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Lecture Review: Suzan-Lori Parks at MIT

An American Playwright Brings Her Verbal Passion to Math and Science Majors

By Sarah Dupuis

Suzan-Lori Parks Lecture

Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006


After reading from Suzan-Lori Parks’s phenomenal collection of racially provocative, avant-garde plays, I didn’t expect her to be funny. After hearing of her formidable accomplishments, I didn’t expect her to be down-to-earth. I certainly didn’t expect uproarious humor, nor did I expect charm, as I strolled in to 10-250 last Thursday to hear Ms. Parks read and discus her work. But you know what they say about those who assume.

After an introduction by Dr. Rebecca Faery, the director of First Year Writing at MIT, Ms. Parks expressed her desire to “soak up the MIT mystique,” but respectfully requested that the audience avoid asking her math questions. In a cheerful tone, Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship winner, readied the audience for an evening of sage advice, comical discourse, and dramatic readings from a number of her plays.

Parks began by telling the audience of her history as a writer. She started writing in the fourth grade, when her father, on leave from the army, relocated his family to Vermont, where he pursued his master’s degree in education. Parks would sit under the family’s baby grand piano with the dog and work on her novel. After teachers advised her against a career in writing because of her difficulty in spelling, Parks decided to pursue science at Mt. Holyoke, as a “fallback thing.”

“I was down there in the lab … and you’re mixing things, pouring something from one test tube to another, and I just knew … ‘I’m dying,’” Parks said of her stint as a chemistry major. She was lucky enough to remember her passion after reading To the Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf. “I remember who I am,” recounted Parks, “I’m the girl who wants to be a writer!” Parks went on to study under James Baldwin, who suggested Parks try writing plays. She has since published a dozen plays, written three screenplays, and recently released her first novel.

“Every day is the perfect day to take that step in the direction of your truth,” said Parks as she segued into a series of suggestions for potential writers. These advisory comments included listening to the internal voices and making sure to entertain the most far-out notions in pen and ink. Never take advice from a well-meaning person whose insight does not jibe with what’s going on inside of you, but follow suggestions that go along with what you feel in your heart. Parks told prospective playwrights to ground their characters in specific action to give depth and meaning to dialogue. When writing becomes too difficult, an author must take a break, encourage him or herself, and wait for inspiration to strike. Sometimes it doesn’t come, and that’s okay. An author must learn to self-inspire.

Parks finally yielded to questions, which included a request to hear her sing and several requests for her to read from various works. She delivered both with the precise sense of rhythm that also exists in the urgent dialogue of her plays.

Parks’s newest work, 365 Days / 365 Plays, for which she wrote a play every day for an entire year, will be performed from Nov. 13, 2006 to Nov. 12, 2007 in over 600 theaters across the country. In conjunction with her receipt of MIT’s Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts, she will return to MIT this spring as an Artist-in-Residence.