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Suzan-Lori Parks

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Suzan-Lori Parks
Parks in 2006
Parks in 2006
Born (1963-05-10) May 10, 1963 (age 61)
Fort Knox, Kentucky, U.S.
OccupationPlaywright, screenwriter
EducationMount Holyoke College (BA)
Drama Studio London
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize for Drama (2002)
(m. 2001; div. 2010)

Christian Konopka (current)

Suzan-Lori Parks (born May 10, 1963) is an American playwright, screenwriter, musician and novelist. Her play Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002; Parks was the first African-American woman to receive the award for drama.[1] She was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2023.[2]

Early life and education


Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky. She grew up with two siblings in a military family. Parks enjoyed writing poems and songs and created a newspaper with her brother, called the "Daily Daily."[3] Parks was raised Catholic and attended high school in West Germany, where her father, a career officer in the United States Army, was stationed.[3][4] The experience showed her "what it feels like to be neither white nor black, but simply foreign".[3][5] After returning to the U.S., Parks's family relocated frequently and she attended school in Kentucky, Texas, California, North Carolina, Maryland, and Vermont.[3] She graduated high school from The John Carroll School in 1981 while her father was stationed in Aberdeen Proving Ground.[6][7]

In high school, Parks was discouraged from studying literature by at least one teacher, but upon reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Parks found herself veering away from her interest in chemistry, gravitating towards writing.[8] Parks attended Mount Holyoke College and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She graduated in 1985 with a B.A. in English and German literature. She studied under James Baldwin, who encouraged her to become a playwright; Parks was initially resistant to writing for theater, believing it was elitist and cliquey.[8] Parks, at his behest, began to write plays.[9] Baldwin considered her talent as amazing.[7] Parks then studied acting for a year at Drama Studio London.[10][11][12]

Parks was inspired by Wendy Wasserstein who won the Pulitzer in 1989 for her play The Heidi Chronicles and[13] her Mount Holyoke professor, Leah Blatt Glasser.[14]



Parks has written three screenplays and numerous stage plays. Her first screenplay was for Spike Lee's 1996 film Girl 6.[15] She later worked with Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions on screenplays for Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005) and The Great Debaters (2007).[16][17]

Parks became the first female African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which was awarded in 2002 for her play Topdog/Underdog.[a] She has also received a number of grants including the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant in 2001.[7] She is a winner of the 2017 Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) America Literary Awards in the category Master American Dramatist.[19] She received the 2018 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award. This biennial award is given to "established playwrights whose body of work has made significant contributions to the American theatre."[20]

Betting on the Dust Commander


Although Betting on the Dust Commander was not the first play Parks wrote, it was the first of her plays to be produced. Her first play The Sinner's Place, which she wrote for her senior project at Mount Holyoke, was rejected for production by her college's drama department as they considered it too experimental since she wanted to have dirt on the stage during the performance.[21] When her second play, Betting on the Dust Commander, first premiered, it ran for three nights in a bar in Manhattan's Lower East Side called Gas Station.[22] It is a short, one-act play set in Kentucky, centering around the lives of a couple, Mare and Lucius, who have been married for 110 years. The play's title comes from the horse that won the Kentucky Derby in 1970, Dust Commander. As the play goes on, we discover that Dust Commander's Derby is responsible for bringing Mare and Lucius together, and through the couple's discussion of him they think back over their many years of memories together. Poet Philip Kolin argues that Parks's incorporation of non-linear time and a repetitive style is reminiscent of African rituals and the way that their retelling of stories often incorporate the past in a literal manner.[23][24]



One of her best-known works is Topdog/Underdog. This play marked a departure from the heightened language she usually wrote.[citation needed] Parks is an admirer of Abraham Lincoln and believed he left a legacy for descendants of slaves.[25] It tells the story of two African-American brothers: Lincoln and Booth. Lincoln works at a boardwalk arcade, dressing up like Abraham Lincoln and letting the tourists shoot him with plastic guns. He got this job because he could be paid less than the white man who had the job before. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk argues that Parks does not judge Lincoln in this play, but rather enjoys bringing him into the other characters' lives and seeing how they are affected.[25] In an interview, Parks said, "Lincoln is the closest thing we have to a mythic figure. In days of Greek drama, they had Apollo and Medea and Oedipus – these larger than life figures that walked the earth and spoke – and they turned them into plays. Shakespeare had kings and queens that he fashioned into his stories. Lincoln, to me, is one of those."[25]

365 Plays/365 Days


After her book Getting Mother's Body was published,[citation needed] Parks gave herself the task of writing 365 plays in 365 days, ultimately produced as 365 Plays/365 Days.[26]

The plays were presented by 725 performing arts groups, taking turns until the entire cycle was performed.[26] The performances started in 2006 at The Public Theater in New York City, and included venues such as the Denver Center Theatre Company, colleges in England and Australia and the Steel City Theatre Company in Pueblo, Colorado.[26][27] Other venues were the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles.[26]

Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3


Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater in a developmental production in March 2014 and a full production that fall. Directed by Jo Bonney, the cast featured Sterling K. Brown, Louis Cancelmi, Peter Jay Fernandez, Russell G. Jones, and Jacob Ming-Trent.[28] Jacob Ming-Trent won the 2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play[29] and Parks won the 2015 Obie Award for playwriting presented by the American Theater Wing.[30] The play, which takes place during the American Civil War, is presented in three parts: Part 1, A Measure of a Man; Part 2, The Battle in the Wilderness; and Part 3, The Union of My Confederate Parts.[31] From September 15 to October 22, 2016, the play had its London premiere at the Royal Court in a transfer of the Public Theatre production directed by Jo Bonney. The cast featured Steve Toussaint, Nadine Marshall, Leo Wringer, Sibusiso Mamba, Tom Bateman, and Jimmy Akingbola.[32]

The play was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Pulitzer committee wrote: "A distinctive and lyrical epic about a slave during the Civil War that deftly takes on questions of identity, power and freedom with a blend of humor and dignity."[33]

The Red Letter Plays


The Red Letter Plays refers to Fucking A and In the Blood, two plays incorporating themes from The Scarlet Letter.[34] Both plays have a mother named Hester struggling in a society where they put her in the role of outcast.[34] The first play, In the Blood, premiered in 1999 and follows the story of Hester, a penniless mother of five who is condemned by the men who once loved her. In the Blood was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Fucking A premiered in 2000 and tells the story of Hester, an "abortionist" trying to free her son from prison.[21][35]

In 2017, Signature Theatre Company produced these two plays in the same season.[34] Parks said, "They were conceived from the same idea but until now have lived very separate lives. I can’t wait to participate in the dialogue that will come from witnessing these two works in concert."[36]

Sally & Tom


In October 2022, Sally & Tom, a play about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, began performances at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.[37]

Plays for the Plague Year


Plays for the Plague Year, described by the New York Times as "Parks’s diaristic musings on the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic and a coincident string of deaths, including those of Black Americans killed by police officers," was scheduled for a November 2022 premiere at Joe's Pub, with Parks onstage singing and starring.[37]

The Harder They Come


The Harder They Come, Parks' musical adaptation of the 1972 Jamaican reggae film was staged at the Public Theater in 2023.[37]








  • "Suzan-Lori Parks's Aha! Moment". May 2003. Archived from the original on 2008-01-13.
  • "Commencement Speech to the Mount Holyoke College Class of 2001". Mount Holyoke College. 27 May 2001.
  • "An Equation for Black People Onstage." In The America Play and Other Works, 19–22. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
  • "From the Elements of Style." In The America Play and Other Works, 6–18. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
  • "Possession." In The America Play and Other Works, 3–5. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
  • "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Theater 29.2 (1999): 26–33.





Personal life


In 2001, Parks married blues musician Paul Oscher; they divorced in 2010.[45] By 2017 she married Christian Konopka, with whom she has a child.[46]

Parks noted in an interview that her name is spelled with a "Z" as the result of a misprint early in her career:

When I was doing one of my first plays in the East Village, we had fliers printed up and they spelled my name wrong. I was devastated. But the director said, 'Just keep it, honey, and it will be fine.' And it was.[47]

She teaches playwriting at Tisch School of the Arts in the Rita & Burton Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing.


  1. ^ Gwendolyn Brooks was the first female African-American to win any Pulitzer Prize.[18]


  1. ^ "Suzan-Lori Parks". Bio. Archived from the original on November 30, 2015. Retrieved July 30, 2015.
  2. ^ "Time 100". Time. April 13, 2023. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d "Suzan-Lori Parks Biography and Interview". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  4. ^ Morris, Steven (2002). "Profile 9: 'Tickling the Balls of God': Suzan-Lori Parks and her Many Creative Acts". Democratic Vistas Profiles.
  5. ^ Suzan-Lori Parks (Archived from January 2010)
  6. ^ "Connections" (PDF). John Carroll School. Spring 2007. p. 4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-08-08.
  7. ^ a b c "Biography Page for Suzan-Lori Parks". The History Makers. November 21, 2006. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved August 5, 2015.
  8. ^ a b Parks, Suzan-Lori; Jiggetts, Shelby (1996). "An Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks". Callaloo. 19 (2): 309–317. doi:10.1353/cal.1996.0053. S2CID 161387051.
  9. ^ "Suzan-Lori Parks Interview". Academy of Achievement. June 22, 2007. Archived from the original on January 8, 2009.
  10. ^ Als, Hilton (October 30, 2006). "The Show-Woman". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  11. ^ "Suzan-Lori Parks Biography". biography.com. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  12. ^ "Suzan-Lori Parks '85 Took Her Cue from Five College Professor James Baldwin". Mount Holyoke College. Archived from the original on July 13, 2010. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
  13. ^ "Suzan-Lori Parks '85 Wins Pulitzer Prize for Drama". College Street Journal. April 12, 2002. Archived from the original on November 29, 2005.
  14. ^ "In the News: Traditions and communications". College Street Journal. May 24, 1996. Archived from the original on March 23, 2005.
  15. ^ Williams, Monte (April 17, 1996). "At Lunch With: Suzan-Lori Parks; From A Planet Closer To the Sun". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 9, 2022. Retrieved October 10, 2023.
  16. ^ Lindsey, Craig D. (December 25, 2007). "'Debaters' makes its case". The News & Observer. Archived from the original on April 13, 2009.
  17. ^ Brodesser, Claude; Harris, Dana (September 29, 2004). "Back-to-back helming: Washington to take 2 gigs". Variety. Archived from the original on December 21, 2008. Retrieved December 16, 2007.
  18. ^ "Frost? Williams? No, Gwendolyn Brooks". www.pulitzer.org. Archived from the original on December 20, 2016. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  19. ^ Hetrick, Adam. "Suzan-Lori Parks, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Thomas Bradshaw Win PEN America Literary Awards" Playbill, February 23, 2017
  20. ^ Hetrick, Adam. "Suzan-Lori Parks Named 2018 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award Winner" Playbill, October 3, 2018
  21. ^ a b Garrett, Shawn Marie (2000-10-01). "The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks". American Theatre. Theatre Communications Group. Retrieved 2018-09-19.
  22. ^ Als, Hilton (2006-10-30). "The Show-Woman". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2018-09-18.
  23. ^ Kolin, Philip C. (May 2009). "Cultural memory and circular time in Suzan-Lori Parks's betting on the dust commander". Notes on Contemporary Literature. 39 (3). Gale A206534461.
  24. ^ Parks, Suzan-Lori (2013). The America Play and Other Works. Theatre Communications Group. ISBN 978-1-55936-736-3.[page needed]
  25. ^ a b c Shenk, Joshua Wolf (2002-04-07). "Theater; Beyond a Black-and-White Lincoln". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-04-20.
  26. ^ a b c d Robertson, Campbell (2006-11-10). "A Playwright's Cycle, With a New Work a Day for an Entire Year". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2024-05-18.
  27. ^ Moore, John. "365 Days … 365 Plays", The Denver Post, November 10, 2006, retrieved January 15, 2017.
  28. ^ " Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 March", lortel.org, retrieved January 14, 2017.
  29. ^ "Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)". Lortel Archives. Archived from the original on 16 January 2017. Retrieved 14 January 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  30. ^ Obie Awards, 2015 Winners obieawards.com
  31. ^ Hetrick, Adam. Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home from the Wars' Extends Again Playbill, November 17, 2014
  32. ^ " royalcourttheatre.com, retrieved October 25, 2018
  33. ^ "Suzan-Lori Parks" pulitzer.org, retrieved January 14, 2017
  34. ^ a b c Windman, Matt (2017-09-21). "Suzan-Lori Parks' 'Red Letter Plays' offer powerful, rewarding theater". amNewYork. Retrieved 2022-05-02.
  35. ^ "Fucking A". Concord Theatricals. Retrieved 2022-05-02.
  36. ^ "Upcoming shows and events at Signature Theatre in New York". www.signaturetheatre.org. Retrieved 2022-05-02.
  37. ^ a b c d Paulson, Michael (2022-10-05). "Suzan-Lori Parks Is on Broadway, Off Broadway and Everywhere Else". The New York Times. Retrieved 2022-10-06.
  38. ^ White Noise lortel.org, retrieved May 13, 2019
  39. ^ "The Harder They Come".
  40. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  41. ^ "Kennedy Prize, 2015", columbia.edu, February 23, 2015, retrieved January 14, 2017
  42. ^ Piepenburg, Erik (October 14, 2015). "Suzan-Lori Parks Is Awarded the Gish Prize". The New York Times. Retrieved October 14, 2015.
  43. ^ "Yale awards eight writers $165,000 Windham-Campbell Prizes". YaleNews. 2018-03-07. Retrieved 2018-03-07.
  44. ^ Staff. " 'Hadestown' Leads the Outer Critics Circle Awards With 6 Wins" Playbill, May 13, 2019
  45. ^ "Suzan-Lori Parks and Paul Oscher". BMI.com. 2006-10-17. Retrieved 2021-10-05.
  46. ^ "Giving History a New Voice Keeps It Alive". The Vineyard Gazette - Martha's Vineyard News. Retrieved 2021-10-05.
  47. ^ "A moment with Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright", The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 26, 2003.

Further reading