Suzan-Lori Parks Turns Toward Naturalism   
SUZAN-LORI PARKS has her own way of doing things. A 38-year-old playwright, she first
made her mark on the fringes of Off Broadway with plays that defied virtually every aspect of naturalistic theater. "Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom" in 1989 established her as a writer experimenting with poetic repetition, literary wordplay, an irreverent perspective on history and a love for odd titles and wacky names.  

Her next play, "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World," included one character
named Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork. More recently, she has written two plays loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter." And seven years after creating one play with a black character who impersonates Abraham Lincoln for a living ("The America Play"), she has now written another, "Topdog/ Underdog."  

Most shocking to anyone familiar with Ms. Parks's work, the new play is a two- character, one-set
contemporary drama with recognizably naturalistic dialogue. How many writers go wild by going straight? "Topdog/Underdog" opens on Thursday at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle portray the two black brothers named Lincoln and Booth.  

Mr. Wolfe has long championed Ms. Parks's work. As the producer of the Public Theater, he has
presented productions of "The America Play," "Venus" (a fantasia about the Hottentot Venus, an African woman displayed in 19th-century carnivals because of her large buttocks) and "In the Blood" (based on "The Scarlet Letter").  

"I think she is truly original," Mr. Wolfe said in a recent interview. "A lot of people are talented and
smart and gifted, and that's exciting. Not a lot of people are original. Every time she and Caryl Churchill and Sam Shepard write a play, they throw themselves into the truth of the play and a world emerges. We find ourselves fully engaged, our minds, our hearts and our spirits. Even in the presence of devastation, there is possibility — and vice versa."  

Born in Fort Knox, Ky., Ms. Parks spent her childhood traveling wherever her Army colonel father's
career took the family. She wrote from an early age, but it was James Baldwin, with whom she studied at Hampshire College, who steered her toward writing plays. From the beginning, she earned ardent supporters who share Mr. Wolfe's regard for her originality. But mixed with praise have always come complaints that her plays are obscure, impenetrable, pretentious, even infuriating.  

Interviewed at the theater shortly before the final dress rehearsal for "Topdog/ Underdog," Ms. Parks
talked with typical breeziness about its origins. "I was thinking about `The America Play' one day in 1999," she said, "and I thought, `Oh, man, I should just — that'd be cool, two brothers, Lincoln and Booth.' Ha, ha, ha, it's funny. To me, it's funny." An attractive woman with shoulder- length braided hair, Ms. Parks speaks at high, almost reckless speed, like a jazz player more concerned with hitting the right rhythm than the right note.  

The first act of "The America Play" depicts the sideshow performance that a gravedigger called the
Foundling Father has created for himself: inviting paying customers to re-enact Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth during a performance at the Ford Theater. In "Topdog/ Underdog," Lincoln has the same job, though he is only seen off-duty, sometimes in costume and whiteface.  

"He's not related to the fellow we saw in `The America Play,' " Ms. Parks said. "It's just his job,
'cause I like my characters to do things. I'm less interested in meaning — whatever that word means, I'm not quite sure, I keep meaning to look up meaning — than in doing. Talking is not enough. Talking about ideas — that's boring to me. Maybe I've read too much Shakespeare or the Greeks. They're always doing something. So Lincoln is this Lincoln impersonator, and he practices for his job."  

Contemplating a stage activity for Booth, Ms. Parks remembered standing on Canal Street in
Manhattan with her fiancι, the blues musician Paul Oscher, a couple of months before she started writing the play, and watching several men who had set up the con game three-card monte. "I was totally transfixed, even though I'd seen it hundreds of times," she said. "To my surprise, I started getting this running commentary from the man standing beside me. It turned out to be Paul. Until that moment, I didn't know he used to do it for a living between music gigs. He was giving me a play-by-play of everything. So when I chose three-card monte as Booth's stage action, I knew I had an expert in my life to tell me how to do it."  

In the play, two brothers, abandoned as children by their parents, share a seedy room in a
boardinghouse. Lincoln, once a master card hustler who gave it up, supports the two of them with his easy if demeaning job at the arcade. Booth doesn't work, steals what he needs and dreams of performing three-card monte as well as his brother used to. The title, Ms. Parks said, "is a psychology term for the dominant side and submissive side, or something. I don't know. I was reading some stupid book . . . I'm sorry, a wonderful book. This was years ago, I wrote it down, put it on my wall, great title for a play. Honestly, I don't understand what the term really means. I just like the words. Topdog underdog! Sounds like two guys to me! They switch constantly. They're always trying to be the dominant person in the room. They always ask, `Who the man? Who the man? I'm the man now! No, I'm the man!' "  

For the record, topdog/underdog is a term coined by Fritz Perls, the father of gestalt therapy, to
describe the internal battle between the righteous, demanding perfectionist and the lazy, resistant saboteur that neurotic individuals commonly conduct in a vain attempt to avoid the anxiety of everyday living.  

Whether the playwright truly doesn't know that or not, she clearly wants to avoid reducing the play to
any one simple interpretation. The same could be said for her use of the names Lincoln and Booth.  

Everybody involved in the production has different ideas about how the characters related to their
historical namesakes. In a separate interview, Mr. Wright, who plays Lincoln, said: "The play is perched on top of a historical inevitability. Suzan talks about it as an existential question. At the end of the play, is their destiny fulfilled, or were they supposed to do something different and they missed?"  

Mr. Cheadle, who portrays Booth, added: "I never worried about how to play history — that's
George's job. What excited me was the language, which seems naturalistic but is not at all. The tension between what's real and what's poetry makes for a more intricate dance than I've been involved in in a long time."  

Mr. Wright, who won a Tony Award in his Broadway debut as the nurse Belize in Mr. Wolfe's
production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," has become a sought-after movie actor, appearing in "Basquiat" and "Shaft." Mr. Cheadle, a longtime stage actor, has been known more recently for his work in films like "Bulworth" and "Traffic."

Ms. Parks acknowledged that "Topdog/ Underdog" and her previous play, "In the Blood," about a
homeless welfare mother and her children, are quite different from the plays that preceded them — less eccentric, more linear, more contemporary. She attributed the shift to several factors. Living with another artist is one. She and Mr. Oscher have been together five years, dividing their time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where she teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. (In a typically whimsical mood, Ms. Parks has scheduled her marriage for Tuesday — as if opening a play isn't enough excitement for one week.)  

Also, since she created the screenplay for Spike Lee's "Girl 6" in 1996, Ms. Parks has spent a lot of
time as a Hollywood hired gun. She adapted Edward Abbey's short story "God's Country" for Jodie Foster; Danny Glover asked her to adapt three stories for a series called "American Dream"; other projects included a screen version of Ruthie Bolton's best-selling 1994 memoir, "Gal." (None of these has yet been filmed.) In addition, she is writing the book for "Hoopz," a musical that the theatrical arm of Disney is developing, about the Harlem Globetrotters, to be directed by Marion McClinton.  

Ms. Parks thinks that writing on deadline may have had something to do with her focusing on
character and narrative in a new way. But really what happened was that she acquired a new literary mentor. Her earlier influences were modernist icons (Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner) and unconventional African-American writers (James Baldwin, Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange).  

More recently, however, she spent a year and a half reading all the plays of Shakespeare, and her
world turned upside down. "That's a writer I want to emulate," she said excitedly. "Great characters, great stories, great language. When you think of Shakespeare, you don't think of meaning. You think of Richard II: `Let's sit on the ground and sing sad stories of the death of kings.' Whoa, here's the king sitting on the ground! My heart's breaking! That's the kind of play I want to write."  

"This meaning thing," she continued, with a laugh, "I think it's something made up by people who
didn't want to feel anymore. They wanted to compartmentalize, they wanted to contain, so they made up meaning. If you can think of what something means, you don't have to feel it."  

Ms. Parks does allow that "Topdog/Underdog" includes mythological echoes of Cain and Abel as
well as Oedipus. And her fixation on John Wilkes Booth may be traceable to their shared birthday (May 10). But mostly she is relieved to have a director who understands the play and lets the multiple layers of interpretation rest lightly on the production.  

"I've told him a hundred times, `George, there are no metaphors!' I don't know what a metaphor is!"
she said. "There are two men in a room. Just take it for that. The meaning things that people love to pull out, like slavery" — she said the word with exaggerated solemnity — "just slaver this thing with sauce. Slavery! Don't even think about slavery. Lincoln says, when he's teaching Booth cards, `Don't think about the cards! Don't think about anything. Just watch. Just look. Just take it in.' "  

New York Times, July  22, 2001

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