Parks '85 Receives MacArthur "Genius Grant"
Screenwriter and Obie Award-winning playwright
Suzan-Lori Parks '85, who has tackled subjects ranging from racism
and homelessness to sexual hypocrisy in her avant-garde plays,
has received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly
known as a "genius grant." Parks is one of twenty-three
recipients of this year's fellowships. Each will receive $500,000
over five years of "no strings attached" support, announced
the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Wednesday. To
the College's knowledge, Parks is the first MHC alumna to receive
the award. Brad Leithauser, Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer in
the Humanities at MHC, received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship
foundation described Parks as "a playwright who challenges
notions of the historical construction and context of the African
American experience. She deftly reflects and refracts social imagery
in American and African American culture and history. Her work
reveals the role that drama plays in shaping and propagating assumptions
about race and culture. She places emotionally engaging characters
in symbolic or allegorical situations, mixing humor with tragedy.
Through her innovative and risk-taking dramatic representations,
Parks has emerged as an important and original contemporary playwright."
President Joanne V. Creighton, "We are delighted to hear
of this award to Suzan-Lori. We at Mount Holyoke have long recognized
her creative genius and know that she has only begun to tap her
potential. Her baccalaureate address as a senior is still remembered
vividly, as is her wonderful commencement address of last May.
All of us at the College are very proud of her and wish her the
best." Of his friend and former student, MHC English professor
John Lemly says, "A genius award--that's great news! Another
G-word comes to mind when I think of Suzan-Lori--generosity--of
imagination and spirit, a big-heartedness that's everywhere in
her plays and in her kindness to others, ever since she was a
student. As she said in her commencement address, 'Don't just
spend your life--splurge--doing something you love.' "
graduating, cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from MHC in 1985
with a double major in English and German and as a protègè
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 Jodie Foster and Egg Pictures.
Parks received the College's Mary Lyon Award in 1993 and
was awarded a doctor of arts degree last May.
announcement of the MacArthur Fellows offers an opportunity to
focus on the importance of the creative individual in society,"
said Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, a
private, independent grantmaking institution dedicated to helping
groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human
condition. "Whether working alone or within an organization,
these are people who provide the imagination and fresh ideas that
can improve people's lives and bring about movement on important
issues. Most of the MacArthur Foundation's funding is intended
to support the creative efforts of organizations and institutions,"
Fanton added, "yet we also understand that individual leadership,
initiative, and creativity can provide the spark that moves great
Socolow, the program's director, noted that "This new group
of fellows is a strong collection of extraordinarily creative
individuals, exceptional minds in motion. We hope the fellowships
will provide new freedom and opportunity over an extended period
of time in support of these fellows' demonstrated potential for
still greater achievement. They join a group, now over 600 strong,
of original and creative people of all ages and groups across
a wide array of human endeavors linked together by their individual
commitments to discovering and advancing knowledge and to improving
is impossible to apply for the MacArthur Fellowship. There is
no application or interview process, and notification comes in
the form of a phone call from the foundation. "It is the
first and only call we make to them, and it can be life changing,"
important underpinning of the program is confidence that the fellows
are in the best position to decide how to make the most effective
use of their awards. The foundation neither requires nor expects
specific projects from the fellows, nor does it ask for reports
on how the money is used. The list of nominators for the fellows
program, numbering several hundred over the course of a year,
continually changes. These nominators, who serve anonymously,
are chosen for their ability to identify people who demonstrate
exceptional creativity in their work. A twelve-member selection
committee, whose members also serve anonymously, makes recommendations
to the foundation's board of directors. While there are no quotas
or limits, typically between twenty and thirty fellows are selected
annually. A total of 611 fellows have been named since the program
began in 1981. They have ranged in age from eighteen to eighty-two.