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.
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,
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
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").
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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!'
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
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.
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?"
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."
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
Parks acknowledged that "Topdog/ Underdog" and her
previous play, "In the Blood," about a
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.)
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
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).
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
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."
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.
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.' "
York Times, July 22, 2001