Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks on Self-Worth and Loving the Grind

Playwright and novelist, Suzan-Lori Parks.
( Tam Shell )

 Suzan-Lori Parks: I am fortunate in my career. I win awards that I feel like I deserve. I know a lot of writers, I talk to a lot of writers, and there, there's this thing called imposter syndrome, and they're up there apologizing for winning because they think it should have gone to someone else. When I am in the winner's circle, I know I've done the work.

There is no doubt that I've done the work

Helga Davis: I'm Helga Davis, and welcome to my show of fearless conversations. That reveal the extraordinary in all of us. My guest today is playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, Susan Laurie Parks. Susan Laurie was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama with her 2002 play, Top Dog, Underdog.

And she was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2023. In our conversation, we talk about her bold idea to write a play each day for an entire year, her views on storytelling, resilience, creative process, and family, and she even brings her guitar to sing us a couple songs. Yes, keep moving this way, keep moving this way, keep moving this way.

Suzan-Lori Parks: You know I'm going to program that into my mind. 

Helga Davis: What? What 

Suzan-Lori Parks: you just said. 

Helga Davis: What did I say? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Keep moving this way. I appreciate that. 

Helga Davis: We can start right there. Yeah. Oh, so much. So, Susan Lurie Parks. Yes. Keep Coming This Way. Those are the words that we began. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm hmm. 

Helga Davis: With this. Yes, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: yes, 

Helga Davis: yes. And I was thinking about you because it's one of these days where I hope I don't look the way I feel.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, you, well, well, well, you, Helena, you're, you're beautiful. And so I would guess that you feel beautiful 

Helga Davis: fully. Here, let's cut you off right there. No, okay. So yesterday I had this huge disappointment. I was right on the cusp of getting something I really, really, really want. And I would say I was ninety-eight point seven.

  1. So let's make it like the perfect body temperature. Yes. I was that close to getting it. And then I got the news that I didn't get it. And so, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, I'm sorry. I was 

Helga Davis: thinking back. No, no, no. It has a good thing. And so I Had to go back in my mind and think about all the steps that preceded the disappointment.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Right. 

Helga Davis: And when I began to look, I saw that from the very beginning, there were signs that this thing was not going to happen. There were promises and delays, and you know that part of you that is in between wanting to resist perhaps a proclivity for doom and despair, and I never get what I want, and all the world against me, and hope.

So I was exercising my ability to move towards and to be in hope and away from this other thing. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm hmm. 

Helga Davis: And so, I got this news and the first thing, after I realized it wasn't going to happen, was something my mother always said, which was, so it begins, as it shall be. Ah that’s beautiful. That’s beautiful

And so I had all these signs, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: uh 

Helga Davis: huh, that if it begins in a way that gives you pause, There's something there to examine. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: That's a great way to frame it. If it begins in a way that gives you pause, there is something there to examine. I just repeated what you said because I come from the culture of repetition, um, where repetition is, is important and a form of prayer.

So that's really great to think that. 

Helga Davis: And so I remember that, and then I've been performing with Toshi Reagan in the Birthday Concerts, and so I had a performance last night. Do you play, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: sing? What do you do? I 

Helga Davis: sing with her, and sometimes I'm a performer also with her. So, I got up, I had a really good cry, and I got up and I said, but I can move toward this thing that I know has healing for me, that I know to be a container for grief, for joy, for every kind of emotion a person can have.

And that is the container for me. of live performance. And so I got myself together. I said, okay, I have my shoes. I went through my list and I got on the subway and I said, yes, I am going. I said, yes, first 

Suzan-Lori Parks: to the 

Helga Davis: event. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Right, 

Helga Davis: right. Yes, to accepting the disappointment and yes, to knowing there was hope. was a path forward.

Keep coming toward me. Keep 

Suzan-Lori Parks: coming this way. Keep 

Helga Davis: coming this way. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Keep coming 

Helga Davis: this way. Keep coming this way. And so I get to Joe's pub and I'm putting on my shoes and people are saying, Oh my God, that's amazing. You look great. And I'm all excited. And then I stop and realized I left the tea kettle boiling on my stove.

It's glass. It's made of glass. It's very beautiful. But I left it on. You do like drama, don't you?

Don't, doesn't every artist like drama sometimes? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, but I tell myself, girl, keep the drama on the stage. That's what I tell myself. But hey, okay, so keep going. No, no, no, no, 

Helga Davis: keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going. So I realized that I've left the kettle on the stage, and I don't want to burn my apartment down.

And I don't want to burn the apartments around me, I don't want to burn the building down. And so I called my stupor, and I said, do you have my keys? And he said, I think so. I think so isn't, yes. But he's your super, so. He's my super. Yeah. And he said, don't worry, sis, I got you. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm hmm. 

Helga Davis: Brother to the rescue.

Brother to the rescue. There you go. And he went upstairs, he called me back, and he said, yes, you left it on, but it's off now. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm hmm. 

Helga Davis: It's off. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm hmm. 

Helga Davis: And then I went out onto the stage and just thought, thank you. that I have a place for all of it. And it was fun. It was prayer. And that's where I begin this conversation with you.

And I'm not sure that there's a question in it, but because it's here, I wanted to share it. And I want to keep moving 

Suzan-Lori Parks: this way, 

Helga Davis: this way. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Keep on moving this 

Helga Davis: way. Keep on moving this way. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: You know what they said back in the day, keep on keepin on? Mm hmm. You've articulated what is important about not just art making, but live performance.

What's it for, you know? Also what art making is for and how art making is for. It's different from entertainment, you know, and we could just say it gives us a place to truly be. Often in contexts that encourage us not to be, or to be something else. Or, you know, to be something, an art making artist. Isn't always marketable, and I always tell people when they might say to me, Oh, yeah, that show you did, we love it, but it's not marketable.

It's not of the fashion. I say marketable to me as a black woman person is a ripe, Ripe with meaning. You know, it's not just like how to get your show on Broadway and how to make a book. You know, it's, uh, it's ripe with meaning, um, and, uh, must be considered from all angles. I love that. Say that quote again from your mom, which is beautiful.


Helga Davis: it begins, as it shall be. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: So it begins, as it shall be. My mom's mom and my dad's mom grew up very differently. My mom's mom is from far west Texas and was a school teacher. Brilliant school teacher and a visual artist and my dad's mom from Chicago by way of Georgia. These two women knew each other, hung out together, but they both had a favorite word, a word that they valued greatly, which was resilience.

Sometimes when I use that word, these days I am told that it is no longer in the fashion. Really? That is what I am told. 

Helga Davis: So what is it that you mean, and what do you think the person who's telling you it isn't in fashion could 

Suzan-Lori Parks: possibly mean? I think the people telling me it's not in the fashion, they understand it to mean, take shit.

You know, you just gotta take shit. If the man's shitting on you, let him shit on you. You know, that's what, that's what, and that is not the meaning of the word. And I'm sure if I had my Oxford English Dictionary here with me, I could actually look it up and see what that But what does it mean for you?

Yeah, it, it means find, find a way. Find a way. Make a way out of no way. That's what my folks on both sides did, still do. That's what I do. 

Helga Davis: And what was your other grandmother's word? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: No, they both had. They both had that. Yeah, that's what was interesting because their educational experiences are both very different.

Grandmother in Chicago had what she called mother wit, which was a third grade education. Grandma in Texas had a master's degree, which only gets you so far in far west Texas. Both of them had a favorite word or a treasured word, a word that they thought highly of, and it was 

Helga Davis: resilience. Can we talk a little bit again about Making art, what's it for?

What questions do you feel your work asks? Not just of 

Suzan-Lori Parks: you, but asks 

Helga Davis: of those of us who will encounter 

Suzan-Lori Parks: it, 

Helga Davis: see it, hear it. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, I guess the spirit who I am in communication with, or the spirits, maybe, plural, ask of me What I then in turn ask of my audiences, readers, fellow bandmates, people I share my work with, they ask, find a way.

They ask, spread the love. They ask, laugh. They ask, cry. Grieve if you need to. If it is something to be grieved, grieve. If it moves you to laughter, laugh, you know, dance, celebrate, mourn, feel the feelings. And the inclination of the marketplace, they ask us continually to sweep it under the rug. Don't talk about fill in the blank.

Don't talk about that. Talk about this. But my voice is, my spirits are asking me to, if you see it, if you, like we're on the, you know, if you see something, say something, you know, it's like, yeah, okay, okay, um, if you see something, say something, those are my spirits, girl, girl, you see it, right? I'm like, yes, I see it, but then you better, you speak, I am the writing, James Baldwin was my creative writing teacher.

Brother Baldwin, he would have been a hundred years old this year. He taught me, if you see something, say something. And also laugh, celebrate, you know, dance, all those things. Is 

Helga Davis: that, you know? Yeah. It's nice that you mention dancing. Yeah. Because when I got up this morning and felt all of that feeling still around me, I put on one of my favorite.

Yes songs. which is Radiohead's Everything in Its Right Place. Oh, I love that you 

Suzan-Lori Parks: love Radiohead. I love that you love Radiohead. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's good. There you go. There you go. See? 

Helga Davis: Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Right. Right. 

Helga Davis: And there's a way In which he sings that, where it just says, yes, this is what happens, and everything is in its right place.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Right. Oh, that is a beautiful kind of strength to remember. Actually putting the body back together, remembering. And that's not saying, take shit. 

Helga Davis: Or sweep it under the rug. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Or 

Helga Davis: sweep it under the rug. That's beautiful. Can you talk about how you're affected by a state we seem to be in, as a culture, as a society, as a world, that says, don't talk about that?

Suzan-Lori Parks: I find that Also, what I ask in my work is that let us continue to develop ways to have conversations about things that might feel difficult, because I feel like the marketable culture is encouraging us not to talk about things, and so I just want to sort of, let's talk about it. For example, A colleague the other day was complimenting me.

Wow, you know, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 3. That's a great play. Oh, thank you. And we do it, you know, we want to produce it. Oh, well, thank you. But I'm not in the mood for a play based on slavery. You know, and I said, Oh, okay, that's, that's your prerogative. This was a, a, a, a black person. That's your prerogative.

Bro, you know, I, I hear you. You know, that's your right to have a, an opinion about what you want to produce, right? Yeah. And yet, at the same time, that's the same rhetoric that is being employed by people in, say, the state of Florida who don't want to teach us about slavery at all. No one wants to talk about slavery except for the fact that this country was built on that.

And I Don't Want to Listen to a Play About Slavery kind of discounts the stories of millions of people simply because they happen to find themselves enslaved. And millions of people in the past, millions of people in the present day, because slavery is still happening. So I just found that kind of lump it all together.

Slap a label on it and cancel it. You know, there's a lot of that going on and I feel like we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our communities, we owe it to our world culture to find a way to talk about things. And all plays about slavery aren't the same. So we want to talk about slavery. Other things, but we don't want to talk about the ground on which we stand.

We have beautiful speeches and postings everywhere you go in New York City. We thank the Lenape people for the land on which we are built, da da da. I'm like, yay, Lenape people! I mean, I have Indigenous people in my family, too. Yay, Indigenous people are being thanked by a plaque on the wall, and yet, we don't want to talk about slavery.

We don't want to talk about the economic land on which this country was built, because it Those conversations are difficult because those conversations aren't fashionable because they make people uncomfortable. How can we open up to everything? So, you know, here we are. 

Helga Davis: Here we are. And I was trying to find a place in me that could hold on to this dream I 

Suzan-Lori Parks: have.

Helga Davis: Right. And I was on the subway, on my way here, and it's that time of the morning where there's hustle and bustle and folks looking at their phones and standing in the doors and not getting out of the car. For a little while I was obsessing. on the people who had eaten something and they balled up the aluminum foil in the paper bag and I said, now what are you going to do with that?

Are you going to hold that? Are you going to make our place filthy? Are you? And I had a whole thing going on all to distract me from the fact that this dream, that I have to let go of it. And so I was going up the stairs, And I was cut off. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Like walking up the stairs. Walking up the stairs. 

Helga Davis: I was getting ready to take the first step and a woman bumped me.

Yeah. And went on ahead of me. And I looked up and the back of her backpack read, Your dreams deserve your courage. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: There

you go. What do you think? 

Helga Davis: Yes. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Mm hmm. Your experience, Helga, is telling me you're continually discovering what it means to be an American. I mean, this is the dream of America and the reality of this country, and how those of us who believe in the ideals and the ideas of this country and how we continually, daily, minute by minute by minute, are told.

Fuck you. You know what I mean? Um, sorry about, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, we're told, and how we have to constantly reset ourselves. And I love that we, we might be cut off in line and yet her backpack says, your dreams deserve your courage. And how dreaming is a courageous act or faith is an act of courage. Or courage is an act of faith or. And I mean, I'm just curious, like, how are you doing with your dream there?

How's it going?

Helga Davis: Well, there's a part of me that says that wasn't for you. Sure. And next, and roll up your sleeves and get back to work. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Right. 

Helga Davis: But not today. Right. It doesn't feel like that today. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Right. 

Helga Davis: And it's not so much that it feels aspirational. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm hmm. 

Helga Davis: I know that if I don't look at this difficult thing, it'll just leak out somewhere else.

And so when the woman pushed me, I was ready for her. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm hmm. 

Helga Davis: When I was staring at the people with the balled up aluminum foil and paper bag, as I said, it was a distraction, but I was ready to say something. I was ready to become Citizen Helga. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Mm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. And 

Helga Davis: defend something. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: What? 

Helga Davis: My rights.

To a clean subway car for my people, because we were coming from Harlem. Take care of our place. Respect our place. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Aren't you always like that, huh? 

Helga Davis: Yeah, but what about the other people? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: No, no, no, but I mean, I think that's one of the things that my work anyway asks, but in a way that is digestible. Take care of our place.

Have the conversation. Find a way. Here, I'll write a play for you. I think if I walked around the subway, uh, Obsessing? Yeah, shaking my finger at people. That would be less effective. And so you choose to do it in the most effective way possible. Okay. 

Helga Davis: Waving my finger at people is not the most effective way.

It's what I do in the moment to manage my feelings. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, yeah. 

Helga Davis: Because if I can make that right, then I can make myself right, and I can make my feelings right, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: then I'll 

Helga Davis: get back to my dreams. And it doesn't work that way. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: No, it doesn't work 

Helga Davis: that way. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: It feels good in the moment, though. Sure it does. But, yeah, but no, it doesn't look that way.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Wow. 

Helga Davis: I want to ask you also about the 365 plays. Sure. That you wrote in 365 days. Sure. And what that time did to your writing. Perception of time, or does for your perception of time. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: And that's, that's, yeah, the 365 days, 365 plays, where I wrote a play a day for a whole year.

And more recently, just because I think this might be a better way to answer the question, Plays for the Plague Year, in which I wrote a play a day for a whole year. Plus a lot of songs, and then we performed it at Joe's Pub last year. What a play a day process does for my perception of time, um, to talk about Plays for the Plague Year because I, 365 was a while ago, almost 20 years ago, um, but Plays for the Plague Year was much more recent in lockdown.

We were in lockdown, everybody was in lockdown, and I thought, well, what am I going to do? I'm going to sit down and write a play a day. I've done this before. It is a beautiful meditation practice. It's kind of like having a mala, you know, or a rosary, and you say the rosary or you say your mala. You work your beads, as they say.

My beads are plays. And to show up every day at the page, look around, see what's going on, and write about it and say, this is happening right now. But what writing a play a day does for time, especially looking back, is that it says, we are here, and this too shall be lifted up. Like Apotheosis, like the Greek gods, they would take someone and throw them in the air and create a constellation.

With plays for the plague year and with 365 Days, 365 Plays, I would put someone in the book. And I would say, now your name is in the book, or now the moment I saw you in the park singing a Ray Charles song, whatever, the moment, it's in the book. It was a way to embrace what was happening and a way to save it so that we could savor it.

And I've realized, interestingly enough, cuz the first 365, I was not a character in the plays. In the Plays for the Plague Year. I am a character in those plays. And then when we performed it at Joe's Pub, I realized, oh, , oh, that's what I'm doing all these years of playwriting and writing everything. When I write, I am creating a place for people to be.

And I am now creating a place for myself to be as I'm a character in my play 

Helga Davis: and a place for time to be 

Suzan-Lori Parks: right. and a place where we can get on stage and say, all those days I was thinking of you. And now we can sit together and quote unquote relive those days in a joyful way and cherish them. We don't have to be afraid to look back.

Looking back is not a necessarily a scary thing. Looking within is a joyful thing. There's a lot of love. So just to embrace all that, time, history. I'm a myth head, that's for sure. That's another thing I realized recently, you know. 

Helga Davis: What are some of 

Suzan-Lori Parks: your, 

Helga Davis: your good ones? My middle name is Cassandra. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh girl, there you go.

Okay, there you go, there you go. Wow, so your parents named you Cassandra. 

Helga Davis: Well, my mom says that she named me Cassandra after a girl that she grew up with. Oh, okay. Who died. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Okay. Wow, 

Helga Davis: that's 

Suzan-Lori Parks: good. That's very beautiful. Who died in 

Helga Davis: childhood. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. That's very beautiful. 

Helga Davis: Tell me about your Greek 

Suzan-Lori Parks: myths.

Oh, my Greek, yeah, myths, and my love of the big story, American myths. That's just what I would read. and Consume as a Child. Those were the stories that were real to me. I don't know why. Um, maybe because, you know, I had no friends. I had no friends. I spent a lot of time in the library and so, um, those were the books with the best illustrations.

How come you didn't have any friends? I don't know. We could blame it on the, um We moved around a lot. Every year we moved, because my dad got reassigned. He was a colonel in the army, so he got, okay, so we moved around. Maybe this is what it was. And so I made friends with the books in the library. And I would sit for hours.

Lunchtime. You know, the classic scene from any high school show. You go to lunch with your tray, and you get out of the lunch line, and you look around, and people would meet you with these looks, like, don't sit here. And it wasn't a black thing, it wasn't a white thing. There were all kinds of kids, like, no, no, no, no.

I'm someone, you know, we're saving a spot for, you know, and I'd be like, okay, so I'd just go to the library and sit there. And the librarians are like, They were so kind and I think they knew what was up because I'd bring, you know, my lunch in there and I weren't supposed to eat in the library but I'd like hide the food off my lap with my tray and I'd kind of have the book open and I'd be eating and the little crumbs would be falling and sort of, you know, but they were very loving and kind and, and, uh, so I made it through, you know.

Helga Davis: You said that you moved around a lot and that your dad, when he retired, was a colonel. Your dad was in Vietnam also, yes? Yes. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, he had two tours of duty in Vietnam. He joined the army because he came from a family that was very economically disadvantaged, we would say, and he very much needed money to go to school.

And there was no money. And again, my grandmother, with all her resilience, and my, uh, grandfather, his stepfather, hard working folks, but there was no money for college. And he very much wanted to go to college, and so he was hoping for a football scholarship, because he was good, and that didn't come through.

And so he signed up for the ROTC, which guaranteed college in exchange for service in the Army, and so that's what he did. He was not like a gung ho, you know, Oh, I'm gonna go over there and kill brown people I've never met. And then have to wear my uniform as I walk around and travel the country forever after because it was so dangerous when we went from military base to military base.

He would wear his uniform. Army uniform, as we drove, because it was all driving. He would wear his army uniform and my mom had a shotgun in the car. And that's how we would get from say, Fort Ord, California to Fort Knox, Kentucky or whatever. Because, you know, people on the road, they'd see a black family and they'd say, hey, let's have some fun.

People would end up dead. Families would end up, or the man in the family, they'd drag the guy out of the car and kill him. This happened all the time. Green book, no green book. Please, people, this happened all the time. He just wanted an education so he could have a wonderful possibility for his family.

Were people in your family in the service? I 

Helga Davis: have two brothers who were drafted into Vietnam with green cards. They weren't even full citizens. They had come to this country from the West Indies, and I don't know how it happened because it's a hard thing to talk about. And they were both drafted. My eldest brother speaks about Vietnam as a place of where he did not have opportunity.

So he could read well, they liked the way he spoke, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: they 

Helga Davis: liked his way of communicating, they felt that he could command a group of people. And so he went in, and he was doing all of those things, and he wasn't on a battlefield, per se. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, okay. 

Helga Davis: However, he was in an office. Where his ideas were welcome and he wasn't welcome.

And so he would give orders to someone who was white who would then execute the orders because no one was going to take orders from a nigger, especially one who came from the West Indies and a part of the West Indies that was a British colony, so who didn't even speak like the people, yeah I'm just gonna say it, who niggas they were used to encountering 

Suzan-Lori Parks: and 

Helga Davis: He went back recently.

He took his two sons to Vietnam. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, wow. Wow. 

Helga Davis: And I don't know what it was like for him to be a tourist in this place where there was so much degradation and danger 

Suzan-Lori Parks: also 

Helga Davis: because he would drive those tanks in the middle of the night to bring fuel to the tanks that were already in the field. The other brother came back in a straitjacket.

And so, did you notice any effects on your father after two tours in Vietnam? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, it's funny, I have several songs about that. One of them is Bronze Star. I don't know everything for sure, but what I glean from just having grown up as an army brat. That’s what they called us That’s what they call kids who have parents in the service. That when you come home, And you're an Army family, it's different because you have to still play by the rules. And while people who are in the service now are able to go on a tour to wherever, Afghanistan, they come home and there's a culture that encourages conversation.

And at my father's time, I don't know if it was the same with your brother's, the culture did not encourage conversation. They hated you for Going, they hated you for being there, and they hated you more when you came home. And so my dad didn't talk about it a lot because that was not acceptable. Who am I going to offend?

Who's listening? What can I say? Absolutely nothing. He passed away 10, 15 years ago, bless his heart. And my mom would always say, your father used to be so much fun. And that wasn't like, he wasn't good time dad, you know what I mean? I mean, he was. But he, um, what he had to endure just to be an American needs to be noted.

And, again, perhaps it's not fashionable to talk about. I mean, see, I grew up in a culture where everything that I was moved to talk about, everything I saw, needed to be talked about. And I've been told for years, don't talk about that. So, I talk about things just knowing that, that I'm always being told to shut up.

Shut up and make money! Shut up and dance! Shut up and be happy. 

Helga Davis: Why do you think he stayed? In the army? Yeah, and then rose up through the ranks? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: When you're drafted, you're drafted, you serve your time, interesting, right? Yeah, sounds like incarceration. You serve your time, very much like the end of slavery, how they, you know.

Go and round up people. Um, you serve your time and then you're out. Or you dodge the draft and then there's that. But if you have made an agreement with the armed services that in exchange for my college education, I will serve, that's a deal you make. So my mom said that the first time he was in Vietnam, so he told it, he said, the first time we were in Vietnam, we didn't even know we were in Vietnam.

We were told we were somewhere else. That's how he told the story. You've signed a contract and there you are. And they make it kind of nice because back in his day, segregated schools. You get into, you know, the segregated school, Southern University, in my dad's case, and then to pay for it you join the ROTC and then there you are.

So you have your four years of college. And then, when you graduate college, your first job is you're in the Army, full time. I haven't done research on it, but that's the way it looked like, from what he would say, or the photographs and things that I've seen, that's what it looks like. Four years of college, and then when you graduate, you have a commissioning ceremony, and you're in the Army now.

And then, whatever the Army happens to be doing, that's what you've bought into. You know, and at that time it was Korea, and then Vietnam. And again, it's an environment where When did he graduate from college? Oh, let's just say 1950 something or other, you know? And that was a job for a black man. A job that you could be proud of.

You serve your country, prove yourself to be a good citizen, and you will earn the respect that you desire. And you will be allowed to have a life in this country. And, yeah. 

Helga Davis: And also here you are. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, here I am. Appreciating, that's the other thing. When we talk about those difficult times, we allow ourselves to appreciate the efforts that were done by the people who did not have the opportunities that we have.

And so, yes, I very much appreciate it. And my mom, too, who was a professor and had a checkered career because every time my dad moved, she had to get a new job at a new university, and it was very difficult, and not the kind of career she would have had if we had just lived in one place. 

Helga Davis: You're listening to Helga.

We'll rejoin the conversation in just a moment. 

Avery Willis-Hoffman: The Brown Arts Institute at Brown University is a university wide research enterprise and catalyst for the arts at Brown that creates new work and supports, amplifies, and adds new dimensions to the creative practices of Brown's arts departments, faculty, students, and surrounding communities.

Visit arts. brown. edu to learn more about our upcoming programming and to sign up for our mailing list. 

Helga Davis: And now, let's rejoin my conversation with the playwright, Suzanne Laurie Parks. What do you want to say about your work right now? Yay! Yay! 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah! I'm, I'm, I'm, uh, I really appreciate the opportunities that I've had.

I appreciate the people along the way who have encouraged me. Keep coming this way. That, what you said. And I took that as encouragement. I very much appreciate. The moxie, I guess, that I've demonstrated, being a student of James Baldwin, and if you see something, say something. That's the artist who metaphorically kissed me on the forehead and said, Go forth, young woman, Make something of yourself.

So I appreciate the way I've stuck with it, because it's joyful. Deeply joyful. That's where the real joy is. That's where the soul sits. That's the seat of the soul. When you go through the thing that is difficult, when you wrestle that angel, that's where the seat of the soul is. And I'm happy that I keep going there, because I could be Phoning it in.


Helga Davis: What was your experience like at Mount Holyoke, and what did it mean for you to be in an all women's school, encountering women every day? In what ways was it significant for you, and if you could guess, for them? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: I didn't even, uh, know enough to know that I needed it. It was my mom who encouraged me toward that.

For all the years of service, you don't make a lot of money when you're in the Army. You just, uh, work hard. And so for all the years of service, my mom and dad, they didn't have a lot of money. And so going to Mount Holyoke was a huge financial issue for my parents. That is a huge reason why I didn't go to graduate school.

I didn't have any money. I had debt so deep. And my dad, who grew up very poor, and my mom, who grew up without money, but as she said, not without things, there was no dough. There was no bread. There was no money. Uh, and so, when I came to New York after, College, I made a choice. I'm not going to try to go to graduate school, and I need to pay back my parents for having sent me to Mount Holyoke College.

And the experience was tremendous and beautiful and amazing. You've had Thelma Golden on your, on your show. Thelma went to Smith, right? So, yeah, it's very important to be in a classroom knowing that you have an opportunity to truly shine. Because when they, you know, your gender and your race and, and your physical composition and what is expected of you, you're judged and labeled and that kind of thing.

And back then, and I think still now, as a woman person, we are thought to be not as intelligent. Not as fill in the blank. That's the assumption. The opportunities are initially given to the people who are men, who identify as men. Still now, people identifying as men are encouraged toward things that people identifying as women are not.

I mean, take the Oscars, for example. I'm not going to unpack that. I'm just going to say, like, Uh, huh? 

Helga Davis: You have to unpack it a little bit. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Hmm, just, that's a wonderful barometer. It's a wonderful bellwether. It's a wonderful way to see what culture is thinking, yo! So let's take the big awards ceremony! That's fun and hip and splashy and Everyone looks so good.

And let's see who's being considered for an award. Just considered for an award. And how some folks are considered with great regularity, and some folks are considered never. And when some folks are considered, it's like, Ooh, big moment! Let's roll out the press, cause it's happening! And so, that affects what one can do.

Okay, in the industry. When you're 

Helga Davis: considered, what is the experience? Um, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: from where I am, it's an experience of incredible gratitude. I am fortunate in my career. I win awards that I feel like I deserve. I know a lot of writers, I talk to a lot of writers, and there, there's this thing called imposter syndrome, and they're up there apologizing for winning because they think it should have gone to someone else.

When I am in the winner's circle, I know I've done the work. There is no doubt that I've done the work. And even all the way up to the winner's circle, every day, starts with me considering myself and would hope that my work would be considered going down the line. And, and when it's not those moments when We hope, and the hope doesn't come through, find a way to keep going.

Because everyone who made you is rooting for you. Every grandmother, every grandfather, every cousin, aunt, every creature that ever walked by your side is rooting for you to keep going. So I just lean on those people. I teach at NYU, and I teach a class called Watch Me Work Online, and I share that with my students.

The millions of people who are rooting for you to pull through, and we're rooting for you to pull us through, and I feel, yes, okay, I'll keep going. I'll get through today. I'll find a way to keep moving. Mm hmm. Yes, that's why we're talking about it right now. That's why I'm here now. I hear you, and I'm getting a little teary.

I'm gonna wipe my eyes, and you're gonna hear the tissue moving across, so my mascara doesn't run all over my face. Oh, yes, yes, yes, it's that mascara running moment. Um, but you know, right? Right? So, it's a great honor to be considered, and also, I'm always doing the notion of like, phoning it in. Rested on my laurels or whatever?

Pfft. Mm mm. Nah, not SLP. No SLP. She do the work, yo. Cause I love the work. I love the work. 

Helga Davis: So, you say you consider yourself first. And that is every day. What does that look like? What does that mean? Oh, that's 

Suzan-Lori Parks: great. I get up early in the morning. I always have. As a child, I was a morning person. I get up early in the morning.

I meditate. I might read a passage of the Bible or, you know. 

Helga Davis: What did you read this morning? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Ah, well, you know, Psalm 22. You know, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. That's a beautiful line. He leadeth me beside the still waters. Beside the still waters.

That's really good. He leadeth me beside the still waters. 

Helga Davis: He restoreth my soul. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: That's number three. He restoreth my soul. That's beautiful, right? He leadeth me. In the path of righteousness, for his namesake. Yea, though I walk in the valley, through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, 

Helga Davis: for thou 

Suzan-Lori Parks: art with me.

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. And then what comes next? 

Helga Davis: I don't know. Who prepares the table? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, in the presence of mine enemies. And then it Restoreth my soul. Restoreth my soul, and I will dwell in thy house forever. 

Helga Davis: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. I will dwell in the 

Suzan-Lori Parks: house of the Lord forever.

Thank you. Thank you. See, I didn't read it. You memorized it, girl. There you go. But that, yeah. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. That's good. That's good. That's good. That's like a, on purpose, get through the day in the entertainment industry mantra. 

Helga Davis: And does it have any religious attachment for you?

Oh, we went to church 

Suzan-Lori Parks: a lot. 

Helga Davis: Me too, that's why I know it. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: I feel like it's very important to take these things that are said often, you know, the Lord's my shepherd, and to feel the meaning that they will have for us in our day to day. Feel the meaning that your grandmother's favorite word might have, or your grandfather's favorite way to shine his shoes.

So, meditation, read a little bit of scripture, you know, it's like, open the book, see what's there. And then write some, and then my son is awake at that time, and he has to do his reading and his violin playing. So, yeah, there's that, and then just find ways and people and situations that affirm me or tell myself, this situation is easily resolved for my highest good.

Out of this situation, only good will come. Say those things. I mean, it's like, you know, prayer warriors are standing by.

That helps. It's just very much one day at a time. It's very much just getting to the day. The entertainment business is, um, a difficult. You feel? Yourself to be part of the entertainment business? Well, I don't know if I'm in it, but not of it. I don't know. I'm in it. I do movies. I do plays. I do plays on Broadway.

I make music. I am out there. I don't know. I mean Maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm free! You've suddenly set me free! 

Helga Davis: Now's the time for the 

Suzan-Lori Parks: praise break. 

Helga Davis: This is the second time the praise break has entered. Yes, 

Suzan-Lori Parks: I do feel that I am part of I participate in the entertainment business. I'm an American also. Ha ha ha ha!

And what does that mean? Oh yeah! You know what I'm saying? So yeah, I'm an American.

Helga Davis: But even that, what does that mean? What does it mean to be, I'm an American? Yeah, okay, there's geography. There's 

Suzan-Lori Parks: geography. There's geography and there's faith. There's faith, and what was promised, what was written down, is true. Hold these people to their word. 

Helga Davis: Girl, what? It's clear they're not keeping their word.

Suzan-Lori Parks: You know 

Helga Davis: what? What? Scripture 

Suzan-Lori Parks: says, you know, the golden rule, you've got to practice the golden rule, even when they ain't. Otherwise, what you gonna do? 

Helga Davis: Obsess over the people who balled up their aluminum foil and the paper bag. I know. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: I'm just offering. See the one person who didn't. Focus on them. Say, good job. Obsess over people. 

Okay, I want to encourage myself not to obsess about the behavior of someone that I cannot control, right? Which is the litterer. And At the same time, you see the garbage on the ground, you say, this is how it's going to be. 

Helga Davis: But you can't even speak to the person and say, this affects all.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Not me. Not the likes of me. No. There's some volatile behavior going on. Put it this way, there's a deli near where we live, and there were some young kids, not children, but like teenage kids at the deli, and there was a salad bar. It's a couple of years ago, before COVID, and they were, he, oh, the guy at the counter isn't looking.

Let's, let's take some food, and they were eating from the salad bar. grazing without paying. And I said to them, I was there with my kid who was much younger at the time and smaller. And I just was like, Hey kids, you all shouldn't be doing that. I was met with not physical violence, but verbal violence.

Like that made me go, I need to step away because they're yelling at me. These kids. So I thought, hmm, okay, well I'll just not do that because they're getting angry, they're yelling at me. You know, because they wanted to eat at the salad, but they wanted to do what they wanted to do. And I was being the lady telling them, being like the auntie saying, hey, children, you know.

So I'm mindful about how I engage and I can't control the behaviors of people. I am not saying, I would hate for this to be construed as like SLP says, hey, ha ha, you get to clean up my mess. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that I want to create a society where people have opportunities to do what they very much want to do.

What I see in this society is that we're actively training people to be cogs and wheels and drones. And that is why I am mindful about what kind of entertainment I consume and what kind of art I make. Because people are being encouraged not to have conversations about difficult things. And the more you are shut down and told to shut down and shut up and not look at your history, just dance and sing and be joyful!

You were pushed onto a track and held, not the path of righteousness, right? You're pushed onto the path of wrongteousness in someone else's name, in the name of capitalism. And we have a huge brain trust and a heart trust that is not being utilized or tapped. 

Helga Davis: What happens when you bring your place to other cities, other countries, other, wherever the people can speak English and understand?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, it's electric. I mean even when they aren't speaking English, we did Top Dog, Underdog. Several years ago in Amsterdam and I speak German, but I don't speak Dutch And so they translated it into Dutch, which was a great treat for me It was a big hit over there and the the guys are like, you know, brothers from Holland We're saying, you know Dutch Dutch Dutch motherfucker Dutch Dutch motherfucker Dutch motherfucker motherfucker Dutch and I'm leaning back and I'm like That's my play yo It was so fun, but it was explosive.

We're talking about what it's like to be alive in this world and, and all those things. So there was a tremendous amount of excitement. Yeah, where my work is done, there tends to be a tremendous amount of excitement because I'm really embracing life. Authenticity 

Helga Davis: and 

Suzan-Lori Parks: I'm 

Helga Davis: being the real real, you know, and yeah.

Okay, but what about Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, my plays are done in Florida and Kentucky and Mississippi and Alabama by, let's just take Top Dog, Underdog, by black men who don't have an opportunity to express themselves and they very much appreciate the opportunity. And who's in the audience?

Black folks, white folks, POC. It's theater, and so theater attracts You know, who we attract. And you get a wonderful audience of people who are hungry for That's what I'm saying. Entertainment's nice and lovely, but it's like bread and circus back in the olden days where they just say, keep them entertained and we can pull a fast one, you know?

Art is the stuff that moves people, that wakes people up to the love, and there's a hunger for that. There's a hunger for that. I think people are being robbed of that opportunity to have real engagement. 

Helga Davis: Thank you. Thank you. Very much. It’s so nice to meet you. That was my conversation with Suzanne Laurie Parks. I'm Helga Davis.

Join me next week for my conversation with singer songwriter, Sampha. 

Sampha: Sometimes I do things and I'll recognize the connections in retrospect. Even if I did it for a particular reason, it has many more reasons that people might attribute to it and things that I might find out about it that grow my understanding about what it is I'm doing or why I'm doing or why I'm attracted to doing certain things.

Helga Davis: To connect with the show, drop us a line at helga at wnyc. org. We'll send you a link to our show page with every episode of this and past seasons, and resources for all the artists, authors, and musicians who have come up in conversation. And if you want to support the show, please leave us a comment and rating on any of your favorite podcast platforms.

And now for the coda. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: So this is called Your Love to Love Me. It's, uh

I got my life, so far so good. I got things happening more or less like they should. Oh, I got my butter, I got my bread. I got a play show to lay my nappy head. Oh, I got my heart and it's wide awake. I got some ground, but sometimes it shakes. Oh, I got a job, cause I got skills. I got some ways and some means and some thrills and some chills and All I want, all I want now, all I want, I just want your love to love me.

I got an axe, I just might grind it. I gotta find mine, let's just hope I can find it. I got shit, but it ain't deep. Wherever I go, that's what I reap. Oh, I got the deal, I am on a mission. I can't work wonders, but I ain't no magician. I got some moves, I've got some styles, And I've got some game, well, once in a while.

And all I want. All I want now. All I want

I just want your love to love me. And it goes on and on. It goes on. 

Helga Davis: Season 6 of Helga is a co production of WNYC Studios and the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University. The show is produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville with help from Rachel Arewa. And recorded by Bill Sigmund and Will Salwin at Digital Island Studios in New York.

Our technical director is Sapir Rosenblatt, and our executive producer is Elizabeth Nonamaker. Original music by Michel Ndeghe Ocello and Jason Moran. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer at the Brown Arts Institute, along with producing director Jessica Wozulewski. WQXR's Chief Content Officer is Ed Yim.


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Produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville