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Suzan-Lori Parks '85 Receives MacArthur "Genius Grant"

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October 26, 2001

Suzan-Lori 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 in 1983.

The 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."

Says 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.' "

 

About Suzan-Lori Parks

Since 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.

"The 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 enterprise forward."

Daniel 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 society."

It 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," says Socolow.

An 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.

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