Suzan-Lori Parks is an American playwright, screenwriter, musician, and novelist. Her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002; Parks is the first African American woman to achieve this honor for drama.
On March 7, 2018, Yale University announced the 2018 recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prizes. The eight recipients, honored for their literary achievement or promise, will receive a $165,000 individual prize to support their writing.
The Windham-Campbell Prizes were established in 2013 by novelist and memoirist Donald Windham in memory of his partner of 40 years, Sandy M. Campbell, to call attention to literary achievement and provide writers working in English with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns.
The 2018 recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prizes are: in drama, Lucas Hnath (United States) and Suzan-Lori Parks (United States); in nonfiction, Sarah Bakewell (United Kingdom) and Olivia Laing (United Kingdom); in fiction, John Keene (United States) and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda/United Kingdom); and in poetry, Lorna Goodison (Jamaica) and Cathy Park Hong (United States).
According to Windham-Campbell.org, “Suzan-Lori Parks is an artist whose ethical imagination confronts rather than consoles; she acknowledges in the fissures of language and human relations the complexities of a fraught world.”
They also state that “Named among Time magazine’s “100 Innovators for the Next Wave,” Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the most acclaimed and original playwrights working in American theater today. Her work excavates history to unearth profound and surprising connections to the present, showing how the political, philosophical, and dramatic go hand-in-hand. For instance, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog (2001), Park ﬁnds mythic and national resonances within the intimacy of family, as two brothers struggle to negotiate both their relationship and the legacy of slavery. Read more here.
Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky and grew up with two siblings in a military family. Parks enjoyed writing poems and songs and even created a newspaper with her brother, called the “Daily Daily”.
She started school in West Germany where her father, a military man was stationed. The experience showed her “what it feels like to be neither white nor black, but simply foreign”. After returning to the United States Parks attended school in several states such as Kentucky, Texas, California, North Carolina, Maryland, and Vermont. Parks says her constant relocation could have influenced her writing.
In high school, Parks was discouraged from studying literature due to a teacher criticising her spelling. However, upon reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Light House, Parks found herself veering away from her initial interest in chemistry, gravitating towards writing.
Parks graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1985 with a B.A. in English and German literature. She studied under James Baldwin, who encouraged her to become a playwright. James Baldwin describes Parks during this time as, “an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.” Parks then studied acting for a year at Drama Studio London in order to better understand the stage.
Parks credits the impact of Mount Holyoke on her career later in life. Since acting at the Drama Studio, Suzan-Lori Parks has received 11 awards, being the first female African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog in 2002. She has also received a number of grants including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant in 2001, the same year as the production of her play “Topdog/Underdog”.
Parks is often noted for her unique voice in the way she experiments and explores with language and dialect, stating how she tries to capture emotion and expression through language: “The difference between ‘k’ and ‘o.k.’ is not just what one might call Black English versus Standard English, for example…. It’s just getting more specific, letting the words hold the emotion. Instead of some parenthetical stage direction.”
She is a winner of the 2017 Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) America Literary Awards in the category Master American Dramatist.
Awards and nominations
1990 Obie Award Best New American Play – Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom
1992 Whiting Award
1995 Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Award
1996 Obie Award for Playwriting – Venus
2000 Guggenheim Fellowship Playwriting
2001 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant
2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama – Topdog/Underdog
2006 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts from the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT)
2007 Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award
2008 NAACP Theatre Award – Ray Charles Live! A New Musical
2015 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History – “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
2015 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize
2017 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Awards for Master American Dramatist
2018 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize in Drama
2000 Pulitzer Prize Drama Finalist – In The Blood
2002 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play – Topdog/Underdog
2002 Tony Award for Best Play – Topdog/Underdog
2015 Lucille Lortel Awards Nomination Outstanding Play – Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
2015 Pulitzer Prize Drama Finalist – Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
Compiled by Karl A. Haughton