Alumna Suzan-Lori Parks accepts Gish Prize.

Suzan-Lori Parks and Leah Glasser embrace at the Gish Prize ceremony.

By Keely Savoie

Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks credits her Mount Holyoke College professors for arming her with the skills and confidence she needed to launch into her stellar career.

Recently, the 1985 Mount Holyoke College alumna was awarded the 2015 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which she accepted at a November 30 gala at the Public Theater in New York City. Acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner was among the luminaries who delivered remarks.

Established through the will of the late actress Lillian Gish, the prize is one of the most prestigious awards in the arts. It recognizes individuals who make “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” In receiving the prize, Parks joined the rarefied ranks of Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller, Chinua Achebe, and Spike Lee, among others.

MHC Dean of Studies and Lecturer in English Leah Glasser, who attended the gala ceremony where Parks received the prize, called her “one of the most talented students” she has taught.

“At the event, [Parks] turned to me and to [MHC professor] John Lemly in the audience, and expressed appreciation for her renewed inspiration for literature and writing at Mount Holyoke, after having been discouraged by a high school English teacher,” said Glasser.

Lemly, a professor of English and Africana studies, has maintained a long friendship with Parks and recognizes her as “one of the great artists of the twenty-first century.”

After Parks graduated, Lemly followed her career, calling himself a “groupie,” and traveling with students to see her plays “whenever possible.”

“It was exciting to see her get the prize. It is one of the great joys of teaching to see students grow not only for the four years they’re here, but for decades later,” he said.

In 2000, Time magazine named Parks one of the “100 Innovators for the Next New Wave.” When she won the Pulitzer Prize for her Broadway hit Topdog/Underdog in 2002, she became the first African American woman to receive the award. In 2001, she received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as the “genius” grant. She also has been awarded grants by organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her book adaptation of the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess helped the show earn the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival.

In addition to her numerous plays, Parks’s body of work includes Girl 6, a feature-length screenplay written for Spike Lee, as well as screenplays written for Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Oprah Winfrey. As a film actor, Parks has appeared in the fictional-documentary The Making of Plus One, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. And her recent musical, Father Comes Home from the Wars (parts 1, 2, and 3), won an OBIE Award for excellence off-Broadway.  

Parks’s performance of one of her songs at the Gish Prize ceremony inspired a standing ovation.

Read more about Suzan-Lori Parks here.