Playwright Parks Plays Finney
“My mom and dad, they had this dream…. They bought a piano,” Suzan-Lori Parks told an enthusiastic crowd at Finney Chapel on Wednesday. “I spent a lot of time at that piano, but not playing the piano; under the piano, which was the perfect cave.”
When Parks’ mother asked what she was doing, the fourth grader replied, “I’m writing my novel.”
Parks’ writing may have begun in a “cave,” but it hasn’t stayed hidden. Parks was the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize — in drama for her 2002 play Topdog/Underdog — and has received many other awards. She has also written screenplays for Spike Lee and Brad Pitt.
As the opening convocation speaker of the spring semester, Parks imparted wisdom, prose, personal history and other musings. “When I start to make funny noises,” she advised, “that’s just part of the program.”
The hour-long talk was a mix of Parks’ life story and a few hints at how to live life, be happy and become the next Suzan-Lori Parks.
“Suggestion number one: entertain all of your far out ideas,” said Parks, “Entertain them as you would friends…. You get out the chips and salsa and make them feel welcome.”
Parks’ far out ideas have accompanied her from her childhood, some of which was spent in Germany, where her father was stationed in the military, to her eventual degree in English and German literature.
“I went to Mount Holyoke and I started out as a chemistry major,” said Parks, who had planned to study English until a teacher told her not to because she was no good at spelling and should choose something else.
“Sometimes,” said Parks, “a well-meaning person will give you advice that does not jive with what’s inside you.” Parks demonstrated with a hand motion. “Don’t take their advice,” she said. “Just say ‘no’ like Nancy Reagan. Or just say yes, and then say ‘no.’”
As for chemistry, “the outfit was alright…if you like goggles…. and being in basements,” said Parks. “I’m not dissing chemistry majors, but it was hard.”
“And then, you know, luckily we had to take these core courses… What happened was that I had to take an English class,” she continued. Parks fell back in love with English as her class read Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse, which Parks said was “about this family and they sit around and go, ‘Should we go to the lighthouse?’ ‘No, the weather’s bad.’”
Parks switched to her English major, and though she said it was hard — “You don’t just coast, you don’t use cruise control!” — she enjoyed it.
Enjoying things was part of what she called “the cornerstone of [her] church.” Another cornerstone was tuning into the world as well as oneself.
This advice resonated with many students. “She had really good information, even if you weren’t planning to become a writer or a playwright. Her advice was good,” said College first-year Erica Grohol. In fact, just by listening, students were following Parks’ advice.
“Suggestion Number 2,118: practice listening,” Parks said later.
In 1990, Parks began writing a new play because “I could hear a voice, and it was so loud that I could see it…. It said, ‘This is the death of the last black man in the entire world.’”
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, widely considered one of Parks’ best plays, is centered on death and on stereotypes of African-Americans. Parks read a passage as part of her convocation.
“It’s got twelve characters,” she said, “They’re all dead. The lead character…just died. His big problem is he doesn’t know where to go now that he’s dead.”
Though Parks’ talk was not centered on race as much as on musings on writing, she was quick to describe her success as part of a greater whole that includes race and gender.
“It’s really great and it’s also humbling. As they say, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. There are lots of African Americans and women playwrights. I might have been the first, but I won’t be the last.”
Parks recommended that the audience remain open-minded to anyone different: “Suggestion Number 8,888: Practice radical inclusion. Inclusion is like Thanksgiving dinner. You’re at Grandma’s house. Your hands are in front of your shoulder girdle.” Parks demonstrated by opening her arms.
Then she opened her arms wider, stretching to the point of discomfort. Now, “the hands are just slightly behind your shoulder girdle, just outside your comfort zone. This space is reserved for people who are just slightly different from you.”
Parks preached openness, especially to members of other political parties, and even, she smiled, to people named George W. Bush.
For Parks, accepting oneself and finding happiness is as important as accepting others. The first performance of one of Parks’ plays was in a dingy bar. “It was amazing. About five people came: my mom, my dad, my sister and the homeless men who lived outside,” she said. “I was the happiest playwright in — I don’t want to be competitive — the universe.”