Parks '85 Wins Pulitzer Prize for Drama
Parks '85 speaking at last year's commencement
Over the past twelve
months, Obie Awardwinning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks '85
has enjoyed, to coin a phrase from her milieu, a truly great run.
In May, she spoke at MHC's commencement and received a doctor
of arts degree from the College. In October, she was awarded a
prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. And, in a finale
worthy of a Broadway musical, her comic drama Topdog/Underdog
not only opened on Broadway last Sunday to excellent reviews,
but the next day won Parks the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
"Ms. Parks, who
lives in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, said waking up to rave reviews
and winning the Pulitzer Prize on the same day had left her fairly
airborne," according to an April 9 New York Times
article. "'That's why I do yoga,' she said, [in the Times
piece] 'to handle things like this. So I can keep breathing.'"
Parks is the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer
Prize for drama. "I wish I were the 101st," she said
in the Times piece. "You open the door but it's everybody's
responsibility to walk through."
The Pulitzer Prize
In writing his 1904 will, which made provision
for the establishment of the Pulitzer Prizes, renowned publisher
and journalist Joseph Pulitzer (18471911) specified
four awards in journalism, four in letters and drama, one
for education, and four traveling scholarships. In letters,
prizes were to go to an American novel, an original American
play performed in New York, a book on the history of the
United States, an American biography, and a history of public
service by the press. But, sensitive to the progression
of his society, Pulitzer made provision for broad changes
in the system of awards. He established an advisory board
and willed it power in its discretion to suspend or
to change any subject or subjects, substituting, however,
others in their places, if in the judgment of the board
such suspension, changes, or substitutions shall be conducive
to the public good or rendered advisable by public necessities,
or by reason of change of time. He also empowered
the board to withhold any award where entries fell below
its standards of excellence. Since the inception of the
prizes in 1917, the board, later renamed the Pulitzer Prize
Board, has increased the number of awards to twenty-one
and introduced poetry, music, and photography as subjects,
while adhering to the spirit of Pulitzer's will and
Parks credits MHC
with opening a door for her by providing a role model. According
to an April 9 Springfield Union-News article, Parks said
she was inspired by Wendy Wasserstein '71, who won the Pulitzer
in 1989 for her play The Heidi Chronicles. "Mount
Holyoke women rule, baby just knowing someone else is out
there doing something good and cool and gets some recognition
for it. I joke about it. There's something in the water,"
Parks told the Union-News.
Wasserstein also admires
Parks. "I have been back at MHC with Suzan on several occasions,
and I am impressed with her as a person and with her voice,"
said Wasserstein. "She is one of those rare writers who can
be both lyrical and funny at the same time. It is wonderful that
MHC now has two women who have won Pulitzers for drama. Suzan's
Pulitzer is well deserved, and this is all good."
Says Beverly Daniel
Tatum, acting president of the College, "Suzan-Lori Parks
continues to make us proud of her. She has been a rising star
ever since she left MHC. I met her when she spoke at the College's
commencement last year, and I was impressed with her wonderful
sense of humor and gracious spirit. I join with the entire MHC
community in congratulating her on this singular achievement.
In all of the awards she has won, most recently a MacArthur Foundation
Fellowship and now the Pulitzer, Suzan-Lori Parks exemplifies
Mount Holyoke's longstanding commitment to excellence, leadership,
and creative expression."
Of the play that won
her the Pulitzer, Parks said in the Union-News article, "What
I enjoy about this play or any work of literature is the multiplicity
of meanings they offer. My goal was to write these characters
and show their story, their trials and tribulations, their longings
and what they're all about, how they are living in a room loving
and hating each other at the same time. If you write simply, the
larger themes come." Topdog/Underdog explores the
tense yet loving relationship between Lincoln and Booth, two brothers.
The New York Times said the play "vibrates with the
clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed . .
. Topdog/Underdog considers nothing less than the existential
traps of being African-American and male in the United States,
the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa."
cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from MHC in 1985 with a double
major in English and German and as a protégé of
the late James Baldwin, all the world has been a stage for Suzan-Lori
Parks. In 1989, at the age of twenty-six, she was named the "year's
most promising playwright" by the New York Times.
A year later, her surrealist play Imperceptible Mutabilities
in the Third Kingdom won an Obie Award for best new American play.
Director Spike Lee sought the playwright to pen his film Girl
6, the story of a struggling actress-turned-phone sex operator,
although she had never written a film before. She has won more
prestigious grants, awards, and fellowships, from agencies ranging
from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations to the National Endowment
for the Arts, than there is space to list here.
Of Parks Time
magazine has written, "Her dislocating stage devices, stark
but poetic language and fiercely idiosyncratic images transform
her work into something haunting and wondrous." Vogue noted
that she has "burst through every known convention to invent
a new theatrical language, like a jive Samuel Beckett, while exploding
American cultural myths and stereotypes along the way." Her
plays revolve around such unusual characters as a person who makes
a living as an arcade attraction playing Abraham Lincoln (patrons
pay to impersonate John Wilkes Booth, get a gun, and shoot him)
and Hottentot Venus, a nineteenth-century African woman displayed
as a freak because of her huge buttocks. In addition to Imperceptible
Mutabilities, Parks's plays include Betting on the Dust
Commander (1987), Pickling (1989), The Death of
the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990), Devotees
in the Garden of Love (1992), The America Play (1993),
Venus (1996), and In the Blood (1999).
Parks's plays have
been published in numerous anthologies, most notably The Bedford
Introduction to Drama (St. Martin's Press), The Best of
Off-Broadway (Mentor Books), and Moonmarked and Touched
by Sun (TCG). Parks produced a film, Anemone Me, wrote
the screen adaptation of the novel Gal for Universal, and
rewrote God's Country for Egg Pictures. Parks received
the College's Mary Lyon Award in 1993.