Pulitzer Prize winner shakes off labels

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When hip-hop artist and actor Mos Def came backstage last summer after the off-Broadway première of "Topdog/Underdog" by Suzan-Lori Parks, he could barely contain his excitement. The play is about two African-American brothers who are named Lincoln and Booth as a joke by their father.

"Mos Def ran backstage and told one of the actors, 'Ah, man, what a great play. The guy who wrote this.....' And the actor laughed. [Because] a woman was the playwright," Ms. Parks recalls.

Parks tells the story with a giggle, to explain how her work has earned the label "experimental" – at least until now. On Monday, "Topdog/Underdog" won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

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Her plays have been hailed for their creative mix of fantasy, myth, and history, expressed in metaphor and language that capture the explosive patois heard on the inner-city streets and in the rural backwaters of America.

With their unsettling and unconventional ways of prodding audiences to consider the heritage of race relations in US society, they have been traveling the regional theater circuit for more than a decade.

Now, as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and with the rave notices for "Topdog/Underdog," which opened on Broadway Sunday at the Ambassador Theatre, Parks has hit the mainstream.

"I've been writing plays for 20 years, and I've been experimental in lots of different ways," she says. "My plays aren't stylistically the same. Just being an African-American woman playwright on Broadway is experimental. As far as I know, there [are] four of us: Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, and now me. It's also experimental as a woman to write a play that just involves two men and to write it so well that people think a man wrote it," she says.

Under the direction of George C. Wolfe, "Topdog/Underdog" is performed as a cross between a hip-hop riff and a Greek tragedy; as entertaining as the former and as gripping as the latter. The brothers have been forged in a crucible of deprivation that has left them with meager family ties, little education, and few opportunities. They express their frustrations in rhythmic poetry, enhanced by a self-deprecating sense of humor. They act out their misfortunes, each dependent on the other and resentful, protective, and menacing.

Mos Def (who joined the cast for the Broadway run) as Booth and Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln are electrifying, and bring their characters to raucous life.

Parks already had won two Obies (best off-Broadway play awards), a MacArthur "Genius" award, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for "In The Blood" (1999) for plays that dissect the black experience in collision with a white man's society. Her inventive catalog of characters includes an African-American man who works as an impersonator of President Abraham Lincoln ("The America Play"), a Hottentot woman kept in a cage as a sideshow curiosity ("Venus"), and a homeless mother with five children by five different fathers ("In The Blood").

"The problem for me is being labeled anything," Parks says. "People assume, 'Oh, she is interested in language.' So when we notice she's interested in character, then she's made a big change, instead of, 'she's always been interested in character.' If we can allow painters to have different periods, ... then we can allow playwrights to have different periods, too."

Parks says the idea to write "Topdog/Underdog" came from "The America Play." "So far, it's the easiest thing I've written. It was just listening to these two men who live in a room: Lincoln, the former three-card monte hustler, Booth, the man who wants to learn how to throw the cards more than anything, their parents, [and] their personal history. It's about two guys who live now whose names happen to be Lincoln and Booth. Part of the fun is ... to see how the brothers relate to the historical event."

A 1985 Phi Beta Kappa and cum laude graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., Parks began writing plays as a sophomore in a creative-writing seminar with James Baldwin.

"I was lucky to have him give me ... a kiss on the forehead. He believed in me before I believed in me. He suggested that I try theater because [when I read aloud in class] I'd stand up and gesture a lot," she says.

Parks and her husband, jazz musician Paul Oscher, have homes in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Venice, Calif., where she leads a graduate playwriting program at California Institute for the Arts. She's also working on an adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel "Paradise" for Oprah Winfrey's film company; an original musical called "Hoopz," based on the Harlem Globetrotters, for Disney Theatricals; and her first novel, "Getting Mother's Body."

Her plays have been published by Theatre Communications Group, but "reading [them] is not the same as seeing them in the theater," Parks says. "Hearing your language spoken [is] the more profound experience."

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