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On (Avant) Garde

Review by Loretta H. Campbell
Suzan-Lori Parks
By Deborah R. Geis
The University of Michigan Press, 2008, $18.95, ISBN-13:978-0-472-09946-0 $18.95
Written plays, screenplays, poetry, and a novel, Getting Mother’s Body


An iconoclast and one of the most innovative playwrights of her generation, Suzan-Lori Parks has garnered prestigious awards in theatre. In 2001, she was awarded the MacArthur Genius grant. The next year, Parks won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her work, Topdog/Underdog. She is the first African American woman playwright to win this award.

susan parks

    In this illuminating book on Parks’ work, Deborah R. Geis (co-editor of Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America) outlines how and why Parks’ works are in the new “American theatrical canon.” In the introduction, Geis, who uses interviews with critics, scholars, and Parks herself, explains that Parks’ works are interesting both in the way they are staged and the language used. Parks doesn’t give stage directions, according to Geis. She allows the theatre directors to decide how to stage the plays. Parks also uses the vernacular “Ebonics” in the scripts of her plays. She insists that her actors speak the way the words are written.

In the play, Betting on the Dust Commander (named for a race horse who won the Kentucky Derby in 1970), the two characters begin a dialogue about death, a reoccurring theme in Parks’ work.

“Mare: Hold these iced cubes for me, Luki.
Lucius: Ssscold. Stretched out tuh win. Hope they stretch me out like that. Hope they get me in thuh home stretch fore I get all stuck up: arms this way, elbows funny, knees knocking, head all wrong. Wass that word—that word for the dead stuck? Mare, the dead stuck?
Mare: Riggamartin’s.
“Lucius: Riggamartin’s. Yep. Hope they get me afore I go Riggartin’s.        Ssscold.

    Geis outlines the playwright’s use of multi-dimensional imagery as in the case of Parks including notes in some of her plays. “In Venus, (a work about Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South African who was kidnapped, abused, and exhibited throughout Europe in the 19th century under the name Venus Hottentot) … notes are incorporated in the performance, as the Negro Resurrectionist (one of the characters in the play) narrates them as part of the series of ‘Historical Extracts…’. ” However, Parks uses real facts and imagined information in her notes. According to Geis, Parks is saying that because history is not written for or about Black people, it does not tell the “whole story.”

    Venus is considered one of Parks’ masterpieces. The chapter, “Anatomizing Venus,” peels back the layers of this dense work. Ostensibly, Baartman, whose real name is unknown, was considered a freak because she had a large butt (derriere…posterior?…I guess not, butt seems to be the preferred word here).

    In one stage production, the actress who played Venus wore a specially designed exaggerated behind. Critics Alice Rayner and Harry J.Elam,  Jr. described the costume as, “The butt clearly did not belong to the actress, but it nonetheless gave the effect of total exposure.” In addition, the white scientists and so-called scholars have always objectified and demonized the anatomy of Africans throughout history. This is part and parcel of systemic racism.

In another production, the actress didn’t wear this “abnormal” butt. The audience had to imagine she had a large posterior. Here is an example of the objectifyier imagining an “abnormality” where none exists.

Parks has also created her own stage techniques. One of these is the “spell” or “rest.” In it, the actors use silence to convey meaning. In Venus, there is a spell between Venus and The Baron Docteur whose captive she is. It constitutes what Geis calls, “an entire scene of Love,” between these two characters.” The silence leaves the possibility of love between these two open to the theatre goer’s interpretation.

Another technique is having white historical figures played by Black actors. In the play, The America Play, Abraham Lincoln is impersonated by a BBlack man. Geis describes this as how “Parks calls attention to both the specific interaction between African-Americans and this historical figure who ‘freed’ them from slavery.”

Parks set her play in “The Great Hole of History.” This is the hole that has left out the history of African Americans that our real history has fallen into. Parks uses Lincoln again most notably in Topdog/Underdog. Here the names of the characters are ironic. Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, struggle with their love/hate relationship. Although Lincoln has given it up, both of them are literally con artists. Lincoln is a former three-card monte whiz.  He makes a living impersonating Abraham Lincoln (another impersonation of that president) and being “assassinated” by tourists at the carnival where he works. Booth is a failed con artist who is frustrated in love. He shoots his girlfriend for rejecting his marriage proposal. Then, the two brothers also play out the real tragedy of Abraham Lincoln’s murder. Booth claims to have an inheritance inside a stocking left to him by their mother. Presumably, Lincoln received a similar inheritance and squandered his. In a three-card monte game, they bet for Booth’s stocking. Booth loses. In his anger about forfeiting his legacy, he kills his brother. Then he verbally abuses him:

Think you can take my shit! My shit! That shit was mines. I kept it. Saved it. All this while. Through thick and through thin. Through fucking thick and through fucking thin, motherfucker. And you just gonna come up in here and mock my shit and call me two lefthanded talking bout how she coulda been jiving me then go steal from me? My inheritance. You stole my inheritance, man. That aint right. That aint right and you know it.”

    Images of Cain and Abel come to mind immediately. The fratricide begs the questions. Is the book of Genesis the original portrait of a dysfunctional family? Would a real brother (nickname for a Black man) kill his brother? Would he be so cold as to then curse him and feel no remorse? Parks makes the viewer and the reader question everything, including the sacrosanct, be it biblical or racial.

    She also questions death itself and how we respond to it, according to Geis. Venus, in the play so named, comes back from the dead to talk to the audience. In the play, Pickling, the main character Miss Miss keeps things in jars, memories, and parts of her dead mother. Her would-be beau admires the pictures of her mother. When she shows him her mother’s gums and body parts in a jar, he accuses her of practicing voodoo. Miss Miss is disappointed in his lack of depth, “Didn’t find fault with her (mother’s) picture but did mind her parts isnt that always thuh way.” [sic]

    It is not clear if the pickling is a means of cheating death or preserving it. What is clear is that all Parks’ work, her plays, the novel Getting Mother’s Body, and the screenplay for Spike Lee’s Girl 6 is an insistence. We the viewers/readers must re-wire our brains on the meaning of life, death, beauty, race, and art. It is our responsibility to create expanding and inclusive ideals for all of these concepts.

    Parks’ work is militant/unconventional because it shows us what power we have and how to claim it.

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