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With three new projects including her first on-stage role, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright talks candidly about "the love I work"
Suzan-Lori Parks is indefatigable. Even with three productions of her work opening this fall—a new play about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Sally & Tom, at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, the 20th-anniversary Broadway revival of Topdog/Underdog and Plays for the Plague Year, a new Off-Broadway musical—Parks still carved out time for an easygoing, wide-ranging and eye-opening chat.
Topdog/Underdog, which opens at Broadway's John Golden Theatre this week, is Parks' Pulitzer Prize winner, a modern-day fable about Lincoln and Booth (Tony nominee Corey Hawkins and Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pair of Black brothers who banter, battle and grapple with their shared history, issues of identity and the lure of three-card monte. Meanwhile, Plays for the Plague Year is an incredible chronicle of our collective lockdown experience, written in real time as we lived it. Running from November 4 to 27 at The Public Theater's intimate Joe's Pub, this theatrical concert also marks Parks' debut as a performer.
For our Zoom interview, she rocked a self-made "yo, Kitty" T-shirt, which at first glance looked like it said "Hello, Kitty." That's the thing about Suzan-Lori Parks or SLP, as she asked to be referred to in this article: In addition to her blazing intellect and talent, she possesses a mischievous wit and is always up for teasing out ideas in unexpected ways. She promised to make me a "yo, Kitty" shirt if I "behaved." I quickly caught on that meant throwing away my notes and having a freewheeling conversation.
Juan Michael Porter II: Do you see the revival of Topdog/Underdog as tapping into the "great replacement" theory we hear about from certain people?
SLP: Explain to me what you're talking about with the "great replacement" theory.
Porter II: People who partook in the insurrection on January 6 and their sympathizers claim that America is their dream that others are trying to take away from them. I imagine that John Wilkes Booth saw President Abraham Lincoln as selling out the South and stealing his inheritance. The brothers in Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln and Booth, are dealing with a world that has stolen so much from them while cutting them off at the knees. All they have left is a piece of inheritance that one is trying to take from the other, even as they fight to preserve themselves. A lot of meta textual thoughts go through my head when I think about this play.
SLP: Ooh, wait until you see Tom & Sally. It's full of metatheatrical good stuff. Yeah, I think you got it. It's not what I went in with when I wrote it, but I think that's a great way to think about Topdog/Underdog.
What I love about what you just said: Up until the storming of the Capitol, I had celebrated January 6 as Topdog/Underdog Day! That's when I started writing the play and every January 6 from 1999 forward, I had done a little dance of gratitude and had a perfectly blissful, happy day.
Then in 2021, I was walking around town and having my blissful happy day and some people came up to me asking, "Are you Suzan-Lori Parks?" And I was like, "Oh my god, this is great because this is the day that I started writing Topdog and it's so cool that you guys are saying hello to me today." And then one of them was like, "Shit!" because they looked at their phone and realized that people were storming the Capitol and I was like, well, that's now attached to my Topdog. So, I would say to your beautifully articulated thesis, yeah, it's all connected.
Porter II: That makes me think of a friend whose birthday is September 11.
SLP: That was such a different world.
Porter II: Did you anticipate that Topdog/Underdog would still resonate 20 years after its premiere? Or rather, does it feel different to you from when you initially wrote it?
SLP: I didn't have any expectations about it. I wrote it very quickly with a lot of love and a desire to celebrate the lives of people like Lincoln and Booth, and to give the community a song to sing. When the guys are rehearsing and I'm hanging out at the Golden Theatre, I holler from the house, "Sing the song, brothers! Sing the song!" And they know exactly what I mean.
It was just my desire to write something beautiful and full of love. Same now, hasn't changed. So far in my career as a writer—which has been almost 40 years—having expectations is not who I've been. I just want to write continually and to create the most beautiful things that I can, whether it's Topdog, Sally & Tom or Plays for the Plague Year—I wrote 23 songs with lyrics and music for that show. For Sally & Tom, I wrote one. I just try to do my best work. That's all I'm doing.
Porter II: Does writing songs for a play feel different from doing a straight play?
SLP: It doesn't really because I'm always writing to a groove. There's a slightly tricky thing that goes on. I'm not a neuroscientist or whatever, but I feel that there's a different aspect of my brain that is activated with music. So, in that respect, it does feel different. I play piano and violin—not in public—and guitar in public, so I'm glad to have them. But I mostly write on the guitar and piano. I have to find a groove, find some chords that I like and a rhythm. Find a picking pattern sometimes. And then it comes out of that. It's similar to other kinds of writing, a screenplay or a TV pilot or whatever, because I write to the rhythm, always.
Porter II: The original production of Topdog/Underdog felt like such a dance to me. I kept thinking I was going to see it staged as a dance production someday.
SLP: Like a Bill T. Jones concert? Or Pina Bausch?
Porter II: More Pina.
SLP: I loved Pina Bausch. So sorry that she passed. What a great artist. I saw everything I could of hers at BAM. Absolutely loved her work. I'm glad you're a fan also.
There's so many ways to do so many things. For me, what the characters are saying needs to be said. Like in Sally & Tom, we've got a character named James who has a beautiful speech. And Amari Cheatom, who's doing a brilliant job of playing James at the Guthrie, said, "I get to say all the things!" And I'm like, "Yeah. There are things that need to be said." There are things that the guys in Topdog/Underdog are saying that need to be said in public—and be heard! So yeah. People can interpret it in many different ways. I tell people, "It's my clay. It's your production."
Porter II: Speaking of interpretations, hearing Lincoln and Booth talk about what their parents left them made me think of what my parents left me: an attempt to rewrite the world so that I wouldn't have to deal with BS. Because of my sheltered upbringing, I didn't know that these characters—who are everywhere —existed until I met them through you.
SLP: Yeah, I know a lot of people like Lincoln and Booth. I don't have family all over the world anymore—a lot of people have passed away. But I have family all over the country who are like that. I wasn't just writing out of my ass. But I also wasn't copying someone's life. I wouldn't transcribe what they were saying, either. But I knew and I still know people like that, who have gone through difficult circumstances. People who live in a single room with their sibling.
Porter II: What amazes me about Topdog/Underdog is that I get to see Black folks who don't have to be respectable on stage, and who are real. They are worthy of having their stories told beyond their presumed lack of respectability.
SLP: Yeah, I'm interested in people being real. I'm not really religious, but I have a lot of respect for different kinds of spiritual orientations. The one I'm most familiar with is the Christian tradition. You see those bumper stickers: WWJD, what would Jesus do? The idea that the historical Jesus went into the cave and Lazarus was dead. And he was like, "Wake up." So, what would Jesus do? Jesus would go to stinky places.
I'm gonna go to the stinky places where we're not looking good. There are enough stories out there for all of us to tell. But I follow the tradition of going to those who have been hurt. That's what I can do. I will pause to help heal my brother or sister who has fallen and hurt themselves or been pushed down. People can say, "Oh! You should write about where we all look good." Yeah, that's okay. Everyone's got their skill and I follow WWJD.
Porter II: I appreciate that because as a journalist who is living with HIV, I have friends who say, "You don't write about happy things." I write about what I'm naturally drawn to.
SLP: I just offer you this: I didn't say unhappy things. That is a great misunderstanding. We have a whole bunch of artists who go, "Only Black joy," these days. We're being instructed to only write about Black joy. And I understand; I'm in the community too. And I'm not interested in trauma porn. That's just an inability to write well in my opinion.
When people go and see Topdog/Underdog, there's a lot of joy. I'm not dealing with people who are only wounded or all sad. That's a misunderstanding. When we truly write about a truth, when we truly embrace a truth, we embrace it in its entirety and we find, surprisingly, great joy. People are like, "Oh! SLP! You're so lively; you're so busy; you're catching this energy." And look at where I'm standing. I'm standing at my standing desk on my Boogie Board [which is pink and covered with fantastical, adorable creatures]. So, the idea that writing about difficult things or people in difficult circumstances is going to be the downer, or that we have to only do happy things cuts us off from where we might find our greatest treasure.
Because the earliest example of civilization is the evidence of someone who cared for someone who had broken their bone. You've probably read about this online. They found a skeleton with a broken femur bone that had been wrapped and cared for. And they said, "This is one of our earliest pieces of evidence of civilization; taking someone who has had trauma and caring for them." So, either we're going to be civilized, or we're going to be entertained. We can make a choice. And I tell you, there's a lot of joy in caring for someone who has been wounded. We're forgetting that and I need you to remember. Let me get off my soapbox.
Porter II: I do want to clarify that because I am living with HIV, it is the greatest privilege to write about my community. And those who see it as misery don't understand the joy I get from telling our stories.
SLP: I hear you. Right on. It sounds like you're on the right path. And together, with others, we can tell that truth.
Porter II: It's not all Rodgers and Hammerstein, nothing against them. It's just opening a different window. I'm curious, what were the things that opened your window to the possibility of telling the stories that you want to tell?
SLP: I mean, look out the window. Listen to kids playing on the playground. Or walk by guys playing dominoes or a ball game. Or in line at the checkout counter, you hear the world singing. I listen with my heart. I listen with my ears. I listen closely with my whole self. The world is singing the song. We're all singing the song louder than some bullshit that somebody says we should or should not be doing. And it's a daily reminder. We have to wake up and go, "What's the message the day laid on me? I'm here, right? I'm here. I'm ready. I'm ready to serve. I'm showing up." Or whatever. "Siri. Here I am." And then there it is.
When you start crawling up the asses of people who are trying to fucking control you, or get you to buy stuff that you don't need, or you think you need a lot of sugar—I'm saying these things because we have an 11-year-old kid and yeah: Sugar! And all the games. So, we're trying to sort of steer him toward things, but you have to constantly wake up and know that other people of different ages, generations, ethnicities, persuasions and nationalities have a contribution to make to the beautiful song. Everybody's part of it. Not just the people you agree with. So, it's really hard, but it's also the work I love. I almost said, "It's the love I work," and that's actually it. It's the love I work. It's the love I work.
Porter II: Last question: What's at the top of your playlist right now?
SLP: Oh, Kendrick [Lamar]. We're playing "The Heart." I get my daily dose of Nina Simone because she's amazing. But all kinds of music. Loretta Lynn just passed and she's a brilliant artist. She lived her life by her song. So again, it's everybody. It's all of us. I study yoga and yoga means union. It's not easy. It takes a lot of work, but it's a joy. It's the love you work.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Juan Michael Porter II is the staff writer for TheBody.com and a contributor to TDF Stages, Did They Like It?, SF Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, them, Into More and SYFY Wire. He is a National Critics Institute and Poynter Power of Diverse Voices Fellow. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.
Top image: Suzan-Lori Parks. Photo by Tammy Shell.