NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–This week Suzan-Lori Parks became the first black woman playwright to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play “Topdog/Underdog,” a beautifully written study of love, abandonment and ambition.
“I feel like it’s my birthday and everyone keeps giving me presents,” Parks exclaimed after hearing the news about the Pulitzer. “As the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize [for theater], I have to say I wish I was the 101st.”
The recognition came as part of an extraordinary season for black women in the dramatic arts. Just two weeks ago, Halle Berry accepted the Oscar for her role in “Monster’s Ball,” becoming the first black woman to receive an Academy Award for best actress.
“Topdog/Underdog” tells the story of two brothers. One is named Lincoln and he has a job at an arcade impersonating Abraham Lincoln sitting at Ford Theater. The arcade’s patrons pay to shoot Lincoln with blanks. His roommate and brother Booth is a master shoplifter who desires to become as adept as Booth once was at the common street-scam, three-card monte.
Now playing on Broadway, starring the rapper Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright, “Topdog” is the only play by a black woman, aside from one-woman shows, to make it to Broadway since Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” which opened in 1976. Moreover, the play is an extremely rare example of a woman writing a drama featuring only male characters.
From Five Chairs to Broadway
Park’s first play, “The Sinners’ Place,” was produced while she was in college and “was probably done in a basement room,” Parks laughs. She was later urged to pursue writing plays by James Baldwin, one of America’s best-known and provocative writers. In 1985, Parks was taking a creative writing class with Baldwin, a major figure in the re-emergence of black writers in the 1950s, and she read her work aloud with such animation that Baldwin persuaded her to persist in creating dramas.
The next production of a Parks play was in 1987. “Betting on the Dust Commander” was staged at a makeshift bar in a Brooklyn garage. “It didn’t have any chairs,” she explains. “So I went out and bought five folding chairs and those were the chairs. And I put on my play in the bar and I thought I was really happening. I was having a great time. I enjoy doing plays like that. Off, off, off-Broadway, we call it.”
She quickly left stages in bars behind though. In 1989, at the age of 26, Parks was named the year’s most promising playwright by The New York Times. She won Obie awards in 1990 and 1996 for “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom” and “Venus,” which will be produced in South Africa later this year. She received a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation last year and she is also the recipient of a Whiting Foundation Writers Award and two National Endowment for the Arts play-writing fellowships. She has also has been awarded grants by the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Parks also recently adapted Golden Boy, a musical by William Gibson, to be performed as a concert. Gibson is white, as is the author of the book by Clifford Odets.
“That rarely happens, that an African-American woman takes material that has been authored originally by whites and gets her chance to put her mark on it,” says Margo Jefferson, cultural critic and staff writer for The New York Times. “I like Parks’ range–within her work, but also in terms of how her work is being positioned, viewed and received.”
Broadway Barriers for Women and People of Color
“Topdog” reached Broadway, where the big audiences are an achievement in of itself. Jefferson says this is not unusual for black playwrights, who often must make their mark elsewhere and reach Broadway after they’ve proven themselves. “Even August Wilson–all of his plays go around the country first,” she says, speaking of the prolific, award-winning black playwright. “If we depended on Broadway, we wouldn’t have a tradition of black playwrights.”
Statistics show how dismal the situation is for women playwrights, as well. Out of approximately 2,000 off-Broadway and regional theater productions scheduled for the 2001-2002 season, 16 percent are written by women and 17 percent have female directors. This is down from 21 woman-written shows and 23 percent woman-directed productions last year.
Women’s representation on Broadway is lower still. In 1999, 8 percent of plays and 1 percent of musicals on Broadway were written by women.
“I didn’t aspire to get to Broadway–I aspired to be a playwright, not because I saw a lot of black women writing plays,” Parks says, “but because I love plays and I think of myself, while I am a black woman, I am also a writer.
“I think there are spots where theater is more open and accepting to all different kinds of people,” Parks notes. “And there are spots in this world where theater only wants to do plays by white men who have been dead for 100 years.”
Parks adds that external barriers are just one part of her battle to do her work–as a black playwright, a female playwright, a playwright and a human being.
“The real jungle is the jungle within, just empowering [our]selves,” says Parks. “It’s not just about racism in the world. It’s not the only battle that African-American people have to fight. And once you realize there are some real basic battles, like in the play, with Lincoln and Booth, where Booth says, ‘I’ll deal with the stuff outside the door but today we got to solidify the shit twixt you and me.’ You and me — we got to solidify the shit twixt us. And then we can go out into the world and fight actually a better battle. But if we are just concentrating on what the white man is doing, that’s pulling focus. We got to focus on our own stuff in addition to him, but we really have to focus on our own stuff. That’s the way to move forward most effectively.”
Angeli R. Rasbury is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn and is co-editor of Sacred Fire: The QBR 100 Essential Black Books and co-publisher of Anansi: Fiction of the African Diaspora.
For more information:
2002 Pulitzer Prize winners:
women of color, women of words:
African American Literature Book Club: