I’m was nervous to speak with Suzan-Lori Parks, which is unusual for me, a woman who does not get my proverbial panties-in-a-bunch for anyone. So the fact that I felt a flutter of butterflies banging against my belly makes me lean into the very thing that all of Parks’ works do to me—and I suspect most—it makes me dig deep and think.
We connect via phone despite the fact that we are both in New York City and the moment I hear her warm, sunny voice the butterflies disappear and I find myself dropping into a familiar tone like she’s a neighborhood lady whom I see, daily, as we both wait, early mornings, to get caffeinated.
But she’s not familiar like that. On the other phone line is the one-and-only Suzan-Lori Parks whose responsible for the adaption of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” now playing on HBO and directed by Rashid Johnson. She’s the first female African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her play TOPDOG/UNDERDOG (2002) and she’s a straight up genius. And to support my assertion that Ms. Parks is bonafide, in 2001, she was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.
Bam, I’m dropping the proverbial mike! A prolific writer she’s the author of the novel Getting Mother’s Body and also wrote the screenplays for “Girl 6”; “Their Eyes Were Watching God”; “Anemone Me,” and the upcoming “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
Her legacy in theater continues and following her critically acclaimed trilogy FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the Public’s Master Writer Chair Parks returned to New York’s Public Theater with the world-premiere of “WHITE NOISE,” a play about friendship, race, and our prickly social climate. It stars Tony-Award winning actor, Daveed Diggs (“HAMILTON”), Sheria Irving, Thomas Sadoski, and Zoë Winters.
The Los Angeles Sentinel connected with Suzan-Lori Parks to chat about “Native Son,” James Baldwin and songwriting. Here is an edited conversation.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: What were some of the biggest challenges in adapting Richard Wright’s searing novel ‘Native Son’ into a screenplay? It’s a great piece of work by first-timer director Rashid Johnson.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: There were a few. It was important to make it relevant for now (2019). In the novel, for example, having a coal furnace in a house in 2019 — that’s old. I had to find a way to make that make some kind of sense because most houses don’t have that kind of heating system anymore. We also decided not to use the courtroom scene keeping the focus on the core characters. We really wanted to spend our time with Big and Mary and their developing friendship so we spent our time on the front end not on the back end. The idea that Big, Mary, Jan and Bessie might all become friends, we dared to see how that played out.
LAS: This marks the third adaptation of Wright’s novel, do you think his work is still relevant today?
SLP: Yes, it is. It’s hard for people of African descent. We struggle. The idea that someone can work hard and struggle and try to do things right, try to do things correctly, try to play by the rules, and still fall through the cracks.
LAS: Your new play ‘WHITE NOISE’ has been extended at The Public Theater (April 21). You have your lead character, a Black man, Leo (Daveed Diggs) offering himself as a slave to his best friend who is a White man. Why?
SLP: Think about it. What makes a brother shot another brother? What makes somebody say, excuse the language, but ‘fuck it I’m just gonna suicide by cop.’ Like Leo says in the play, ‘People, Black people especially, are falling prey to despair.’
People in this country, Black people and Latino people, and Asian people, and White people and all kinds of people, Native, Indigenous people have been promised things and this country hasn’t been coming through. There is a huge amount of despair. So people are taking desperate measures. It’s just a desperate measure. It’s kind of simple. It’s so simple, you go ‘dawng.’ That’s the world we live in now.
LAS: James Baldwin encouraged you to write plays, is that correct?
SLP: Mr. Baldwin taught a short-story-writing class in the fall of 1982. I was an enthusiastic and hard-working undergraduate in his class. He said it was his first creative writing class that he ever taught. There were 15 of us in the class. We all sat around a big table and wrote our work. I was very animated with all my gesturing and I used voices for the characters in my stories. Mr. Baldwin said, “Have you ever thought about writing for the theater?” I started writing a play that day.
LAS: I’m really surprised that you write songs? One of them was in ‘WHITE NOISE.’
SLP: I’ve been writing songs longer that I’ve been writing anything, really. So many of my plays have my songs in them. I always put my songs into my plays. I have a band SUZAN-LORI PARKS AND THE BAND and we perform around the country. It’s another thing that I do.
LAS: So what’s next for you Suzan-Lori Parks?
SLP: I’m performing with my band. Our next gig is in May at the Wholly Mammoth Gala in Washington, Washington, DC. I still teach each Monday night, at the Public Theater under WATCH ME WORK which is also streamed live via The Public Theater’s Facebook, and through Howlround.
LAS: And what about on the big screen?
SLP: I’m the show-runner on the Aretha Franklin project for NatGeo which is pretty great. They are doing two projects on Aretha because she’s just all that. [Director] Lisel Tommy is doing one, she’s doing the biopic. I’m doing to the one for NatGeo, the genius series. They did [Pablo] Picasso, [Albert] Einstein and now Aretha Franklin so that’s pretty cool.