Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the most vital playwrights working today. Parks has a gift for exploring the African-American experience in works that tie history to the modern day in an accessible and inventive way.
Parks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her play “Topdog/Underdog.” And her most recent work, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” was a Pulitzer finalist last year.
“Father Comes Home From the Wars” is a slavery story set during the Civil War, and it shares character names from Homer’s classic, “The Odyssey.” When Parks spoke with The Frame's John Horn, she told him that the play was, in fact, inspired by her father.
My dad was a career army officer. He joined the army out of college, back when they just integrated the army. It was the way that a person of color could get a fair shake.
He wanted to get a fair shake in life, and in college, too?
That was the hope. He went to a segregated school. He went to Southern University in Louisiana. But the thinking was that he could have a chance if he was in the service. So that's kind of the belief of [the character named Hero] of the first three parts of "Father Comes Home" — that if he joins the service, he'll have an opportunity that he would not have otherwise.
So your father fought in Korea or Vietnam or both?
He had a tour of duty in Korea long before I was born, and then he had two tours in Vietnam when I was a kid.
What do you remember about him coming home from the wars?
He brought presents.
Did he talk about what happened?
No. He did not. He died 10 years ago of Parkinson's. He didn't say anything about the war. He was of the generation where you were encouraged not to speak of the war. Also, back then, folks were hating on you if you served [in the army], and folks were hating on you if you were of African descent. So there was a lot of difficulty — there's a lot of difficulty now, but there was a lot of difficulty back then.
And if your father went into the service believing it could be a way in which he could have a fair shake, did that prove to be true?
He was able to achieve things that he perhaps might not have. There are a lot of men and women who go into the service today with the same notion. Being in the service offers them opportunities that economically they wouldn't be able to achieve. It's the same kind of carrot-stick trap.
Your play covers a time in U.S. history when there were four million slaves in the United States and 400,000 slaveholders. And yet, there was a system of repression — psychological, hegemonic — that made sure that people like Hero would not rise up. Could you talk about the mindset of a slave in that era?
It's such a great point that you bring up, because it's the mindset of a person today. The 99 percent — I mean, 99 percent! And yet we really believe that we are powerless. And we believe that we must only expect crumbs from the table of joy, and that a place at the table is not our place. So, take that back to 1862 and you layer on race and all the hardships and horrors — horrors — of slavery. And it's magnified.
But it is akin to what working people feel today, very much so. That they must think in concert with the bossman, or back in slavery days, the master. They must follow the rules, or else. It's very much the same.
And that freedom is a concept, it's this distant thing. You can see it, you can try to grasp it, it eludes you; but it doesn't have a tangible value.
For Hero, for our main character, freedom is something that will be given to him. It is something outside of himself that he must work hard to attain. For Homer, another character in the play, freedom is something inside him that is blooming constantly. And it might die in the winter but it blooms again in the spring. So you see these two very different attitudes toward freedom.
This play debuted in New York in the fall of 2014. There were a couple things going on around that time, like the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. When you're writing this period play, and the world is happening around you, does one influence the other? How would you describe your relationship to history and contemporary America?
Was is is — another Faulkner-esque quote I think I'm paraphrasing poorly. Past is present. It's still happening now. When we opened the play, Sterling K. Brown, who originated the part of Hero and plays him so brilliantly here in L.A. again — he was doing the speech in Part 2 asking, Okay, so if I'm free, and a patroller comes up to me asking who I belong to, I'm going to say I belong to myself? He was imagining confronting this patroller on the street as a newly freed black man in 1865. And he held up his hands in the air, and we all gasped. We all thought, Oh my God, it's "Hands up, don't shoot." And it was as relevant in 1865 as it is now. It just burst the play wide open. And I wrote it down so it's now in the stage directions of the play, thanks to Sterling's brilliance.
As you're writing this play, do you start understanding contemporary America more clearly?
Yes. By understanding where we come from, I have a greater sense of compassion for us as a people, somehow. You can say, Well, this is our family. We have been doing these things for a long time now. This is who we are! Frightening to think that. So we have to adjust our attitudes to it.
And what role do the performing arts have in that conversation?
I think we continue the dialogue. We give people a way to talk about things — [or] issues. I think we give people a way to understand their world. Just like old storytellers. Just like Homer, with "The Odyssey." He gave people a way to understand the war. To feel it, you know? A lot of stuff today, they don't want you to feel, they don't want you to think; they just want you to buy something. We want you to feel and think and keep on keepin' on.
Even though this is a period story, the characters are speaking in modern language, but they're not speaking as people would have spoken in 1860.
Yes, it's an amalgam. [The play] is not a strict recounting of history, because a lot of these stories were not even included in the historical canon. So, there's a lot missing. So I'm going in and I'm listening for the voices of the bones who are in unmarked graves. But it's not a conscious thing, like I'm going to shove contemporary words into their mouths to make it resonate in a certain way. This is just how they sound to me. Bringing them back to life, I'm hearing them through my ears.
If people are not sophisticated in their understanding of what the politics of race were during the Civil War, and they are illuminated or think differently about what that means to them today — after they see the play, how might they start thinking differently if you've succeeded in the way in which you intended?
For me, it's very important that people understand that people of African descent are people. Number one. Which means, we have everyday, regular thoughts. I told someone ages ago that my first thought when I got out of bed was not, I'm an African-American woman and I have issues! We have thoughts and dreams and desires. All of our every moment and heartbeat of existence is not tied to, Hey! What's The Man doing to me? This is a tragic oversimplification of any person. And then all the understanding flows naturally when you can look at someone who is not like you and see yourself in that person. And then the understanding doesn't need to be over-articulated. It's just there.
"Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" is at the Mark Taper Forum through May 15.