Unless appearances deceive, 40-year-old playwright-novelist Suzan-Lori Parks is having a good time in Southern California. “New York is so dark; I love the light here.” She and her husband, musician Paul Oscher, moved here two years after Parks accepted a position running the Dramatic Writing Program at CalArts. The upstairs office of her Venice Beach home contains one window that looks out onto a block of condominiums and palm trees. While slipping into the room for a moment, Oscher points out that the other window looks out over the ocean.
“We’re near the water because of Virginia Woolf,” Parks says. “When I first read To the Lighthouse, I thought, ‘This is what I want to be making.’” Parks pulls out a tattered paperback from an old bookshelf. “This is the one I read in school. It’s wet because I was probably reading it in bathtubs — this and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I think they’re the same book. Both are about a dead mother. I read them and I thought I can’t be in a lab stirring chemicals to make a living. I had to get [to the ocean] another way.”
Pointing to the painting of “the great wave” propped near a window, she says she’s taken up surfing. A “T” has been inscribed onto the hardwood floor with clear tape. “That’s where I practice popping up. It has nothing to do with my career.”
I suggest that’s not quite true.
“Yeah,” she demurs. “It is connected to writing, because you have to let go.”
When she was studying at Mt. Holyoke College, Parks had written a few short stories, which got her into a creative-writing class with James Baldwin. Observing Parks’ animated personality and gift for dialogue, he told her she should start writing plays.
There are sheets draped over framed paintings to protect them from the light. Parks follows as I amble from frame to frame, then, at my request, she lifts the cotton from a sheet of glass, like drawing a curtain, revealing a Western Union telegram from Columbia University dated 2002 and addressed to Parks. “Congratulations,” it says. “You have just won the Pulitzer Prize.”
That was for her play Topdog/Underdog, a comedic drama that casts the Cain and Abel story as the parable of two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth who are striving for some kind of family identity. One of them works at an arcade impersonating Honest Abe while being shot at by customers in a mockup of the Ford Theater. (The play opened at the New York Public Theater, transferred to Broadway and will be presented next season at the Mark Taper Forum.) Two years prior, Parks had been nominated for a Pulitzer for her operatic drama, In the Blood, spun from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which is also the source material for her perfectly named play Fucking A. (In the Blood opens July 18 for 11 performances at the Edison Theater in Long Beach.)
Between Pulitzer nominations, Parks was awarded the MacArthur “genius” Award in 2001. At the moment, however, her heart is in her first novel, Getting Mother’s Body (Random House), which came out in May. Borrowed largely from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the book follows an unmarried, pregnant teenager trekking from Texas after she learns that her mother’s corpse (reputed to have been buried with her valuable jewels) must be moved from an Arizona graveyard that’s scheduled to be paved over for a shopping mall. Sometimes at book signings, Parks sings songs she composed for the novel, as she does in her own reading of the book on a five-CD set on Random House Audio.
A huge map of Texas is tacked onto her office wall. Though born in Kentucky, Parks’ dad was in the military, so her family moved around a lot. She’s clearly got a soft spot for the Lone Star State, for the stark physical beauty of West Texas, and she doesn’t appreciate Californians’ hostility to the place stemming from, oh, maybe lynch mobs, renegade police and certain policies advocated by George W.
“Bush doesn’t mean shit,” Parks snaps. “He’s from Texas, so what? Is he going to ruin the whole thing? Stevie Ray Vaughan and my whole mother’s family are from Texas. I think we got enough people to override old goofy George. He doesn’t bother me.”
Parks’ voice squeals as her hands swat the air, like a kid — an imp with thick, black braids, and dense brows framing eyes that, unlike her face, look ancient.
In a June 2000 essay for Harper’s magazine, Russell Banks bemoaned the state of American literature as lacking a unifying “creation myth.” Everybody, he said, is writing only his or her own story, and he cited Toni Morrison in his complaint. White writers keep getting whiter, he wrote, black writers keep getting blacker. We’re all becoming increasingly isolated, “islands of the separately saved,” and our stories are devolving into “high-walled narrative ghettos.”
Banks also mentioned Parks’ mentor, James Baldwin, as saying that in order to understand this country, we need to understand the leader of a Southern lynch mob as well as his victims.
I ask Parks, who’s currently working on a screenplay adaptation of Morrison’s novel Paradise for Oprah Winfrey, whether she agrees.
“But we do have a creation myth,” Parks answers, furrowing her brow. “I do think that the Pilgrims coming over in 1620, taking the land from the Indians, and then come the slaves, and blah blah blah di blah blah — I think that is our creation myth.
“I don’t see us as a pocket of special interests at all,” she continues. “We have so many different types of people, but we have decided to be American, and when we go abroad we’re recognized as Americans. When I was in Canada on 9/11, I wasn‘t a ‘sister,’ I was an American. We’re like the Florida Keys, but because we’re pockets of people doesn’t mean we’re not a people. Look at the literature that came out of the Greek Islands. Are we not like those people? Or the British Isles? I don’t think that islands necessarily lead to weakness.”
She doesn’t go to the theater much, she says, because “I love novels, I enjoy reading plays and imagining them. If you see Macbeth performed, it can be fine, but when you read it you think, oh my god, you want to scream it’s so brilliant. Imagine listening to Bach and having to watch the musicians move around. In the modern productions, there’s so much sensory overload, you miss the simple beauty of those notes.
“As a kid, we had this piano. I did a couple of things. I’d collect rocks, and rather than practicing piano, I’d sit under it and write.”
She stares at a wall for a moment before changing the subject.
“So are they going to find these weapons of mass destruction? Kenneth Starr should ferret out that business,” she asserts. “He’s good.”
There’s something haunting her. The mental gears are still grinding over Russell Banks and James Baldwin and that Southern lynch mob leader who represents a slice of America’s soul.
“No,” Parks says, returning from a reverie, eyes now sparkling with a small epiphany that spills out like something between a poem and a sermon: “I don’t think it’s the guy who leads the lynch mob we need to figure out. He’s old news. I think it’s the guy who runs Enron. The guy who stole the pension funds. There’s no sweat, no exchange of fluids, that’s the guy. Who is he? The guy who knows that everyone who lives in that building over there will not be able to retire because now he’s living high on the hog — that, today, is our equivalent of the lynch mob. He’s in a suit, he’s educated, he’s got at least two degrees, he’s got some company and he’s robbing you blind, and you look up to him because he’s the CEO or some shit. So you’re slaving 9 to 5, no time for kids, no time for spouse, and Mr. So-and-So in the corner in the office has a boat, and he’s stealing your pension, and you fall back. And the myth of America that’s supposed to catch you does not catch you, and you keep falling.
“People everywhere are falling back into the myth of America, and it does not catch you. Because we do have a creation myth, that’s where the despair comes from.”
In the Blood is being presented by Loud*R*Mouth Productions at the Edison Theater, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach; from July 18 through August 9, Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Call (562) 987-0053.