The Life and Work of Father Comes Home Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks

By Elspeth Sweatman

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is a force that refuses to be contained. She is a lover of jazz and opera, William Faulkner and William Shakespeare, Roots and Downton Abbey. Her beaming smile, booming laugh, and rhythmic voice draw you in. She is fiercely intelligent, puckish, meticulous.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Photo by Tammy Shell.
Parks was born on May 10, 1963, in Fort Knox, Kentucky. From an early age, Parks was an energetic storyteller, but it wasn’t until she was in a college writing class taught by novelist James Baldwin that the idea of being a playwright crossed her mind. Baldwin saw how animated Parks was when she was reading her work for the class, and suggested she try writing plays. “And I was like, ‘What the fuck? Plays?’ I hated theater,” said Parks. “Just fake people doing bullshit. But James Baldwin said try it, so there I was.”

In 1986, Parks moved to New York City, where she temped as a paralegal and searched for a home for her work. On a subway ride home, Parks approached Village Voice theater critic Alisa Solomon and asked her where she could send her plays. “They’re kind of unconventional,” Parks told her. Solomon passed her manuscripts on to Mac Wellman, the literary advisor at Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association (BACA). “He sort of flipped, and sent it to me,” says director Liz Diamond, “and I sort of flipped.”

Diamond directed Parks’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom at BACA Downtown in 1989. It was an immediate success, winning the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 1990. Her next four plays found a home at The Public Theater: The America Play (1994), Venus (1996), In the Blood (1999), and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Topdog/Underdog (2003).

The cast of Yale Repertory Theatre and A.C.T.'s 2018 production
of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Parks’s latest challenge is Father Comes Home from the Wars, a nine-part play cycle. Parts 1, 2, and 3 feature all of the elements that make Parks’s work so unique: her muscular language; her jazz-inspired rhythms, repetitions, and revisions; and her impeccable timing and sense of humor. In this story of Hero and Homer, Parks fuses her love of the plays and poetry of ancient Greece with her exploration of history—both her own memories of waiting for her father to return from a tour in Vietnam, and unearthed areas of American history—to tackle the big concepts of identity and freedom.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) runs through May 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Suzan-Lori Parks? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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