Suzan-Lori Parks lends honest advice to Bentley crowd
By Brittany Coombs, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, October 8, 2007
On a humid autumn afternoon, the sun-bathed atrium above the Bentley Theater in the Hopkins Center was home to the kind of vibrancy that made Hop passersby peer in through the large windows and caused students fresh from Courtyard Cafe to work their way into the buzzing crowd.
A throng of people had gathered to hear the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and novelist Suzan-Lori Parks, who is the author of the hit Broadway play "Topdog/Underdog," a recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Award and the first artist to visit the College via VOICES: The Dartmouth Theater Visiting Artist Program.
"Suzan-Lori possesses a brilliant theatrical mind and amazing talent, and she is the perfect artist to help us launch the VOICES program in our inaugural year," said Bryan Joseph Lee '07, the program's associate producer.
VOICES aims to create a space that honors and celebrates diversity onstage through student and faculty collaborations with professional artists.
"She is a revolutionary artist because she challenges us to think about why we are who we are," Lee said. "Her talent as a playwright goes beyond race or gender, [helping us] explore our relationship to our histories, ourselves and each other."
Parks, the author of over 10 plays, plus a novel and a number of screenplays and radio pieces, has received wide critical acclaim for her work. In 1989, the New York Times called her "a thoughtful young playwright" who "demonstrates a historical perspective and theatrical versatility." That was when Parks was 25.
Eighteen years later, Parks, now a literary maestro, commanded a stage that was fit for the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
As Bentley's lights illuminated her stage domain, the accomplished writer, looking like an anarchist mermaid with waist-length dreadlocks and yoga tattoos, and dressed entirely in black garb, performed her lecture in a manner that was as zany as it was potent.
Marrying heartwarming, anecdotal nostalgia with acute, sincerely expressed observations of life, the ebullient Parks spoke with passion and a diverting sense of humor for nearly two hours.
The audience seemed enthusiastc throughout Parks's lengthy address, thoughtfully murmuring with each bit of advice and rippling with laughter at every unexpected quip.
After introducing herself as the stationary, less entertaining version of Merce Cunningham (whose dance troupe graced the Hop last weekend), Parks said that her lecture's main objective was to give the next generation of Pulitzer Prize winners a few lessons that could be understood by heads and hearts alike.
"I have one million suggestions for you. One million," Parks began, tapping her index cards against the music stand onstage.
Assuring the audience that this staggering number was not a joke, Parks wondered aloud how she could expect a group of green, 80's-made college students to wrap their minds around so much counsel.
"You guys are Dartmouth, and you're supposed to be smart," she puckishly reminded the audience. "Or you used to be, anyway."
The most engrossing element of Parks' lecture was her willingness to trace her creative development as an individual and as a writer across the many phases of "growing up."
Parks, who was born in Kentucky but moved to Germany during high school, began by recounting a childhood of free expression. She described how stories such as Harriet the Spy and Hotel for Dogs had catalyzed within her a love for literature as early as the fourth grade.
The influence of those childhood stories, Parks said, can be seen in her contemporary works.
"It is what it is," Parks said of her straightforward writing style, attributing it in part to those early favorite books that downplayed symbolism and metaphors. "It just ain't that deep."
Going on to recall how soul-sucking and half-hearted a stint in chemistry had been at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., Parks spoke of ultimately returning to this love of literature and pursuing it as her life's calling.
"Virginia Woolf helped me remember my me," she said, referring in particular to Woolf's heavily philosophical tale To the Lighthouse. "My destiny was to love writing and to devote my life to writing."
Parks also cited playwrights Ntozake Sange, Edward Albee and Bertolt Brecht as a few of her many influences.
"Once you've listened to your heart and stumbled along the way, you'll know what's right for you," Parks said. You can "say thank you to advice that doesn't jive with what's going on inside you," but you don't have to accept it.
Parks herself, however, did heed the suggestion of James Baldwin, the influential writer who was her mentor in the Five Colleges' creative writing program.
Baldwin encouraged Parks, known for her dramatic storytelling flair, to take her far-out ideas to the theater. Most of all, Parks credits Baldwin with teaching her how to conduct herself in the presence of "the Spirit" -- that metaphysical creative force she feels bubbling inside her "like a volcano."
"He taught me to treat the Spirit as an honored guest, to be attentive to It as you would be to a lover," Parks said.
This renewed focus translated years later into Parks' first big break, the production of a casual, low-budget play with some buddies at a club called the Gas Station. At last fully cognizant of just how well different ideas could work together, Parks then adopted another life mantra.
"Practice radical inclusion," she said, spreading her arms wide at the microphone. "It greatly increases your sense of beauty in the world and your sense of self, because you are in everyone. Don't worry about being cool. People are going to look different, and believe and like different stuff. It's a fun thing."
Peter Hackett, Dartmouth's theater department chair, felt Parks' loving message brought a unique perspective to a school that is predominantly white and has been historically male-oriented.
"This is what the VOICES program is all about," Hackett said. "Celebrating the diversity that is at the center of the College's mission."
Parks seemed to revel in the knowledge that VOICES would bring yet more extraordinary dramatists to the Dartmouth campus.
"I enjoy being the first, because it's not the only," Parks said. "What's great is that there will be others. There will be more."
The VOICES program will present two of Parks' plays: the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Topdog/Underdog," a dark comedy with themes of love, family and identity directed by Niegel Smith '02, as well as her newest piece, "365 Days/365 Plays," based on the year when Parks wrote one play each day.
Both shows will be performed on Oct. 25, 26 and 27 at varying times each day in the Bentley Theater at the Hop.