The singular and incendiary talent of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is on rich display this season in three world premieres—Plays for the Plague Year at Joe’s Pub, The Harder They Come at the Public this winter, and Sally & Tom at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis—and the Broadway revival of her 2001 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Topdog/Underdog.
In Kenny Leon’s transcendent production, Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play brothers, Lincoln and Booth, struggling through the chaos of shared history, pain, and love with searing force and wrenching intensity. Parks spoke about how she does it all, the role of the artist as “sacred agent,” and the need to “wake up to the love.”
Vogue: Welcome! This is such an honor. You’re having an astonishing year.
Suzan-Lori Parks: I feel very blessed. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I realized the other day that doing the TV show that came out last year, Genius: Aretha, and the film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, doing those two things, particularly showrunning for TV, has perfectly primed me to do three world premieres and a Broadway revival at the same time. And I’m having fun!
You left out that you’re also being inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
I feel so lucky and grateful to be working with some amazing collaborators. I feel like I’ve got my brotherhood with Kenny Leon directing Topdog/Underdog, with Niegel Smith directing Plays for the Plague Year, with Tony Taccone directing The Harder They Come, and with Steve Broadnax III directing Sally & Tom. Such amazing artists. I could go on and on.
Let’s talk about Topdog/Underdog. I saw the 2003 production of this play at the Royal Court in London. I had never been in a theater where a play was so alive with its audience. It changed some internal chemistry in me.
“Changed some internal chemistry.” Yes. You received the transmission.
Tell me more.
I’m realizing, when I’m doing my work, when I’m in the groove of my purpose, capital P, when I’m in the lane with my higher self, big S, that my work is an agent of the sacred. And the people who participate with me in the creation of that work become sacred agents. This is what we’re doing. All the way back from [Parks’s 1990 play] The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, a.k.a. The Negro Book of the Dead, all the way through, even when I do a work for hire, like Genius: Aretha or The United States vs. Billie Holliday or Native Son or Girl Six, I am dedicated to transmitting the beautiful song, capital S, of the soul, the song of the spirit. It is 2022, and it is time for me to speak to that.
It’s time to stop pretending that theater isn’t sacred.
It’s time to stop pretending that art isn’t sacred. It’s time to stop pretending that we are only here to eat sugar and buy things we don’t need or hate on our neighbor because they don’t look like us. It’s time to wake up to the love.
How do you keep your channel clear?
It’s a daily practice. It’s a combination of daily meditation and yoga practice and just working to stay in peace. Because, you know, shit be happening! People say things that can knock you off course. [It’s] just the dedication to stay in peace. Identifying that mission to my collaborators by demonstrating that kind of behavior to my collaborators.
If someone says something that knocks you off course, what do you do?
Just knowing that you’re not alone in this journey. Someone might say something that rubs you the wrong way, and they might not be intentionally trying to fuck with you, and you’ve got to just remember, Right, I’m gonna stay in peace, I’m gonna stay on course. Just having those kinds of mantras. Everything is available to help you stay on the path. Or everything is available and used to knock you off the path. It’s a choice. Joyful vigilance.
We’re 20 years on from when Topdog/Underdog first hit Broadway. How does the play get the audience to dig in in a different way now?
How did it get the audience to dig in 20 years ago? They’d never seen it before, they’d never heard of it, and it was saying, like, This is some real shit. When I write, I don’t have a plan. I receive, I work very hard on the text and the production, and I see what it is. I discover what it is as we’re creating it—not so much the text, but the event of it. What was it then? People have told me it showed a lot of people who come to theater how art can be. It’s not proper; it’s real. It bursts through the way that theater says it needs to be. Twenty years ago, I wasn’t saying wake up to the love. Now I can look at the play and say, Wake up to the love.
What were you saying 20 years ago?
I was saying, Thank you. I was saying, Wow. I was saying, I’ve never had a play on Broadway, wow, gee, cool. It was all new to me too. You know, Brave new world, ’tis new to thee. It was new to me. But now I’m looking at it, and I can look at it because I’ve written a lot of stuff since then—a novel, many, many, many plays, movies, TV shows—and I can say, Oh, this is what I’m doing.
You’re incredibly prolific—and you front your own band! How do you do it?
That’s all I do! I just do it. Luckily, my husband makes dinner, so that’s super helpful. I just get up in the morning and go about my bits. I don’t spend too much time on my devices. I’m not a Luddite, I love technology, but I’m aware that I would prefer to sing my song and allow others to hear the song of the soul than to consume something that might not be the most beneficial to me.
Does a story tell you what form it needs to be in, like a play, a novel, or a movie?
Yes. They tell me what they’re going to be, up to a certain point. Take Plays for the Plague Year. That told me what it was going to be: Write a play a day. Okay, plays, great. What it became? What it has become? Mind-blowing. Write a play a day while you’re on hiatus from your TV show. Okay, keep busy, do something. Writing a play a day when the hiatus became a pandemic, when the pandemic became the summer that George Floyd was murdered, still writing a play a day, going, Holy shit, I don’t know what to do, I just gotta keep writing because I said I would, I promised the Spirit that I would keep showing up, I’m afraid. Writing a play a day when the pandemic was ongoing and George Floyd was murdered and my husband, Christian, became very sick from COVID—keep writing, keep writing. The kid is out of school doing remote learning, we have a small one-bedroom apartment, and my office is in the living room, so he’s sitting five feet away from me on Zoom with the third graders, and my husband is sitting on the couch because he can’t breathe when he lies down. So there we are; that’s the scene. I wrote for a whole year and a month, and I still didn’t know what it was. And then we started rehearsing it, and the Public Theater said, “Please, we want you to do this as a show.” And I still didn’t know what it was. And then Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, said, “I want you to be in it. You wrote a part for The Writer. I want you to play The Writer.” I was like, Okay, I can play myself. It has 23 songs at this point, and I’m just now realizing what it is: It’s a theatrical concert so that we can all process the year that we went through. We can all come together and sing the song.
Which we haven’t really had a chance to do. There’s been this frantic skittering over the surface.
Yes. Because the world just keeps moving. We’re just trying to hold on and get back to normal, and we haven’t had a chance to feel anything together.
And to give it form so we can experience it together.
Right. I also realized that putting a character in a work that I make is the greatest act of love that I can muster. When Oskar said “You’ve got to play The Writer,” I realized, Oh, I put myself in a play. There’s my husband on the couch, not able to breathe. There’s my son bouncing around, and I was wrapping a loving shield around everything that I could think of. Strangers on the street, I was wrapping a loving shield around them, strangers on the news—Dr. Li Wenliang, he’s in the play—I was wrapping a loving shield around him, nameless people, the people who voted for the person I didn’t vote for—them—I was wrapping a loving shield. I was realizing that’s my greatest act of love. So when I look at the Topdog dudes, I’m like, That is me demonstrating a great act of love.
There’s so much love in Topdog/Underdog. I was struck in this production by how, even in a moment of shattering violence—I’m thinking particularly about the final moment in the play—the image of these two brothers onstage is crafted with such tenderness and care. Was this a purposeful shift?
As I remember the first production, and others I’ve seen and even directed, the final image is always crafted with tenderness and care and is meant to be received that way. There is a longing, a recognition, an acknowledgment of trauma, a respect for the resilience of the brothers, and a realization that, whoever we are, their loss is related deeply somehow to our own. With Kenny, Corey, and Yahya we’ve created a brilliant production singing the joys and difficulties of our present day.
The play also seems to be about small-h history and big-H History and how maybe we can’t separate those two things. Given that the brothers are named Lincoln and Booth, the audience has a fair sense going in of their entwined destinies. But one of the brilliant aspects of this play is how it forces us to hold out hope that these two characters could write a different ending for themselves, and for each other, in that little room. Part of what keeps us so gripped is the desire to see this different ending, even though we know, on some level, what has to happen. Is this play also about the desire to enter into history at a different angle or to see a potential otherwise, whether this path is taken or not?
Yes, like life. We all know we’re going to die. How do we play out the time between that realization and the end? And: We know the history, and here they go. And, I would offer, there’s the end of the play, and then there’s the end of the evening. Because it’s a play, it’s not the 11 o’clock news. And at the end of the evening, the lights come up and the two men who have worked together for X number of weeks come together and they take their bows and we applaud. And that’s the end of the evening. And what the experience of the play is offering is: Yes, this happens, and these two men who have done this part are releasing you and saying this is the end of it. Two men bowing together, having made a connection, a friendship, a brotherhood. Two new sacred agents. The change that happened with you, or with other people who’ve seen the play, happens because of the entirety of the experience.
Does self-doubt ever get in the way for you?
All the time! But that’s part of the activity. I mean self-doubt—shit! I’m going to be 60 next year. I’m getting up onstage in Joe’s Pub, I’m singing 23 songs with a great group of actors who are amazing singers, and we have a band, so I’m going to be playing my guitar and singing my songs in Plays for the Plague Year. And it’s like: Am I allowed to do that? The answer is Yeah. What does it mean? The answer is I don’t know. What is it for? I know it’s because I’m singing the song of the soul and that’s what I’m here for.
In 1996, you spoke to Adrienne Kennedy, who also has a show on Broadway this season, Ohio State Murders, in the newly dedicated James Earl Jones Theatre.
Beautiful theater. They’ve done such a wonderful job in honoring him. This show is also directed by Kenny Leon, and Audra McDonald is in it, so it’s going to be great.
You asked Kennedy, “What keeps you going?” Here we are in 2022. What keeps you going?
The song. I can hear it. I just wrote a new song, an actual song, for The Harder They Come. Mostly we’re using Jimmy Cliff songs, but every once in a while, when the story needs a song for a specific moment, they say, “SLP, just write one!” And I just sat down, and I can hear it. I can feel it, and I can see what my efforts do for people. I’m writing not to accumulate words. I’m writing to create space. For people to gather. For silence to happen, so you can hear the song. And it will tune your ears and your physical self to hear the song with your body. It’s a contribution. It’s wake up to the love.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.