Suzan-Lori Parks is an African American playwright of the 20th century who transformed American theatre with her mythic plays. She has won the acclaim of dramatists, critics, and the public around the globe as a provocative and influential author. At the same time, her innovative approach to language and character description was not always well understood by audiences. The present paper aims at analyzing the common themes and literary devices used by the author.
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Parks’s common themes are connected to her background and the people who influenced her works. Even though Parks herself frequently said that she has no specific message that she carries through all her plays, there some themes she addresses quite frequently (Kolin 184). First, she touches upon the idea of history and remember, which can be seen explicitly in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. In the play, Parks insists that history is written by winners or oppressors through the words of one of her characters: “if you dont write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist” (Parks, “The Death of the Last Black Man” 83).
Second, Geis mentions that digging for forgotten facts about the past is also a central theme in the author’s plays (11). For instance, in The America Play Parks makes Brazil a digger who reveals his father’s past. As a synthesis of the two motives mentioned above, Parks’s plays often refer to resurrection. These themes are influenced by the works of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Adrianne Kennedy, and Ntozake Shange (Geis 5-7). In short, even though Parks’s plays are inspired by African American writers, they stand out from the African American literature of the time.
Style and Literary Devices
Parks created a language of her own challenging the norms of theatrical language. Geis states that Parks’s plays are meant to be read aloud, as a lot of words are spelled awkwardly, imitating dialects (13). She deliberately omits punctuation and uses sounds like “thuh” and “uh”: “I’ll get thuh shoes. Youll see” (Parks, “The America Play” 162). Parks goes beyond African American vernacular and adds oral traditions associated with the culture including songs, blues, jazz, and even sermons (Geis 14). Rep & Rev (or repetition and revision), a sonic device that is found in music and ancient oral traditions, is also a distinctive feature of her plays.
However, the addition of the elements described above sometimes confused the viewers, as it may have appeared that Parks wanted to reinforce racial stereotypes (Parks, Venus 160). According to Mihaylova, even the critics who praised Parks’s works admitted that “without the light of a corrective reality of historical knowledge about Baartman, reading Parks’s complex characters becomes a frustrating task” (215). Thus, it can be stated that she utilized the drama theory of radical formalism (Mihaylova 221). In brief, Parks created a unique style that is bordering with the reinforcement of racial stereotypes.
Suzan-Lori Parks is an outstanding playwright who devised a unique language and style to approach the life of African Americans from a new angle. While her work was inspired by the works of many famous authors, she managed to avoid the common themes and went beyond them. At present, she teaches playwriting, spreading the knowledge and influencing the future works of her students.
Geis, Deborah R. Suzan-Lori Parks. University of Michigan Press, 2008.
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Kolin, Philip C., editor. Suzan-Lori Parks: Essays on the Plays and Other Works. McFarland, 2014.
Mihaylova, Stefka. “The Radical Formalism of Suzan-Lori Parks and Sarah Kane.” Theatre Survey, vol. 56, no. 2, 2015, pp. 213-231. Web.
Parks, S. L. “The America Play.” ProfessorMalone. Web.
Parks, S. L. “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.” Theater, vol. 21, no. 3, 1990, pp. 81-94. Web.
Parks, S. L. Venus. Theatre Communications Group, 1997.