Posted: March 19, 2008
English professor John Lemly first encountered Suzan-Lori Parks '85 when she took his English survey course as a sophomore at Mount Holyoke. In those days, Parks was wading back into the seas of English and German literature after a short-lived career as a chemistry student. Now, as Mount Holyoke's most celebrated living alumna, she has come back several times as visiting director, commencement speaker, honorary degree recipient, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. This semester, Lemly is teaching a newly developed course on the works of Parks and the rich array of sources that inform her writing.
Parks studied at MHC after attending a school in Germany, where her father was serving in the military. Unlike most high school seniors, she has said that she didn't put a great deal of analysis into her college plans. While visiting campus for the first time, she felt an intrinsic connection to the place and decided on the spot that it was for her. Her first year at Mount Holyoke, she considered a career in science, partly because a teacher had once told her that she lacked the talent necessary to be a writer. However, the literature courses she took confirmed her heart's commitment to the art of language. James Baldwin, who was a Five College visiting professor at the time, recognized Parks's dramatic flair and encouraged her to try writing for the theatre.
As Parks's career began to flourish, Lemly followed her progress on the theatre scene in New York. "Several of us faculty became a sort of informal fan club," he said. "We called ourselves Devotees in the Garden of South Hadley, a reference to the work Suzan-Lori directed on campus in 1996, Devotees in the Garden of Love." The group liked to make sojourns down to the big city to cheer at Parks's plays.
In the spring of 2002, after she won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Devotees took two vans of students to see Parks on Broadway, and hung out afterwards at a bistro with her and the cast of Topdog/Underdog, including Jeffrey Wright (Amherst College '87) and the rapper Mos Def, who were playing brothers Lincoln and Booth in Parks's charged story of family rivalry.
Last year, Lemly began to form his idea of teaching a whole course that would revolve around the wealth of plays, film, and fiction Parks has written and some of her literary and historical inspirations. Parks has written two plays that reference the assassination of President Lincoln and two plays that recall Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. "It's not that she's recycling material," Lemly said. "But rather returning to ideas that she's considered before. Part of what intrigues me is her imaginative indebtedness to predecessors who she borrows from, just as Shakespeare does, for example. These works are part of the air that she breathes."
To view Parks's BOW, the term she coined for her body of work, Lemly's class began with Topdog/Underdog, in addition to several of Parks's favorite literary classics. They're also examining the play that Parks wrote for her MHC senior thesis. They will even be reading two German plays in translation. "Studying Suzan-Lori Parks is equivalent to studying an interstellar map. She gives nods and winks to famous plays and draws heavily from various theatrical and dramatic backgrounds," said Kylie McCormick '08, a theatre arts student who is taking Lemly's class. In an informal discussion with students last year, Parks explained how she comes up with unusual and thought-provoking concepts. When seeking inspiration, she said, it's necessary to "give the bouncer who controls the door to your creative mind the year off."
Parks was visiting the theatre arts department last spring because MHC put on a week's worth of short plays that were part of her massive undertaking to write "a play a day" over one year's time called 365 Plays/365 Days. "It's grandiose," Lemly said. "But wonderful in its concept and execution." His diversified approach to teaching Parks's work mirrors her ambitious forays across disciplines and in theatre, film, and the novel. Among her most recent accomplishments is her collaboration on the script of The Great Debaters, which stars Denzel Washington and is now playing in cinemas all over the world.