There’s Dirt on the Stage...Again: Suzan-Lori Parks and the Cycles of American History

Slavery started with dirt. First metaphorically, when human beings were stolen from their home countries and enslaved on stolen land; then literally, when they were forced to plant and tend to crops, among countless other back-breaking tasks. This dirt has been largely left untreated, allowing it to set into the fabric of America for centuries. The people of the United States currently are, and likely always will be, dealing with the aftermath of slavery, living in a world riddled with police brutality, discriminatory housing practices, and the prison-industrial complex. This, and much more, is included in America’s dirt, and it’s constantly on display for all to see, though many look away. Instead of continuing to allow people to sweep that dirt to the side, Suzan-Lori Parks forces audiences to watch as her characters deposit mounds of dirt onto the stage and refuse to clean it up, requiring her mostly white viewers to sit in discomfort and figure out a way to deal with the dirt that they’d likely rather ignore.

Suzan-Lori Parks's first play was rejected for production. Not because it wasn’t good—the play, entitled The Sinner’s Place (1984), was highly praised by her English department professors—but because the Mount Holyoke College theatre department decided that they would not put literal dirt on the stage, as Parks had intended. Instead, the department leaders brushed her off, telling her, “That’s not a play.” That was that. Luckily, Parks took their dismissal as a challenge and is continuing to use her repertoire to throw dirt—both literal and the metaphorical dirt of shameful incidents from US history —with no apologies.

Parks's career spans over three decades and she still has plenty to say. Though she has found major success as an essayist, screenwriter, novelist, and musician (check out her perfectly named band: Suzan-Lori Parks and the Band), much of her most notable work stems from her talent as a playwright. The America Play (1994), is an experimental stage play that focuses on themes of racial identity, family ties, death, and mourning. In opposition to Parks's former theatre department’s beliefs, the show takes place in “an exact replica of The Great Hole of History,” a literal hole in the ground dug by the story’s main character. In fact, literal and emotional dirt are staples of the plot. Centering around a Black family, The America Play shares the story of The Foundling Father—a gravedigger who looks like and loves Abraham Lincoln so much that he creates a business as a Lincoln impersonator. However, The Foundling Father only reenacts Lincoln’s death, wherein white patrons pay a penny to fire a fake gun at his head. The play’s first act is similar to a one-man show, while the second act introduces Lucy and Brazil, The Foundling Father’s wife and son, as the two embark on a journey together that seemingly transcends reality.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1989) is a satirical, call-and-response structured play. The show simultaneously defies time and thematically stresses the importance of writing history and keeping it from being distorted. By using characters such as Black Man With Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Chicken, Parks thrusts Black stereotypes into the forefront of the audience’s mind, while also forcing them to watch repeatedly as a Black man dies numerous graphic deaths throughout the duration of the show.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Scarlet Letter takes on a new life in Fucking A (2000), Parks's modern-day, abortion-centered version of the classic piece of literature. Complete with musical compositions created by Parks herself, Fucking A takes place in a dystopian society and follows a woman named Hester who is forced to become an abortionist with an “A” branded onto her chest after her son is imprisoned for stealing a piece of meat from The Rich Family. The play’s conflict focuses on revenge, the justice system, the use of women’s bodies, and motherhood, with many of the characters using songs to express their feelings and experiences.

Topdog/Underdog (2001) offers an inside look at the lives of two Black brothers and their struggles with poverty, love, and racism that set off a string of explosive and emotionally-charged events. The script plays into the biblical story of Cain and Abel and the deadly events surrounding Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. By doing this, and also making the decision to focus another one of her plays on Lincoln, Booth, and a Lincoln impersonator, Parks emphasizes the cyclical quality of history and the chaos that threatens to reign if people do not decide to change their actions and intentions for the better. This is also Parks's first play that offers psychologically complex characters in a realistic environment. Most notably, Topdog/Underdog was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Suzan-Lori Parks the first Black woman to win the award.

With work that is dirt-ridden and disturbing, Suzan-Lori Parks is unafraid to confront her audience members with discomfort and unease, regardless of race. White Noise is no different, forcing viewers to again deal with the trauma and lasting effects of slavery today. Parks intentionally throws the dirt on the stage; it is the responsibility of the audience to decide how to clean it up and move forward from their theatrical experience with action on their minds.

—Maya Louise Shed