Suzan-Lori Parks works in a sunny room on the top floor of her house in Venice, Calif., half a block from the beach. It’s a mess. She and her husband of two years, Paul Oscher, moved in only two months ago, and she’s been busy, so this pacific April afternoon finds the place a work in progress.
The essentials have been unpacked: One of the antique typewriters she collects, with a prototype of the dust jacket of ”Getting Mother’s Body” – her new novel, her first novel – stuck in its roller. A couple postcards of James Baldwin, who pointed her toward playwriting 20 years ago. A copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s ”Their Eyes Were Watching God,” one of three novels Parks is adapting for Oprah Winfrey’s production company, splayed open by her laptop. The binoculars she uses to make out the HOLLYWOOD sign in the distant hills. A taped-up teddy bear that her dog, Lambchop – ”the loveliest pit bull in the world” – got rather too friendly with. Copies of Writer’s Digest and Yoga Journal and Metropolitan Home. The classic guitar Oscher (a bluesman who played harmonica for Muddy Waters and actually hangs out around the house in dark glasses and a leather jacket) gave her after her ”Topdog/Underdog” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year.
The prize itself is on a shelf, still in its Tiffany box. ”Oh, I take it out and look at it,” Parks says. ”And then I put it back in.”
”SO, UH, YES, NO, YES, NO, YES, NO, YES, YES, YES, NO, NO, NO…. Oh…maybe?” A few weeks before her 40th birthday, Parks is sitting in a restaurant around the corner from her house, filling in a silence with answers to nonexistent questions and accompanying them by drumming with her knife and fork. She’s wearing a black knit cap on her dreadlocked head and a T-shirt advertising an Amsterdam coffee shop called Rokerij, a souvenir from her honeymoon. ”I really love the Van Gogh Museum,” she says. ”I like being near the paintings ‘cause they vibrate. I feel like they send me energy.”
Is that where it comes from? Suffice it to say that in a drama-school production of ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Parks played Puck. She talks with her hands and eats salad with her fingers, and sound effects account for a considerable bit of her vocabulary, as in ”I had really good grades in high school, but I kinda was sorta woo-hooo-hoo. Like that.” As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke, she studied creative writing with Baldwin. ”I was writing short stories,” she says. ”But I was very like that” – a flourish of the hands – ”when I read, like ‘so”’ – left arm sweeping – ”and ‘then”’ – right swooping – ”and ‘she said”’ – an explosive embrace of the air. ”I get excited. I was, like, moving, so he thought I should write plays.”
So she did, and she won scads of grants and fellowships and awards for such free-verse avant-garde dramas as 1989’s ”Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom” and 1996’s ”Venus.” The plays derive from her ”equation for black people on stage”: ”BLACK PEOPLE + x = NEW DRAMATIC CONFLICT (NEW TERRITORY),” where, she explains in one essay, ”x is the realm of situations showing African-Americans in states other than the Oppressed by/Obsessed with ‘Whitey’ state…and where audiences are encouraged to see and understand and discuss these dramas in terms other than that same old s—.” With ”Topdog,” she went to Broadway. With her novel, she’s now waist-deep in the mainstream.