The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks

Tags: Saartjie Baartman, SuzanLori Parks, Suzan-Lori Parks, Academy of Achievement, Abraham Lincoln, Venus Hottentot, American Theatre, Parks, Peter Francis James, James Baldwin, history plays, ha, Coretta Scott King SuzanLori Parks, Miss Sartje Baartman, Rosa Parks, writing, AfricanAmerican, Steppenwolf Theatre, Emily Morris, Academy of Achievement James Baldwin, Baartman, Imperceptible Mutabilities, Baldwin, Garrett SuzanLori Parks, Richard Foreman, James Earl Jones, Mel Johnson Jr, Mel Johnson Jr., Mr. Foreman, Adina Porter, Yale Repertory Theater
Content: 8/25/2016
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Search The Possession of SuzanLori Parks By listening to "the figures that take up residence inside me," the playwright resurrects a lost and dangerous historyand dares audiences to venture with her into its depths By ShawnMarie Garrett SuzanLori Parks began writing novels at the age of five. But it wasn't until she first heard voices that she realized she might be cursed and blessed with a case of possessionin both senses of that word. Parks knew that she possessed something, but she also knew that it possessed her. It was 1983. She was working on a short story called "The Wedding Pig" for a writing class she was taking with James Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Suddenly she had the sense that the people she was writing about were in the room with her, "standing right behind me, talking. Not telling the story, but acting it outdoing it. It was not me," she says, "not the voice of confidence or the voice of doubt. It was outside of me. And all the stories I wrote for this class were like that." Parks intended from the beginning that her writing should be read aloud. So in Baldwin's workshops she would speak her stories, playing all the characters, recreating her creative process, moving naturally from writing to (or back to) performance. Observing her, Baldwin soon posed the obvious question: "Why don't you try writing plays?" Parks had never done theatre in high school or in college because, well, she thought it was "dumb," and most theatre people turned her off. But this was James Baldwin talking. "Someone I respected was telling me what to doin a good way," she says. "It wasn't some WhoseyWhatsit who runs La Fuddy Duddy Playhouse in WhoseyWhatsitville." (Experience has instilled in Parks a healthy contempt for dimwitted dramaturgy, workshops and readings that go nowhere, and the cookiecutter mentality of conventional "play development.") Baldwin's suggestion inspired her to complete her first play, The Sinners' Place, during her senior year, and a smallcollege territorial battle ensued. The play earned Parks honors in her English major even as it was rejected for production by the theatre department on the grounds that "You can't put dirt onstage! That's not a play!" Dirt Onstage would turn out to be something of a theme for Parks, who has gone on since her Mount Holyoke days to become one of the most intriguing and challenging young playwrights of the contemporary American stage. Even The Sinners' Place, though "only a first try at writing," she said in a 1996 interview, "had all of the things in it that I'm obsessed with now. Like memory and family and history and the past." And, of course, "a lot of dirt on stage which was being dug at." In her subsequent history plays, Parks's process, as she describes it, was one of digging and listeningfor action, characters and wordsrather than of trying to shape them from the outside according to the more familiar dramaturgical model that "cleanly ARCS," as she wrote in a later essay. But then, a play that "arcs" moves, whether with dread or anticipation, towards an inevitable future. Parks's history plays, by contrast, try to make contact with an unknown past, and so require a different process, a different structureand, yes, occasionally, dirt. "I'm obsessed with resurrecting," she said in an interview published around the time of the appearance of perhaps her most provocative play, Venus, "with bringing up the dead...and hearing their stories as they come into my head." The blow of Parks's early rejection at Mount Holyoke was softened somewhat when Mary McHenry of the college's English department slipped Parks a copy of Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro. Along with Ntozake Shange, who devised the "choreopoem" as theatre text, the adventurous Kennedy showed Parks that she could do anything she wanted on stage. Parks had already learned from her favorite fiction writers, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, that she could do anything she wanted with language, and that character and feeling needn't be sacrificed at the high altar of formal experimentation. "Surface difficulty, daring, order, inventiveness and passion writing should have all of these," Parks says. But mostly (and characteristically) Parks approved of these great modernist writers' chutzpah: "I'm fascinated with what they were allowed to do, I guess," she told an interviewer in 1995. "What Joyce allowed himself to do, what Beckett allowed himself to do, and Woolf...what they got away with." From the beginning, Parks wanted to dare as much, to offer as much to her audiences as these writers offered to their readersand to get away with it. Unlike many young writers, she was also up to the challenge. In his evaluation of her performance in his class, Baldwin described Parks as "an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time"and this was before she'd had a single play staged or an essay published. Given her ambition and her admiration for "difficult" writing, only one question remained: Were American theatres and their audiences ready to dare as much for her? 2. Politics Sometimes courageous, sometimes cowardly, always embattled, the American theatre, at the moment Parks emerged, found itself smack in the middle of the socalled "culture wars" and the battle over the reconfiguraton of the National Endowment for the Arts. Within the theatre, debates raged (and still rage) about how multiculturalism should work, not just in theory but in practice. By 1989, the year Parks had her first professional production, black playwrights and actors and "nontraditional" casting practices were mostly "in" black directors, designers and administrators were, and still are, mostly "out." Despite the increasing diversification of the American repertoire in the decade since then, there persists in many quarters a mentality, however wellmeaning, that ghettoizes AfricanAmerican drama, and in so doing oversimplifies its formal variety and implies that white and black theatre (and by extension white and black history) have nothing to do with each other: they remain separate but unequal. Separatism has frequently cropped up as both a white and a black utopian dream. Parks, more than any other recent writermore than August Wilson or other polemicists "fired," as Wilson has written, in the "kiln" of the '60sshows, mostly through her sense of humor, exactly how and why trying to make black history a minor subplot of a white story is laughable. Or laughable and painful, to be more precise: a stinging joke with realworld consequences, like the joke of "scientific" racial classification itself, a perverse fiction made fact in the 19th century by misinterpreters of Darwin, "proved" through phrenology and other invented sciences, written as history, and then denounced in the early part of the century by AfricanAmerican intellectuals. More recently, though, race, as well as gender and ethnicity, have been reworked into the more individualistic politics of "identity"a word to conjure with at the time Parks was building her reputation.
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Parks's appearance on the theatrical scene seemed to jibe perfectly with the American theatre's changing policies in the '90s: its 11thhour grant proposals emphasizing its dedication to multiculturalism, its suddenly overriding priority to rescue its eversinking bottom line by reaching out to "new" audiences. Yet this seemingly perfect timing turned out to be a mixed blessing. Indubitably, Parks's career took off fast. Her second play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, written in 1989 when Parks was 28, received ecstatic reviews when it debuted at the Brooklyn experimental outpost BACA Downtown. It won her an Obie, and Mel Gussow of the New York Times left Brooklyn so impressed he called Parks "the year's most promising playwright." Since then, Parks has benefited from numerous grants and has become an artistic associate of the Yale Repertory Theatre, which has produced three of her plays, including two premieres. She now has an artistic home at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, which has housed three of her plays so far and will produce another, Topdog/Underdog, this season. All richly deserved. Yet the love affair between Parks and the American theatre has, like most love affairs, been complicated. Words like "diversity" and "multiculturalism" sound good in publications, but the truth is, many theatres are still afraid to take what they consider to be financial risks and often assume, a priori, that audiences will bristle at unfamiliar or marginal work. "Marginal": a code word for formally experimental or "culturally specific" plays. According to marketing departments, Parks's are both. The "surface difficulty" and "daring" of Parks's first two history plays, Imperceptible Mutabilities and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, did appeal strongly to a small yet unpredictable assortment of theatre artists, audiences and critics who could see how Parks was inventing new ways of shaping dramatic character and structure, and could hear the originality and feel the physical impact of what she was doing with words. "Her voice has already made a difference on our stage," dramaturg Laurence Maslon of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., told a reporter in 1993. "If we can't hear her, there's nothing wrong with her voice, just something wrong with our ears." "She sits all alone amongst her generation, peerless," Parks's fellow playwright Han Ong maintained the next year, at the time of the premiere of Parks's third history play, The America Play. Six years on, and four plays later for Parks, few would argue with his assessment. No one of her generation has yet approached the level of her contribution. Yet Parks has never been well cast in the narrow role the American theatre has wanted, and perhaps still wants, her to play. The daughter of an army colonel, Parks grew up across six different states and spent a long stretch of time, her junior high school years, in Germany. There, she both learned German and gained a critical, estranging perspective on language itself, and therefore also on identity and culture. "In Germany," she told an interviewer in 1993, "I wasn't a black person, strictly speaking. I was an American who didn't speak the language. I was a foreigner." Like Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and so many other AfricanAmerican Artists, Parks was changed by spending time outside of raceobsessed America. "Places far away like Timbuktu, like France, like Africa," she wrote in a 1996 essay for Grand Street, "they draw us out like dreams. The faraway provides a necessary distance, a new point of reference, a place for perspective." Forced separation and the longing for home, for the missing, for the distant and the dead, pervade her writing Part Four of Imperceptible Mutabilitieseven centers around a black army sergeant separated from his family. Yet reducing this recurring motif to psychology or biography obscures the more important matter of how it works as a formal principle: Parks's is a drama of longing and echoes. "Every play I write is about love and distance. And time," Parks said in 1994. "And from that we can get things like history." Hers is not a drama of polemicsshe has sounded this gong over and over again, in nearly every interview she has given. In 1990, she asked in a postshow discussion: "Why does everyone think that white artists make art and black artists make statements?" In 1992, she told an interviewer: "I don't write headlines...People say the black experience is X, and usually the X is the sorrows and frustrations and angers of people who have been wronged. That's all we get to write about. That's the black experience. Well, that's very important, but it's not my thing." In 1994: "I just don't respect 'politically correct' writing." In 1995: "In theatre we have more simplistic forms of representation that are still held up as examples of the best kind of theatre that black people can involve themselves in. It's just a long road, a long, dumb, road." Nor have audiences escaped her critique: "They only want something simple," she complained in 1995, but acknowledged, "I know my plays aren't for everybody." 3. Figures For her part, Parks doesn't write with a specific, or indeed any, theatrical audience in mind. In her 1994 essay "Possession," Parks quotes Baldwin describing "the leap" he had to make to commit himself to "the clear impossibility of becoming a writer, and attempting to save my family that way." For Parks, too, the leap required faith, especially considering that the family she writes about extends far beyond living relatives to embrace those same "60 million and more" to whom Toni Morrison dedicates her novel Belovedthe historical masses of the African Diaspora. "If I said that 'I write for the audience,'" Parks admits in "Possession," "I would be lying. I write for the figures in the plays." "Figures": gesturing toward history, symbol and silhouette, and finally toward poetry, the term suggests that Parks writes as much for her love of language as for the people who have led to her plays. Yet the two categories, speakers and words, also frequently merge, especially in the history plays that launched her career, for both are living vessels through which the dead can speak. Parks's use of the term "figures" also makes sense considering that until they are performed, dramatis personae are only words, words, words. Yet because, as Parks writes, "words are so old, they hold," and have "a big connection with the what was." Like actors, they perform they have an electric life of their own. "I write because I love black people," Parks has said. "That in itself will take me a long way"a prospect that should give anyone interested in American theatre a feeling of hope. The history plays that brought Parks national renown in the present are borne back ceaselessly into the past, because for her the past is a matter, literally, of flesh and blood. "Who am I?" she asked herselfand the question was not rhetoricalin an interview in Bomb magazine with Han Ong: "It's the question at the very center of every one of my plays. Who am I? I'm not just SuzanLori Parks, 30 years old. It's all those who came before me, because my family comes from all over." 4. Love & Distance In Imperceptible Mutabilities, The Death of the Last Black Man, The America Play and Venus, Parks has dramatized some of the most painful aspects of the black experience: Middle Passage, slavery, urban poverty, institutionalized discrimination, racist ethnographies. Yet even as her plays summon up the brutality of the past, they do so in a manner that is, paradoxically, both horrific and comicirresistibly or disrespectfully so, depending on your point of view. A character called "Black Man with Watermelon" from The Death of the Last Black Man tells the audience how he's been electrocuted, lynched, chased by slavecatchers and their dogs...yet doggedly, he himself keeps reappearing, a bit like the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. His description of being lynched frankly invites the audience to laugh and feel sick at the same time: "Swingin from front tuh back uhgain...Chin on my chest hangin down in restin eyes each on eyein my 2 feets. Left on thuh right one right one on thuh left. Crossed eyin. It was difficult to breathe. Toes uncrossin then crossin for luck." In Liz Diamond's production of the play at Yale Rep in 1992, the actor who delivered these lines had a rope tied to a tree branch dangling from his neck. "I've had people roll up my scripts and shake them in my face," Parks told a writer in 1993, even before the premieres of her two most controversial plays, The America Play and Venus. These two plays challenge conventional thinking by Parks's insisting that the stories of Africa, America and Europe have been inextricably interwoven through cultural borrowing and exchange, as well as subjugation: a warp and
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woof of violence and suffering, yes, but also of "love and theft" (to borrow the title of a book about minstrelsy by Eric Lott). In The America Play, a man who is presumably black (though Parks says the play could be done with an allwhite cast) named "The Foundling Father" has always been told that he bears a "strong resemblance" to Abraham Lincoln. So he develops an obsession with the "Great Man," learning all of Lincoln's famous lines and the minutiae of his murder at Ford's Theater. The Foundling Father loves Linconalia so much that he leaves his wife and son to go out West and play the role of Lincoln in a penny sideshow. Like the Venus Hottentot, who in Venus rises from her own tawdry sideshow to become the mistress of the French scientist who will eventually abandon her and then dissect her body after she dies, the Foundling Father "falls in love with the wrong person, falls in love with the wrong dream," as Parks says. Parks has always resisted the directives of the force she and other experimental AfricanAmerican artists quietly call the "colored police" artists and critics who insist the community should offer positive role models through its art and "keep it real." Instead, Parks wraps her dramas around losses so great that they defy the directive to "keep it real," to remain within the boundaries of realism, a form towards which African American drama has often turned to escape the painful distortions of minstrelsy. The losses Parks has theatricalized are the losses of humanity, dignity and life of place, time, culture and family and finally of a rightful place in World Historythe kind of history that gets written down and taught in schools. Yet her methods make some in the AfricanAmerican theatre community uncomfortable, and, significantly, Parks's plays are rarely produced at theatres exclusively devoted to the production of AfricanAmerican drama. A plan to print a symposium on Parks's work in Theater magazine in 1993 had to be scrapped because the editors could not find AfricanAmerican critics willing to go on record with their opinions. Though several invited critics said they admired Parks's talent, they objected, in essence, to her politics. Her tendency to attract predominantly white audiences and directors sparks further questions in some minds about whether she is speaking to or for the AfricanAmerican experience. But Parks's plays simply differ from representations of "black life" (and Parks would insist that "black lives" is more accurate) that aim to be "realistic." Parks shows that history is and always has been as much enemy as ally to the collective memories and shared secrets of a black people jettisoned into a white world. Both American and European histories have tended to excise their black parts or to hide those parts behind largerthanlife, shadowcasting, white symbolic surrogates (like Abraham Lincoln, the Great Man who "freed the slaves," single handedly). For Parks, written History can ultimately serve as only a partial record of the black experience, which has been passed down as much through expressive forms as written ones. Moreover, traditional theatrical forms could not accommodate, as she writes, "the figures which take up residence inside me." Because theatre itself is an event that allows people to gather at a specific place in time, it is "the perfect place to 'make' history," Parks reasonsto fill in the gaps in the story of AfricanAmerica by "staging historical events which, through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history." Yet only one of Parks's history plays, it turns out, is even loosely based on what 25 years ago might have been confidently called "historical fact," and that one, Venus, takes considerable liberties. The others are pure poetic invention, sometimes celebratory, sometimes sexy, sometimes cruel, always playful, often hilarious. They also leave room for ambiguity concerning their characters' choices: there is a stubborn refusal on the part of the playwright to romanticize the experience of oppression. The characters struggle and suffer, but are also always viewed through the lens of a pervasive, sometimes absurdist, sometimes tragic, sense of irony. They rarely "do the right thing." They are not heroes or saints, facing racism with the calm dignity of martyrs nor are they hapless victims, caught up in forces beyond their control nor are they instigators of civil disobedience. Human follywhether black or whiteis never smoothed over in Parks's plays with the balm of sentimentality. The experience of oppression is not ennobling, and the oppressor, rather than being fetishized or demonized, is often simply absent. The immediate experience of Parks's characters is more like that of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, who sees history not as an arrow or a spiral but as a boomerang, for which one had best "keep a steel helmet handy." Yet Parks's figures are nothing if not resilient their very resilience makes a mockery of history's boomeranging violence as well as its even more ominous interludes of silence. And Parks's dramaturgy, negotiating and balancing political commitment, irony and play, ultimately engineers its own boomerang effect: Parks's audiences, whatever their backgrounds, travel through her theatre's repetitions and revisions to arrive at an understanding that they, too, must count themselves among history's dupes. Parks challenges audiences to test with her the theory that seeing more deeply into our shared history is partly a matter of looking closer and longer. She takes her audiences through double (and triple) takes, asks them to observe what changes and what remains the same over the span of historical and performance time, and to take nothing at face valueparticularly not the language through which history exerts its force. For Parks, what's come before is still and always with usall of us. It's in our collective memories, in our gestures, in our genes, in our rituals and habits, and most of all, for Parks, in our words, with their "fabulous etymologies [and] thrilling histories." Her theatre of history, then, unlike August Wilson's, is a space of simultaneity. History for Parks is not necessarily a progressive experience, or even a set of finished events that can be divided and dramatized by decade. The pain of a past that has never passed is precisely what sharpens the bite of her wicked satire. "How dja get through it?" is the opening question of Imperceptible Mutabilities. "Mm not through it," comes the answer. It's a dialogue that might tiptoe around survivors of trauma, as well as writers and performers but in Parks's fluid writing, that "it" might also stand in for the performance in progress, for historyeven for Parks's own writing process and her nowburgeoning career. Racism, sexism and the pseudosciences that continue to circulate around themsocial Darwinism, bell curves, "theories" of evolutionary psychology historical positivism and the philosophical tradition that props it up even the horrors of Middle Passage, lynching, minstrelsy, stereotypes: Others have denounced these histories, tried to exorcise them, tried to move beyond them. Parks makes them look both murderous and ridiculous, a strategy that has also been employed by novelists such as Ishmael Reed and Charles Johnson, and visual artists such as Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charlesall of whom have also received praise and criticism in equal measure for their cockeyed, comic views of black history. But Parks also feels a responsibility to "those who came before" and takes it seriously. Her plays, she has said, are like complex carbohydrates, nourishing but difficult to digest, and for some, even to watch. Her figures have names like "Black Man with Watermelon," "Black Woman with Fried Drumstick" and professions like "digger" (a word which, as it echoes through The America Play, can't help but summon up its charged, ghostly rhyme). "Come on inside and allow her to reveal to you the Great and Horrid Wonder/ of her great heathen buttocks," cries a carnival barker called "The Mother Showman," introducing the star of Parks's Venus. "Thuh Missing Link, Ladies and Gentlemen: Thuh Venus Hottentot:/ Uh warnin tuh us all." Venus is the one in the spotlight, being described as subhuman, but the discomfort is felt equally by the spectators, who can't take their eyes off her. 5. Listening The most successful productions of Parks's plays have approached her dense language in the same manner in which she creates it: by digging into it (and "digging" it) rather than by layering on meanings or inventing startling juxtapositions. These latter approaches, handed down from modernism, are still commonhabitual, perhaps?in much contemporary experimental theatre, but they don't work well for Parks's plays, which are already so mutifaceted that they require simplicity above all in their staging. Actors lucky enough to test out their vocal instruments on one of Parks's literally breathtaking flourishes know her writing comes from the gut, not the head. Parks dances and plays music as she writes she practices karate and yoga and has a physical presence that can fill a whole room,
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whether or not she is speaking. "She does incredible things with language," the actor Pamela Tyson, who has appeared in two of Parks's plays, told an interviewer in 1992. "She does the same thing with her work that Shakespeare does with his text. You can't have a lazy tongue. You have to open your mouth, you have to have to be melodic, you have to have colors and levels and intonations, and she allows you to use your entire instrument." Parks does not write any kind of realistic version of AfricanAmerican speech for her black characters. Instead, like Ntozake Shange before her (though in a different style), she crafts a theatrical poetry that bears the same relation to black dialectal forms that, for example, Joyce's language bears to the speech of the Dubliners he heard and remembered. Meanwhile, Parks's spelling, which can make her plays look impenetrable on the page, is part of a tradition in AfricanAmerican letters of deliberately damaging and reshaping Written English. Shange writes that AfricanAmerican writers have to take English "apart to the bone/ so that the malignancies/ fall away/ leaving us space to literally create our own image." Parks's approach is more playful, and the dangers (as well as the pleasures) of imagecreation are major themes of The America Play and Venus. Parks's extraordinary theatrical languagewhich includes such "foreign words and phrases" (as she calls them) as "ssnuch" ("a big sniff") and "do in diddly dip didded thuh drop" ("a fancy yes")was first heard in a production of her play about marriage, Betting on the Dust Commander, which Parks herself directed in 1987 at a space called the Gas Station in the East Village of New York City. Then Imperceptible Mutabilities caught the attention of the playwright Mac Wellman, who passed the script along to Liz Diamond, a director he knew who liked unconventional work. But few know that it was Diamond who convinced Parks that an early draft of Imperceptible Mutabilities needed "connective material" and might work better as a tetraptych than as a triptych. Parks's responded by faxing new text to Diamond from the MacDowell colony, where she was in residence. "This poetry started coming through the fax machine," Diamond says. "I couldn't believe what I was seeingand it was a first draft!" This poetry would later become the "Third Kingdom" and "Third Kingdom (Reprieve)" sections of the play. Diamond would go on to direct three of Parks's other plays at various other theatres. Parks and Diamond's collaboration was rewarding for both, and Parks credits Diamond with teaching her much of what she now knows about theatrical productionits compromises, rewards and risks. From the beginning, both emphasized that they wanted to pursue separate paths as well as work together. With The America Play, however, the collaboration between Parks and Diamond came to a rather sudden end. The America Play, under Diamond's direction, was the first of Parks's plays to transfer from Yale Rep to New York's Public Theater. Disastrous boxoffice receipts, walkouts and mixed (but mostly negative) critical reactions may have been behind the decision to replace Diamond as director when the show moved to New York. Some of the same publications that favorably reviewed Parks's first two history plays skewered The America Play. The New York Times's Vincent Canby approved of "the handsome supportive physical production" of The America Play at the Public, but worried, paradoxically, that it somehow "lessened the playwright's obligation." If the play were truly great, he concluded, "it could be played with as much effect in the middle of an ordinary living room." Parks herself also had objections to the production, though hers were the opposite of Canby's. She felt that the set by Riccardo Hernandezwhich represented the "Great Hole of History," where the play takes place, as a vast, glossy, empty white spacedidn't lessen so much as undermine the playwright's intentions by emphasizing the theoretical over the theatrical. Today, she says simply that the play "was much simpler than the [premiere] production made it out to be." It was also dirtier. The power and permanence of theatre for Parks, and its distinctiveness from other literary forms, lies in its unseemly obsession with unearthing hushedup secrets, performing what's been buried or hidden away, revealing the carnal, physical body, and getting its hands (yes) dirtyin front of an audience, as part of a ritualized, shared event. Parks refers, for example, to the character of Brazil from The America Play as "the kind of guy who scratches his crotch when he knows you're looking. This is not the shiny, happy, wellintentioned, loving family that the production presented. It missed the weird gaps and silences of family life." But if The America Play's audiences were denied its unseeemly aspects, Venus's audiences were confronted with unseemliness headon, despite the idiosyncraticand ultimately for Parks, disappointinghandling of the production by New York's wellknown avantgarde playwright and director Richard Foreman. Venus examines the historically true story of a 19thcentury African sideshow freak named Saartjie Baartman who was billed as the Venus Hottentot. Parks fancifully presents the character as a fullblown diva looking for money and stardom, who enjoys wearing towering wigs and having her buttocks perfumed. Baartman's is a dangerous story to tell, and many AfricanAmerican audience members and critics were nervous, even angry, about the way Parks told it. Perhaps the harshest criticism came from the scholar Jean Young, who wrote a reaction to the play for AfricanAmerican Review entitled "The ReObjectification and ReCommodification of Saartjie Baartman in SuzanLori Parks's Venus." Yet sitting in the midst of Venus's premiere at Yale Rep, it was impossible to guess who would walk out after 15 minutes and who would rise at the end to give a standing ovationand this is nearly always the case with Parks's productions. Having followed and observed them for a number of years in a number of cities, often informally interviewing spectators who've left either frustrated or enthralled, or sometimes both, I have observed only one consistency in audience reaction to Parks's plays: It cannot be broken down by race, age, education, income or any of the other usual "predictors." Parks has always insisted, though often her producers have not, that "talking about a 'woman writer of color' is a trap. It's why there are 'slots' for certain kinds of plays in every season. Who believes this kind of thinking is going to sell tickets? All it does is limit the theatre, and underestimate the audience, in every possible way." 6. The Living Parks's work has changed radically in the three years, and three plays, since Venus. Her new worksTopdog/Underdog, In the Blood and Fucking Ado not look backwards, towards the catastrophes of history, but forwards, towards individual and psychologically motivated acts of violence that (unlike in the history plays) take place onstage. Her new dramatic structures owe more to Aristotle than to Gertrude Stein. Most important, "All the people are alive!" Parks says, with a palpable sense of relief. "The dead are finally leaving me alone! I built shrines for them, and the shrines were the plays, and now they're happy." Because her plays are now populated by characters rather than figures, Parks's dramatic poetry experiments less with "imperceptible mutability" and indeterminacy than with Brechtian dialectics: after all, as she says, "the dead speak their own kind of language, different from that of the living, and different depending on how long they've been dead." Yet all her plays, she insists, share one vital quality: "the yearning for salvation: that particular kind of salvation that only the theatre, of all the art forms, can offer." Thanks to her sometimes difficult experiences in production, Parks has even started writing stage directionsa device she previously eschewed as a "pissy set of parentheses," a poor substitute for injecting "action in the line." Finally, she has also begun to try her hand at directing: She directed a series of readings of her plays at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, and last November directed the premiere of Fucking A in collaboration with the young experimental acting company Infernal Bridegroom at Houston's Diverseworks Theatre. The history plays have formed "the foundation," Parks says, for her new plays, and probably for her work to come. "The experience of those plays, looking back, is like waking up from a dreamlike breaking the surface of the water from the underside," she says. "You go way down, you're holding your breath, you're seeing strange things...and then you come up, and the pressure's intense. It's like being born. But now the plays are different. Mothers killing children in In the Blood! The brother against the brother in Topdog/Underdog! The servant decapitating the master in Fucking A!"
American Theatre - Archives October 2000
Topdog/Underdog, a twoman play whose characters are named Lincoln and Booth, comes "right out of the subject matter of The America Play," Parks says. "But while I envision The America Play taking place in a vast void, Topdog is set in a seedy, furnished room. One thing that hasn't changed is my love of vulgarity! In Topdog, one of the characters jerks off to 'fuck books'dirty magazineshe keeps under his bed. And Fucking A, a play about a woman who is an outcast (in this case, an abortionist), was built on the foundation of Venus." Topdog/Underdog is also unique in that Parks wrote the play practically in one sitting. Her history plays, by contrast, took her a minimum of three years each. But this doesn't mean that writing is getting any easier for Parks: she spent four years and countless drafts trying to produce her first play after Venus, ending up with two plays instead: Fucking A and In the Blood. The latter she refers to as her "alien baby"it burst out of Fucking A, which at the time was a huge, operatic work with 52 scenes and a parade of floats, among other extravagances. Yet Parks discovered her "alien baby" by her usual methods: talking to and listening to her characters. "I sat down with one of the characters and said, 'What's wrong?'" The character, who later became Hester in In the Blood, responded, "'Well, first of all, my name is wrong. Then I have to tell you what play I'm in.'" Within 10 minutes, Parks says, she had started her newest play. Parks has judged history, but history has not yet judged her. Whatever is still to come, she has already indisputably altered the landscape of American drama and enriched the vocabulary of contemporary playwriting and theatre practice. Her influence can already been seen in recent plays by Robert O'Hara and Mac Wellman, among others, and in the renewed interest in historical themes and 19thcentury texts on the contemporary New York stage. Over the summer she received a prestigious award from the writer's organization PEN celebrating her as America's most important "midcareer playwright," and this fall she will be heading up the dramatic writing program at California Institute for the Arts. Eleven years into her turbulent, extraordinary career, Parks herself is more confident and certain about what she wants than ever. Or rather, as she puts it, she has learned that she knows "what the play wants," both on the page and in productionand is willing to fight for it. "Knowing what the play wants and needs is what gets it on the page in the first place. Playwriting for me, is torturebut relatively speaking, it's the easy part. In the rehearsal hall, things are more complicated. Especially with a director you respect. Directing is a craft unto itself, and it's hard. But nobody knows what the play wants better than I do." ShawnMarie Garrett is an assistant professor of theatre at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is writing a book on the plays of SuzanLori Parks. © 2006 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. © 2006 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.
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Browse > Film, Theater, and Performing Arts > Theater and Performance Studies > Theatre Journal > Volume 49, Number 2, May 1997
Reviewed by Anne Davis Basting Venus. By SuzanLori Parks. Public Theater, New York. 7 May 1996
Theatre Journal Volume 49, Number 2, May 1997
Click for larger view View full resolution Figure 1. Venus (Adina Porter) and The Mother Showman (Sandra Shipley) in the Public Theater's production of Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus, directed by Richard Foreman. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Research Areas Film, Theater, and Performing Arts > Theater and Performance Studies Recommend Email a link to this page Send Frequently Downloaded View Citation Save Citation Related Content
Click for larger view View full resolution Figure 2. Venus (Adina Porter) and The Baron Docteur (Peter Fancis James) in the Public Theater's production of Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus, directed by Richard Foreman. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
The Bottom of Desire in Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus
How does history impact the present? How do present actions reshape the past? What is the shape of the past? Suzan-Lori Parks's latest play, Venus, grapples with questions that echo with her previous works, including The American Play and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. In Venus, the shape of the past takes the form of "the great heathen buttocks" of Miss Sartje Baartman, an African woman brought to London in 1810 to play the freak show circuit. According to Parks, Miss Baartman is lured to London by promises of prosperity, only to be sold to The Mother
Project MUSE - Venus (review) Showman, caretaker of The 8 Human Wonders. Joining the ranks of a three-legged man and Siamese twins, Baartman becomes known as "The Venus Hottentot;" her enormous buttocks a spectacle of primitive, uncontained sexuality.
This seemingly straightforward tale of exploitation, which the play reminds us occurred three years after the slave trade was made illegal, is complicated by Baartman's desires to be famous, loved, and, in her own words, filthy rich. Instead, caged like an animal, she is merely filthy. Not allowed out of the cage even to relieve herself, the stench of her feces ironically adds to her exoticism and marketability. Rather than kill her desires, her captivity fuels them. But Baartman's desires and irrepressible optimism are nearly moot. Under Richard Foreman's [End Page 223] [Begin Page 225] direction, the Public Theater's premiere of Venus is ultimately a series of untenable positions in which Baartman, and those who consistently betray her, rhetorically ask "do I have a choice?" For example, in the act 2, a doctor falls in love with Venus, buys her contract from The Mother Showman, takes Venus to Paris, teaches her French, makes her his mistress, and subjects her to medical studies. The exploitation of the cage is replaced by the prodding of doctors' instruments in a Parisian medical academy. His colleagues threaten the lasciviously benevolent doctor's career if he doesn't end his relationship with Venus. "Yr wifes distraught," says The Grade-School Chum (Venus, in TheatreForum, No. 9 [Summer/Fall 1996]: 68). "Love me?" asks Venus (67).
Witnessing and Wounding in SuzanLori Parks's Venus
The character of The Negro Resurrectionist acts as a guide through both history and the play's landscape, calling out scene numbers which run playfully forward and backward, and adding historical and literary footnotes. Fiction and nonfiction, flesh and word collide when The Negro Resurrectionist becomes Venus's Watchman at play's end --the jailor of history forced to deliver Venus's bones for medical and historical scrutiny. After she is turned out by the doctor and jailed for indecency, The Negro Resurrectionist/Watchman faces a decision similar to Venus's before him. Forced to promise delivery of her body for the autopsy, he ponders his limited choices: loss of his job and the certain ensuing poverty, or honoring the bones of the dead. Do the characters have choices? Amidst physical and economic threats and the weighty momentum of colonialism and sexism, the answer is as clear as the red light that flashes throughout the production: no.
Peace in Pieces: A Postmodern Study of Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus You have access to this content Free sample Open Access Restricted Access
The indisputability of this resounding "no" challenges the production to animate the story in other ways. Among other devices, Parks provides a play within the play, presented by a many-faced chorus, telling an abbreviated story of Venus's impact on English culture through a love affair in which a white British woman makes her buttocks more ample in order to attract her fiancй who is smitten with the Venus Hottentot. Rather than focus on the subtler nuances of Parks's playful text, Richard Foreman's direction and set design underscores Parks's emphasis on the dangerously tight circle of spectator/object relationship. His now signature wires strung above the audience divide their lines of vision and connect them to the stage action. All action is turned outward for the audience's direct consumption. For example, in a bedroom scene in act 2, Venus and The Baron Docteur stand together in a cleverly designed bed built vertically for optimum visibility. Ladders lead up to curtained box seats raised above both stage right and left. The box seats provide privacy for characters' voyeurism, echo the audience's darkened seats, and implicate the audience in Venus's objectification.
Foreman's attempts to heighten audience awareness of their own gazing meet Parks's repeating trope "Do I have a choice?" Anachronisms in the historical setting, for example, connect the story and themes to the present. One character refers to his jet lag throughout the introductory scene in which the Venus is pronounced dead: "There wont be inny show tuhnite" (72), says the Venus herself. Contemporary Music in the final scene also connects the play to the present, and turns the question of choice to the audience. Will we gaze? Will we accept? What will be our choice?
The play's nearly closed message is eased by several performances that bring full dimension to Parks's symbolic characters. Adina Porter asserts innocence, resistance, and complicity in her portrayal of Venus. Sandra Shipley shape shifts with clarity and charisma from the coercive Brother who convinces Venus to make the trip to England, to the exploitive and yet miraculously sympathetic Mother Showman. The chorus,
Project MUSE - Venus (review) although brilliantly designed to move fluidly between historical symbols and fictional characters, is at times too big and too undefined for the small stage of the Public's Martinson Hall. The play's history lesson is clear. The past is not behind us--in the sense of gone forever. In Venus the past is, quite literally, Venus's and our own individual and collective behinds--carried with us as we step into a future more aware of the deadly effects of colonialism, gazing, and racially and sexually marked standards of beauty. Anne Davis Basting University of WisconsinOshkosh
Copyright © 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press
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THEATER REVIEW;Of an Erotic Freak Show And the Lesson Therein - The New York Times
This copy is for your personal, noncommercial use only. You can order presentationready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers, please click here or use the "Reprints" tool that appears next to any article. Visit for samples and additional information. Order a reprint of this article now. » May 3, 1996 THEATER REVIEW THEATER REVIEWOf an Erotic Freak Show And the Lesson Therein By BEN BRANTLEY Correction Appended There's no denying that it's an exotic world to which the title character in Suzan-Lori Parks's "Venus," which opened last night at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, has been transported. The program defines the setting as 19th-century England and France, but the unmistakable landmarks indicate another place altogether. Walls emblazoned with chains of words, a tiny pearl chandelier, strings and wires that vivisect space and an Indigenous population of people in fezes and granny sunglasses: yes, any geographer of Off Broadway can tell you where you are. That put-upon character known as the Venus Hottentot, based on a South African woman who became a star attraction of European freak shows, is lost in the singular limbo land of Richard Foreman. Heaven knows that Ms. Parks, the author of "The America Play" and the screenplay for Spike Lee's film "Girl 6," and Mr. Foreman, the great avant-garde director, both have talent and originality to spare. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they should be married. Neither of their voices is at its strongest in this strangely flat work, and not for the reasons you might imagine. Certainly, no one has ever accused Ms. Parks or Mr. Foreman of being too obvious. Both are known for deliberately cryptic works that defy traditional chronology and dramatic structure. Yet "Venus," although nicely acted by a cast led by the wonderful Adina Porter, is indeed a protracted exercise in the obvious. It makes its points about racial and sexual exploitation firmly and early and then treads water in contorted postures for two hours. The story of Sartje Baartman, the inspiration for "Venus," is rich in dramatic potential and social reverberations. But those reverberations are so immediately audible that they don't need to be accented as thickly as they are here. Baartman, a member of the Khoikhoi tribe, came from Africa to England in 1810 to earn her living as a side-show and circus novelty, advertised as one of "the lowest links in God's great chain of being." What fascinated Europeans about Baartman was as much erotic as anthropological: her oversized buttocks, described by a 19th-century historian (quoted in the play) as "distorted beyond all European notions of beauty."
THEATER REVIEW;Of an Erotic Freak Show And the Lesson Therein - The New York Times
The text is a collage of contemporary sources -- court documents, letters to and stories from newspapers,
broadsheet ballads, a play, scientific analyses -- and the author's extrapolations about the emotional
drama behind them. Ms. Parks typically uses the distancing device of stepping back from the story to
introduce self-announced "footnotes" and "historical extracts" (delivered by Mel Johnson Jr. as an
omniscient narrator-cum-ringmaster), often to remind us nudgingly that slavery was officially abolished
in England in 1807.
But the play is also unusually accessible for Ms. Parks. Despite its occasional leap-frogging through time, it basically adheres to a straight line that follows Baartman from Africa to Europe, through the degradation of public exhibitions and a love affair with a French doctor (Peter Francis James, who is always reliably polished) who would become her anatomizer after her death.
A chorus -- which variously represents side-show audiences, scientists and the other members of the traveling freak show -- scamper and intone in the typical Foreman manner. There are also such Foreman signatures as academic podiums, charts and pointers.
In the plays Mr. Foreman writes as well as directs, these scholastic tools are applied to purely metaphysical phenomena, and they wryly show the vanity of trying to define the undefinable. Here, their satiric function is much more heavy-handed. And while both Mr. Foreman and Ms. Parks have made memorable use of hypnotic repetitions of images and phrases in other works, the double whammy of two repetitive styles feels closer to narcotic than hypnotic.
To Ms. Parks's credit, she doesn't present Baartman as just an uncomprehending victim. This woman is clearly an accomplice in her own humiliation. And Ms. Porter brings a lovely, complicated slyness to the role, as well as a feeling of dignity sullied by avarice, which makes you wish she had more to work with.
Indeed, "Venus" is best when it drops the sweeping, condemning Historical Perspective and narrows its focus to the personal. The scenes between Ms. Porter and Mr. James alone (set in an ingeniously designed vertical bed) are by far the most involving.
Nearly 200 years later, Baartman continues to cast a shadow. Headlines were made earlier this year by a feud over who has the right to Baartman's skeleton, which is now in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. The argument provoked a Cape Town professor to describe Baartman's history as "a metaphor for what happened to this country" during colonialization.
"Venus" also tells us this and broadens the metaphor to encompass the objectification of women. But isn't that the easy part to figure out? The metaphor speaks for itself here. It's the reality of the woman behind it that's most interesting. In spite of Ms. Porter's best efforts, her character is still on exhibition in a cage.
VENUS By Suzan-Lori Parks; directed by Richard Foreman; sets by Mr. Foreman; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Heather Carson; original songs, Phillip Johnston. Presented by the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, George C. Wolfe, producer, and the Yale Repertory Theater, Stan Wojewodski Jr., artistic director. At the Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street, East Village.
WITH: Adina Porter (Miss Sartje Baartman and Venus Hottentot), Peter Francis James (the man and the Baron Docteur), Sandra Shipley (the brother and others), Mel Johnson Jr. (the Negro resurrectionist) and Cedric Harris (the fat man and others).
Suzan-Lori Parks Interview -- page 6 / 7 -- Academy of Achievement
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SuzanLori Parks Interview (page: 6 / 7) Pulitzer Prize for Drama
Print Interview
You've said that you don't read your press, so if we're divulging something that you're not ready to hear...
SuzanLori Parks: I'll close my ears.
Select Career
But we read a great story about you as a beginning playwright approaching a theater critic on the subway for advice. "Where can I send my scripts?" What led you to do that and what came of it?
If you like SuzanLori Parks's story, you might also like: Edward Albee, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Athol Fugard, Ernest J. Gaines, Whoopi Goldberg, James Earl Jones, Audra McDonald, Trevor Nunn, Rosa Parks, Sidney Poitier, Harold Prince, Lloyd Richards, Amy Tan, Wole Soyinka,
SuzanLori Parks: Desperation. I'd been in New York for several years working the temp jobs, the temp word processing jobs which allowed me to write. I was just typing for people. They did have spellcheck, thank God.
0:00 / 0:52
I had to take a secretarial course because I was not a fast typer. So I learned to type a million words a minute. It was amazing. So I had been doing that, those day jobs, and writing, writing, writing at night. Writing my plays at night, and hanging out in various places and volunteering my work. Like, "I'll help clean your theater," I said to one group of folks, "Just so I can be around you guys, I'll be the janitor team." Lots of young, up andcoming artists do that sort of thing. Didn't have a desire to go to graduate school, because I'd had
8/25/2016 Esperanza Spalding, Julie Taymor and Oprah Winfrey
Suzan-Lori Parks Interview -- page 6 / 7 -- Academy of Achievement James Baldwin as a teacher. I touch my forehead because it's like he gave me a kiss on the forehead. I had James Baldwin as a teacher, and I didn't feel that I needed to enroll in another academic program, but I needed to do the work.
SuzanLori Parks can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center SuzanLori Parks's recommended reading: D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths Related Links: The Show Woman The Pulitzer Prize Barclay Agency Most Viewed Honorees: Maya Angelou
[ Key to Success ] Perseverance
So I was doing the work, going to theaters, checking out folks.
I went to one show, and I heard
someone say, "Alisa Solomon is
here," something like that, and I
looked up. I knew she was the very
much esteemed critic from the
Village Voice, and then, as luck
would have it, we were both on the
same train. It was an empty train
car, late at night. I can look strange
late at night in an empty train car.
0:00 / 0:59
Little did I know, she's a third
degree black belt in karate. I didn't
know this. So she's at the other end
of the car, and I'm like, "Oh man,
here's my chance." Desperation. I'd
go walking up to her. Little did I
know, she's getting ready to Hai ya! Luckily, she didn't hit me, and allowed me to say,
"Excuse me. You're Alisa Solomon. I'm a desperate playwright. Where do I send my
work?" She rattled off some places. She was very kind, very kind, and we're still friends
[ Key to Success ] Courage
Benjamin Carson
She's fantastic, one of these fantastic people in the theater. She gave me a list. I sent a play to every single one. One of them, BACA, downtown in Brooklyn, bore fruit. They ended up doing Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, which won the Obie in 1990 for Best New American Play. So it was very wonderful. So that was a long answer to a short question, but it brought back all those memories.
So that's a good piece of advice, too, to use your contacts, use those opportunities.
Jane Goodall
Sir Edmund Hillary
0:00 / 0:32
Coretta Scott King
SuzanLori Parks: Don't be afraid to go up to someone who's maybe further along in their career than you are and ask them for their advice. The kind of advice I mean, for example, I did not go up to her and say, "Hi. I'm a playwright. Could you read my play?" I didn't, because I knew better. I just said, "Off the top of your head, do you have any advice?" That kind of thing. So approach these people with respect for their time, but do approach them, definitely, because we all will say, "Oh, do such and such," or whatever.
8/25/2016 Rosa Parks Jonas Salk Elie Wiesel
Suzan-Lori Parks Interview -- page 6 / 7 -- Academy of Achievement
[ Key to Success ] Courage
You attracted a lot of attention with a play called Venus. It was an unusual subject. Could you tell us how you came to write it?
SuzanLori Parks: I was at a cocktail
party. I heard someone talking
about a woman named Saartjie
Baartman, from the southern region
of Africa. In the 1800s, so the
history tells us, she was part of
what they called "Hottentot" or
Khoisan peoples. Some of the
women in the Khoisan peoples are
distinguished by very large
0:00 / 1:09
buttocks. So she was taken to
England and exhibited as a freak or
as "a curiosity," I think was the term
they used. So I heard people talking
about this over at a cocktail party,
and I thought, "Wow! I really want
to write a play about her." Actually, initially, it was include her in a play which is about a
lot of people. I included her in the play and of course she took over the play, and it
became all about her. It's not a history play. It's not the History Channel. It's a play
about her and also about love. There are historical elements in it, and there's a lot of
fiction in it, too.
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What was the response to your play Venus? SuzanLori Parks: Well, people are still doing the play. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and say "I was in Venus." I was in Chicago the other day, and I met this young man Ian. I nicknamed him Art Garfunkel, because he looks like Art Garfunkel, but his real name is Ian. He directed a production of Venus, and he was just telling me, "Oh my God! It blew my mind!" So it's been blowing minds. Sometimes people say, "Oh gee, you should have made her more this and that and this and that..." and I remind them that it's not the History Channel, it's a play. And she does have agency. So it stimulates a lot of conversation, but overwhelmingly, I think for people who do the play, and who see a production of the play, it's very moving. It's very painful. It's a very painful, sad, difficult play because ultimately it's about love, which is a difficult subject, if you really go into it. There's the character of the doctor. He loves her, and he cuts her up, which is difficult. She's dead. He doesn't cut her up when she's alive, although he does well, anyway, you've got to read the play or see the play. Your play In the Blood was inspired by Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It originally had a different title, didn't it? SuzanLori Parks: Fucking A. There are actually two plays. Everything has a long story. I'm like a grandma on the porch.
Suzan-Lori Parks Interview -- page 6 / 7 -- Academy of Achievement
0:00 / 0:34 of writing a play called Fucking A.
I was in a canoe with a friend, paddling along, and I said to the friend, I hollered up to the friend, "I'm going to write a play, a riff on The Scarlet Letter, and I'm going to call it Fucking A. Ha, ha, ha!" We laughed in the canoe. As we dragged the canoe back to shore, the idea had deeply hooked me, and I knew that I had to write a play, a riff on The Scarlet Letter called Fucking A. Funny enough, I hadn't read The Scarlet Letter yet. I hadn't yet read the book, I just knew the story. Went home, read the book, and that became the long process
[ Key to Success ] Vision
I worked on it. Draft, draft, draft,
rewrite, rewrite, rewrite for like four
years, sat in front of my computer
one day and said, "This is not
working." Threw out everything that
wasn't working, threw out all the
plot,. It wasn't like The Scarlet
Letter at all. So I threw out the plot,
threw out all the characters. I got
down to two things. One was a
0:00 / 1:06
character named Hester, and one
was the title, Fucking A. I threw out
Hester, kept the title, and I heard a
voice in my head, "What about my
play?" and I said, "You're not..."
Hester says, "What about my play?"
I say, " I'm cutting you because you don't work. It doesn't work. So I'm cutting
everything that doesn't work." She says, "Oh yes, yes, yes. I have a play," and in five
seconds, I had the whole story of a play. I knew that play wasn't called Fucking A. "So
what's the name of your play?" She said, "In the Blood." I said, "Oh." So I very quickly
was able to write a play called In the Blood which is about Hester La Negrita and her
five children by five different fathers.
[ Key to Success ] Perseverance
She talks a lot about the hand of fate, "the big hand coming down on me." It's a big hand coming down on her, the hand of fate. And after I wrote that play, then I was able to go back and write a play called Fucking A, which is about another woman named Hester, Hester Smith, who is an abortionist. That play has songs in it and revenge. It's a revenge tragedy, that play. So I got two plays out of that. You have to listen to those voices when they talk to you. SuzanLori Parks: You do. The more I write, the more I feel that that's what my writing is all about.
Suzan-Lori Parks Interview -- page 6 / 7 -- Academy of Achievement I don't have anything to say. I don't have "a message." I have nothing to say. I have things to show, and my writing all comes from listening. The more I can listen, the more I can write. Once I think I have something to say, it's over. I can't hear anything, because I'm talking. 0:00 / 0:23
So you have to get out of the way of the play in order to write it down? SuzanLori Parks: Yeah. Kind of tune it. Topdog was different. That was the one exception. Was there a connection between Topdog/Underdog and your earlier work, The America Play? SuzanLori Parks: Well yes, the Abraham Lincoln thing. What's up with Abraham Lincoln? People ask me...
"Why do you write about Abraham
Lincoln?" "Why do you choose
Lincoln?" they ask me, someone
asked me the other day. I finally
realized, I don't choose Lincoln.
Lincoln chooses me. It's a continual
choosing, and I'm not sure why, but
here I am. Yes. The America Play,
which was produced in New York
initially in 1994, a story about a
0:00 / 1:17
Lincoln impersonator, an African
American Abraham Lincoln
impersonator. So it's about this guy
who bore a strong resemblance to
"Abraham Linkkuuuhn, he says. I
say it like he does, "Linkkuuuhn,"
and he went out west and began to dig what he called "a replica of the Great Hole of
History." So he was this digger ha, ha, joke and digging this hole ha, ha. It's a lot
of silly jokes in that play. Digging this hole. Then in the second act, his family comes to
look for him because they haven't heard from him in ages, and they find his remains,
but that was the first time that Lincoln chose me.
It was literally as if he walked into the room. Not the historical Lincoln. This other guy, this black guy who looked just like him walked into the room, sat down, and started telling me, "There was once a man who bore a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln..." and all I was 5/6
Suzan-Lori Parks Interview -- page 6 / 7 -- Academy of Achievement
0:00 / 0:59 in my head.
doing was just writing down what he said. It was trippy. Yeah! So that was in 1994ish, and then in 1999, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, Emily Morris, a wonderful dramaturg, and I said to her, "Oh, I know what I'm going to write about. Two brothers: Lincoln and Booth." Badumpbump. Ha ha! We started laughing, just like the canoe, Fucking A. Ha, ha, ha. It's always a joke, not a funny joke, but a joke with a hook, and I was hooked. I was hooked by the great fisherman, and I went home and wrote it quickly, and it was like silver liquid
[ Key to Success ] Vision
SuzanLori Parks Interview, Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
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Review: Venus (Steppenwolf Theatre) | Chicago Theater Beat
Home [ Halfpriced tickets! ] Enter Search Terms search Home About Us Now Playing Opening Soon HalfPriced Tix Best of Year 2011 Top 10 Top 25 2012 Top 10 2013 Top 10 2015 Top 10 Top 25 Broadway in Chicago Archives Holiday Shows Bios Review: Venus (Steppenwolf Theatre) Scotty Zacher | June 12, 2011 | 0 Comments Heightened theatrics, linguistic acrobatics detract from heightened tale
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
Written by SuzanLori Parks Directed by Jess McLeod at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map) through June 19 | tickets: $20 (all 3 for $45) | more info
Reviewed by Catey Sullivan
Look at the set of SuzanLori Parks' Venus and you can see the allbut unthinkable humiliation of its titular heroine embodied in designers Scott Davis and Emily Tarleton's creepy vision of a 19th century doctor's laboratory. The room is filled with jars of pickled organs, the results of postmortem dissections and "macerations" ­ the process of letting flesh putrefy so that the bones beneath it can be measured accurately.
The preserved specimens include the organs of Saartjie Baartman, a young woman taken from South Africa in 1810 and put on display throughout Europe as a sideshow attraction. Throngs of Anglos paid to see the "Venus Hottentot," billed as a "wild female jungle creature" of the "Dark Continent." Saartjie was displayed in an iron cage, and marketed with
Review: Venus (Steppenwolf Theatre) | Chicago Theater Beat
breathless, sensationalism as a monstrous display of grotesque femininity (an early example of the hypersexualization of darkskinned women that continues to the present day). People were urged to queue up for a chance to fondle the Hottentot's "great heathen buttocks" , said to be so freakishly large they rated comparison with a hot air balloon. Throughout Europe, men and women alike bought tickets to gape at Baartman's labia minora, which were said to dangle like monstrous turkey wattles.
After Baartman died, her body was dissected, her organs measured and displayed in a French museum. Even in death there was no dignity for Baartman: Postmortem, the most private of her private parts were still on display. In the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre staging, Baartman shares a stage with the remnants of her own body, creating a portrait of a woman who suffered the ultimate objectification. If much of today's pornography dehumanizes women by reducing them to airbrushed images of body parts (and much pornography does exactly that), the reduction of Saartjie Baartman went far further by depriving her even of a face. She became, ultimately, a collection of parts in jars.
History has somewhat restored Baartman's personhood. Her life is the subject of at least three plays, Parks' being one of the earliest. Unfortunately ­ and despite that marvelous set and several fine performances ­ Parks' play obscures the vivid, enraging heart of Baartman's story. Baartman's is an amazing, inherently dramatic and historically important tale that needs no heightened theatrics or linguistic acrobatics. Yet Parks weighs it down with plenty of both. In doing so, the playwright detracts from her subject's humanity.
Directed by Jess McLeod, Venus begins with a confusing kaleidoscope of words and movement which does little to establish any kind of meaningful foundation for what's to come. A "Negro Resurrectionist" (Michael Pogue) in contemporary dress shines a flashlight through the dusky, 1810 doctor's laboratory, eventually discovering (or perhaps awaking? It isn't clear.) an alabasterwhite chorus of two (Ann Sonneville and John Stokvis), The Baron Docteur (Jeff Parker) and Venus herself (Mildred Marie Langford). During this hallucinogenic Night at the Museum pastiche, the audience also meets a sixth character, (Carolyn Hoerdemann), an androgynous, ominous person whose role isn't immediately apparent. As preludes go, the percussive, stylized movements and poetryslam style verbiage may well leave you wishing that Parks would just get to the point.
And so she does, sort of. When Parks sticks with a straightforward dialogue and simply shows what happened to Baartman, Venus is strong stuff. Langford continues a stellar season (she did deeply moving work with in TimeLine's In Darfur earlier this year), instilling Miss Saartjie Baartman with a sweetness and a humanity that makes her plight all the more heartbreaking. In an early scene when Baartman is lured to London, Langford displays the starryeyed hope of a young woman promised riches ­ Baartman was a slave, which made the promise of financial freedom all the more tantalizing ­ for merely working as a "dancer" for two years overseas.
If anything, Parks downplays what happened next. On exhibit, Baartman was forced to squat naked in her cage, and display her genitals for endless crowds of people. The "dancing" involved stripping and shaking her buttocks while onlookers spat, or worse, at her. And although Britain outlawed slave trade in 1807, Baartman was kept as a slave. After London grew bored with her, she was purchased by a French animal trainer. When the French grew tired of her, she became a prostitute. Within five years of her arrival in London, she was dead, reportedly of syphilis. Parks glosses over much of this, instead spending much of the play showing a dysfunctional but not joyfree love story between Baartman and The Baron Docteur, who claimed to love her even as he planned to dissect her.
It's always clear that the relationship is horribly unequal, but in Parks' telling Baartman actually seems relatively happy in it. Instead of addressing the almost unthinkable sexual humiliation Baartman was subjected to, Parks presents a rather meaningless (meaningless because it's never really explained) scene where the Docteur masturbates with his back to Baartman while urging her to do likewise. Thus does the Docteur seem kinky, unkind and entitled, and the relationship woefully unbalanced in terms of power. Such relationships are unpleasant, but they're not the stuff of sexual slavery or soulannihilating humiliation.
The largest problem here is that Parks' Venus presents Baartman's story from a safe distance. The ghostly chorus of two, the choreographed blocking, the rhythmic singsong dialogue ­ all these things work to present a slightly abstract and somewhat prettified narrative. That `s an ill fit for the story of Saartjie Baartman.
Rating: Ѕ
All photos by Michael Brosilow

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