work from 1985 to 2013 (1, 5). [End Page 378]
The book is divided into two sections. Part 1 includes eighteen interviews with Parks and her collaborators, and part 2 consists of commentaries from the directors who have worked most closely with her or critics and scholars who have “distinguished themselves through their work on Parks’s drama” (151). The interviews in part 1 are organized chronologically, from a 1992 piece that considers the groundbreaking linguistic work she creates in The Death of the Last Negro in the Whole Entire World at Yale Repertory Theatre to a 2011 conversation with Parks the director/playwright as she prepares The Book of Grace for the ZACH Theatre premiere. The book also moves beyond newspaper interviews that surround specific productions to include pieces from magazines, collected essays, academic journals, and even a one-on-one piece where Parks interviews Adrienne Kennedy, a playwright who had a profound effect on her own writing. A large portion of the commentaries in part 2 are transcribed from a Hunter College symposium on Parks’s work in 2004. One of the panels at the symposium featured critics and scholars including Robert Brustein and Alisa Solomon, and the other panel focused on the directors who have staged the premieres of Parks’s major works, including Richard Foreman and Liz Diamond.
In total, Suzan-Lori Parks in Person is an engaging work that offers insights into the playwright’s mind and work, from her undergraduate thesis to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog and her international project 365 Days/365 Plays. Kolin and Young provide texts that explore not only how she works but also how she develops seeds of ideas into fully realized productions. The one mildly frustrating aspect of the book is that, by the nature of the art of interviewing, the questions and the answers in the eighteen interviews often repeat and overlap. This happens most often when there are multiple interviews from the same period or surrounding the same play, with Parks offering anecdotes about the writing process or illuminating some aspect of history that inspired the work. However, the repetitions that develop throughout Parks’s own narrative across the book actually become the threads that weave together the major themes and effects of her writing. In particular, three threads become prominent in the discussion of her writing: her use of language, her stylistic choices, and the way she makes and mines history (9).
From the beginning of Parks’s interactions with critics, scholars, and audiences, the way she uses language to delineate a character’s race, class, and emotional trajectory has been a marker of her innovative genius. Not only does Parks strive to explore African American linguistic sound, rhythm, and pattern, but she imbues the language with specificity, emotion, and meaning, creating poetic dialogue that ranges from heartfelt plaintive yearnings to blistering condemnations (35, 69). Longtime collaborator director Liz Diamond describes Parks’s language as “a psychological x-ray that exposes the soul of...