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Our History, Her Language

In Suzan-Lori Parks' plays, the past chases souls in tales using poetic riffs. That's why no one thought the bold writer would try her hand at realism.

July 08, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

The phone rings, again, but playwright Suzan-Lori Parks lets the machine get it, again. She has just realized something.

"We came here a year ago. A year ago today!" In the tiny office on the second floor of her Venice Beach rental house, down the hall from her friendly faced pit bull, Lambchop, Parks jumps up to check the wall calendar.

Confirmed. One year to the day. She likes the timing. And when she likes the timing of something, her face turns into, well, a sunny day in Venice.

These days the orb shines brightly on Parks. The 38-year-old dramatist, screenwriter ("Girl 6"), novelist (first one coming soon) and essayist is best known for nonlinear, zero-gravity plays dealing with ghosts and icons of all kinds, carrying ordinary names such as Lucy or George. Or extraordinary, racially charged ones, such as Black Man With Watermelon, Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork, and Old Man River Jordan.

Her titles alone indicate the high-flying leaps taken therein: "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World," for starters.

Despite an ever-widening stylistic palette and an improbable array of projects, few would think of Parks and "kitchen-sink realism" in the same lifetime, let alone the same sentence.

This may change. Her play "Topdog/Underdog" begins previews Tuesday at New York's Public Theater. Parks is trying to tune out the buzz that this project--on its surface, a slice of old-style, mainstream American realism--may accelerate an already fleet-footed career. The play stars Don Cheadle ("Traffic") and Jeffrey Wright ("Shaft"), and is directed by George C. Wolfe, a longtime Parks supporter and artistic director of the Public Theater.

As if readying a major off-Broadway production wasn't enough, two days before her play's official July 26 opening, Parks is marrying the blues musician Paul Oscher, 51, in a Brooklyn courthouse. (They're honeymooning in Amsterdam.)

In her office not far from the Pacific, such events seem distant. The reason Parks and Oscher set up shop in Venice a year ago lies to the north, in Valencia. Parks now heads the A.S.K. Theater Projects Writing for Performance Program at CalArts. She's entering the second year of a three-year commitment.

"We like it here," Parks says. "Paul's a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn, and I thought [comical low murmur]: He's not gonna like it.

"But we do. Moving here, we were like two kids, bringing our favorite things along, a favorite guitar, our favorite books. You know how when you're kids and you play fort? We're playing fort."

The fort's office has a bookshelf on which sits a dogeared copy of "Basketball for Dummies." Reason? Parks has gone Disney without, one hopes, going Disney. She is 11/2 drafts into "Hoopz," a Disney Theatricals stage project about the Harlem Globetrotters. Typical for any new musical, or a new play with music, depending on which way this one goes, it's years from fruition.

On and above her desk, various CDs and pictures of blues and jazz giants, ranging from Memphis Minnie to "Ella and Basie," provide some portable inspiration.

"Topdog/Underdog" sprang directly out of an earlier Parks effort, "The America Play" (1993). In that play, a figure named the Foundling Father, a black gravedigger, leaves his wife and child to pursue his dream. He becomes an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, charging customers a small fee to take part in the reenactment of John Wilkes Booth's murder of Lincoln.

"Topdog/Underdog" goes a new way with the same historically charged names. It tells a tale of family secrets, three-card monte and a pair of brothers named Lincoln and Booth.

"I'd been thinking about 'The America Play' for a long time," she says, turning down the "Ella and Basie" album a bit. "I thought it'd be fun to write a completely different take on the idea of Lincoln and Booth."

In early 1999, Parks found herself in residence at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, reading a lot of Shakespeare in the off hours. She mentioned her idea to the Wilma dramaturge, and "she looked at me and said, 'Why don't you go home'--meaning back to my little apartment--'and write?' So I went home and wrote."

Three days later, there was "Topdog/Underdog."

Some of her plays took several years; "torture" is one word Parks has used to describe the birthing of a new work. Not this one. It was, says the grateful playwright, "a gift from God, like someone was pouring silver liquid into my head. It was the most wonderful writing experience I've had so far."

Co-star Wright still can't get over it. "I'm slightly awed at someone creating something so layered and so connected and dramatically logical in such a creative rush," he says.

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