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Suzan-Lori Parks Brings Her Accessible Avant-Garde to Babel

Suzan-Lori Parks

After a series of community events featuring the plays of Suan-Lori Parks, Just Buffalo Literary center will welcome Parks herself to the BABEL stage at Kleinhans Music Hall on Tuesday, March 11. Now in its seventh season, Just Buffalo’s BABEL series has welcomed an impressive list of writers from around the world which includes literary greats such as Chinua Achebe, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Derek Walcott.

Though Parks, born in 1963, is relatively young compared to many BABEL authors, her career is no less impressive. Named by TIME magazine as one of the “100 Innovators for the Next New Wave,” the list of accolades and accomplishments is nothing short of humbling. Parks is the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A MacArthur “genius” award recipient, her plays have been recognized with multiple Obie Awards and, most recently, she earned a Tony Award for her adaptation of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (coincidentally opening this week at Shea’s). No wonder that Tony Kushner lauded her as “one of the most important dramatists America has produced.”

Park’s plays tackle topics ripped from history but always with a modern edge: Venus tells the story of the South African woman known as the “Hottentot Venus;” In the Blood and Fucking A offer contemporary spins on The Scarlet Letter; and The America Play opens with the character of The Foundling Father, a Lincoln impersonator whose job entails repeatedly re-enacting the assassination scene for tourists who play the part of John Wilkes Booth.

This haunting figure of a Lincoln impersonator emerges again in Topdog/Underdog, the play which earned Parks the Pulitzer. But, in this variation on the theme, Topdog/Underdog focuses on two brothers named, ironically, Lincoln and Booth. Battling family demons as well as racial stereotypes, the play encapsulates Parks’s avant-garde style, which echoes the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare as much as they evoke the despair of O’Neill or the absurdism of Beckett.

And yet, as challenging as it can be to read Parks’s plays on the page, she manages to infuse each piece with a humor and sense of playfulness that keeps audiences entertained even as they confront dark themes.

At the same time, Parks excels at making her works accessible to audiences. Topdog/Underdog, which starred Don Cheadle as Booth in off-Broadway performances and Mos Def in the Broadway production, was featured in a documentary film, The Topdog Diaries, which offers an intimate portrait of Parks’s creative process. So, too, her first screenplay, Girl 6, was directed by Spike Lee and her adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was produced by Oprah Winfrey and starred Halle Berry.

There’s still an opportunity for Buffalo audiences to see Parks’s works performed on the stage. Ujima Company’s staged reading of Topdog/Underdog, featuring Amilcar Hill and Preach Freedom, will take place on Friday, March 7 at 7:30pm at TheaterLoft (545 Elmwood Avenue). On Saturday, March 8, the students at Buffalo Seminary will be performing selections from 365 Days/365 Plays at 2pm and 7pm in their Performing Arts Center (205 Bidwell Parkway).

But the main event will be Suzan-Lori Parks herself, appearing live at BABEL on March 11. Parks will bring her characteristic humor and energized performance to the stage at 8pm. Afterwards, she will address audience questions and sign books.

Tickets are still available at 832-5400 or online at www.justbuffalo.org.

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