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April 12, 2002

Suzan-Lori Parks '85 Wins Pulitzer Prize for Drama


Fred LeBlanc

Suzan-Lori Parks '85 speaking at last year's commencement

Over the past twelve months, Obie Award–winning 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 (1847–1911) 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 its intent.

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."

Since graduating, 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.

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