Suzan-Lori Parks

Playwright, MacArthur Fellow, Pulitzer Prize Winner
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Tam Shell

Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Podcast

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed

Suzan-Lori Parks: I tell people that with “Sally & Tom”, that I put two things I love very much, history, specifically American history, and theater, and I put them in a super collider and it's like a smash up, mash up. Boom! And we see what happens, and it's a lot of fun. We've been having a lot of fun with the show. 

Jo Reed: Oh, there are moments that are truly, truly funny and then moments that are absolutely not, and you juggled that so well. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Thank you. 

Jo Reed: Today, we dive into the world of theater, history, and the act of creation through the lens of the MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks or SLP who has a unique ability to intertwine the complexities of American history with the vibrant energy of theater, creating works that challenge, entertain, and provoke thought. And this is particularly true of her current play “Sally and Tom” now having its New York premiere at the Public Theater where SLP is playwright in residence.  A meta play about a theater company putting on a play about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, “Sally and Tom” is a fascinating exploration of theater, history, and the power of storytelling, and it exemplifies SLP’s talent for sparking nuanced conversations about America's past and present. I had the enormous pleasure of speaking with Suzan-Lori Parks and I began our conversation by asking her to tell us a little more about “Sally and Tom.” 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure, let's see, if I get it right. <laughter> “Sally & Tom” concerns a theater troupe, a low budget, no budget theater troupe. They call themselves Good Company. They’re putting on a play about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Sally Hemings, of course, being, among other things, the mother of seven children, and also one of the enslaved people owned by Thomas Jefferson, one of our great founding fathers, who was also a brilliant writer, and an architect <laughs> also. But yeah, so they're putting on a play. One of the things it's about, we could say, is, well, there's a lot of love in the play, “Sally & Tom”, but the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is not your traditional love story. There's love there, but the play, “Sally & Tom”, really takes a look at how we have a lot of joy when we are making things, or as I say in a note, how we are making the stuff that nightmares are made on. So there's a lot of fun in the play. There's a lot of joy. There's a lot of love. There's a lot of love between the characters, but it's not your traditional “Everybody, hurrah, America!” It's let's celebrate America. Let's really celebrate America. Let's respect America. Let's take another look at America with love, with devotion, and there are a lot of tough conversations you got to have when you're loving someone or something, and that's what we're having in “Sally & Tom.”. 

Jo Reed: Well, the play absolutely deals with very difficult and fraught issues; enslavement and its traces still on this country, a man with an enlightened philosophy who actually can live with owning people.  There's rape, there's sexual consent, and there's the coexistence, but very different experiences of a Black family and a white family who are living together. But you insist on a nuanced conversation about all of this, even as you focus like a laser on the facts of the case. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes. I think nuanced conversations, the ability to have nuanced conversations will be our salvation as a culture, <laughs> really. If we haven't been working those muscles, maybe they've gotten a little slack, because we've had our gadgets in our hands too much, or <laughs> all you've been lifting is the remote, some of you. But I do think that the ability to develop the nuanced conversation, that's going to really, really be the thing that allows us to move forward as a world culture, as a universal culture. Just the ability to listen, the ability to hear, the ability to say the things that need to be said, the ability to invite people to the table, the ability to invite people to the table, the ability to see yourself in a new light, to extend your hand, whether it's to someone that you'd call the other, or someone across the aisle, or <laughs> someone across a crowded room, those kind of just basic human skills, people. Yes, <laughs> in “Sally & Tom”, we practice them all. The Good Company, the theater troupe practices them, not without difficulty. And the folks in 1790 also practiced them, yeah. 

Jo Reed: Yeah, no one ever said it was easy. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: No. 

Jo Reed: One thing I just loved is that there are, what, eight performers? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, there are eight performers. 

Jo Reed: Every one of them, even the ones who don't have that much stage time, they're all so vivid. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes. 

Jo Reed: That's a combination of your writing and their performances. That's wonderful. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, so we have the best actors in the universe, and “Sally & Tom” is a play where each character, no matter what their station is, their station in life, whether they're the lead or the not lead, each character has a journey, a very significant journey. Each character receives an invitation to the table, if you will, is allowed in the room, gets to have a series of moments. It's the practice of inclusivity, and that's what it looks like. It just makes everything so much more vibrant and beautiful, in life as in theater. In life as in art. 

Jo Reed: And that certainly--

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, sorry. It’s--

Jo Reed: No, not at all. It certainly felt that way in the audience. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, yay.

Jo Reed: You have three powerful monologues in this play. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Thank you. 

Jo Reed: By Thomas, by James, who's Sally's brother, and a valet to Thomas Jefferson, and is also an enslaved person. And then finally, Sally herself. They're very different. They're very interesting. With James, he's talking to Thomas Jefferson. Whereas Sally and Thomas are talking to us, the audience, I think. Talk about that, and creating those monologues. Which one did you start with? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: My writing is very much a spiritual practice. So the person who let me in was Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson let me in.  He was the first one that I wrote. His monologue isn't the first one in the play. But to be able to see him, see beyond the carved-in-stone monument that so many of us-- we revere him, we respect him, and we only see him in this one kind of way, a lot of us. Others only see him in another kind of way, the “Ah, how could he do such things?” There's truth in both aspects of him, and that's what makes him, I think, an interesting character, and a character worth listening to. So he speaks a lot about his achievements, and his talents, and his skills, and his curiosities. I mean, he's a man who remodeled, he says, almost every house he lived in. Putting a dome on Monticello was one of his achievements. Also, he's a very great writer. That's something. But the monologue doesn't stop there. It also talks about the depth of his emotion, which he, in the monologue, talks about being literally at sea, surrounded by nothing but water, surrounded by nothing but tears. This is a different way to look at Thomas Jefferson. In “Sally & Tom”, we don't only humanize the enslaved people. We also humanize the people who owned slaves. Both things are happening. 

Jo Reed: Yeah, when I was in the theater, I was thinking of the Jefferson quote, “When I think that God is just, I fear for my country.”  You don't quote that exactly, but that's really explored, I think, in that monologue. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. Rightfully so, he is proud of his accomplishments and reminds us that he is at the great intersection of the way we see our country, and that's very important. Then, of course, Sally's, I think, monologue I wrote next, her monologue comes at the end of the play. In a way, she's remembering things about her life in the sort of spiritual tradition of you remember things, you bring the body back together, literally remembering things, and you remember things in a way to, she says, “Cast the burden.” It's a spiritual activity of casting the burden. Meaning recalling things as a way to let them go. We say in spiritual conversations, “I cast the burden and I set myself free.” The contemporary characters quote more than once the esteemed scholar and educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, who says “Forgiveness is not forgetting, it's letting go of the hurt.” So we're not talking about covering up anything or papering over anything. We're talking about recalling things so that we can let them go and move forward as a people, as a country, as a group of folks. And then James's speech, I think I wrote last, but it comes first in the play, and it's a great point of examination and contention for both the characters in 1790, and the characters in the contemporary day. Because the question of his speech, which is eloquent and passionate and gorgeous, and he says all the things that need to be said to the man, to Thomas Jefferson. And yet the question in “Sally & Tom” is, is there a place for that kind of talking in our world? 

Jo Reed: That brings us very nicely to the fact that this is meta theatrical. <laughter>  So let's talk about what that allowed you to do. I think that speech is a perfect example of that. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, we're writing a play about writing a play. James Baldwin, the great scholar, writer, activist, James Baldwin. I had the great fortune of studying creative writing with him at Hampshire College. I was at Mount Holyoke College as an undergrad. In the early ‘80s, Mr. Baldwin taught creative writing at Hampshire College. I took what he said was his first creative writing class he ever taught. There I was with 14 other students around a library-sized table, learning, as I say, how to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit, how to pay attention, how to show up. One of his wonderful things he would say in his writing is: “We are trapped in history and history is trapped in us.” So, a play that's about playwriting and a play that's about playmaking, “Sally & Tom”, to me, is very much about how the world is made. Like Shakespeare, “All the world's a stage.” Or Hamlet would say, “hold a mirror up to nature”. So, writing a play about playwriting, I'm really engaging in a conversation about how the world is made. As Luce says late in the play, “We're making the world, we're not just living in it.” How each character in the play, how each of us as human beings in the world, how we make the world every day through our actions, how the characters in “Sally & Tom” are making the world every moment through their actions. Some things are scripted, some are not. Some things need to be re-scripted because of things that happen. What that allows for the characters in the play is to perhaps discover some trapdoor. So instead of just history being trapped in them and them being trapped in history, the meta-theatricality of the play allows for us to find trapdoors, us to find ways out, us to find crossroads of compassion, us to find clearings where we can dance and sing or weep, as the whatever the new-- places where we can find freedom, where we can claim freedom, where we can celebrate history. That's not just saying “Yay, yay, yay! It's all good!” You celebrate history by falling on your knees and weeping, and that's okay. We have to embrace those kinds of moments in our culture. It's okay to weep. It's okay to say “Gee, I was great, but I might not be as great as I might've been.” To respect yourself enough to look again at yourself, to rehearse, re-hear your own words. All that has happened in the play. It's a lot, <laughs> but it's fun! <laughs> It's fun. 

Jo Reed: All props to the director, because everybody is embodying multiple characters, and at the same time, it's always very clear who's who on that stage. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, thank you, Josephine. It's Steve H. Broadnax III. We call him SHB3, is a brilliant director. This is the first time we've worked together. We worked together initially at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis when we did “Sally & Tom” there a couple of years ago. That's where we had the world premiere. I'm so thrilled to be in collaboration with Steve H. Broadnax. Of course, he's done “Thoughts of a Colored Man” on Broadway. He's very esteemed. He is such a joy to work with, and when it's game time, brother Broadnax comes in and says “Okay, everybody, it's game time!” <laughs> Everybody knows what that means. So, there can be a joy in making, in pursuing excellence and in attaining excellence, and that's what we do every day in the room.

Jo Reed: I was going to say, and a joy in paying attention. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: <laughs> Yeah, right? There is a joy in paying attention. There is a joy in showing up. The first award I got as a child, I was in either kindergarten or first grade. Anyway, I still have the little plaque that they gave me. It was for perfect attendance, and I love that. I have the little plaque on my bookshelf, “Perfect attendance.” I said “Yeah, that's what I'm going to be doing. I'm going to be showing up.” 

Jo Reed: Well, collaboration is so key in theater and I'm just curious how the collaboration worked with the director and with the actors in “Sally & Tom”? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes. In “Sally & Tom”, Steve and I worked very closely together. In the rehearsal room, of course, I defer to him when he's giving direction to an actor because he is highly skilled in the language, in transmitting the text to the actors, the blocking to the actors, what the set will look like, all those wonderful things. I oftentimes stand by his elbow and say “Hey, could we try this? Shall we try this?” He'll communicate that to the actor because that's the most effective way to help them understand it. And yet, I've got a million and one ideas <laughs> about things. I mean, we say we get in each other's lanes all the time. So I'll have ideas about staging and all that kind of thing that are transmitted and that you see on stage, and he has plenty of ideas about the text, and you'll see in the text. One day, he and I were talking, and I said “Oh, I want to articulate what Good Company is trying to do. They're trying to reach a wider audience.” He said “A whiter audience?!” We laughed, we burst out laughing. I said “Steve, it's going in the play!” So we put it in the play and now it's in a scene with Luce and Mike, and it's a really funny moment. But also, the actors, you'll see a moment in the play, in “Sally & Tom”, where the actors are throwing ideas into the pot. Good Company’s throwing ideas in the pot. That happened, plenty of times, I would make a joke, like “What you say might end up in the play.” That happened less. But in terms of overall, the structure, the main story, the bones, the basic architecture is very much my responsibility. I delight in that. There is a hierarchy. Collaboration’s great and there is a hierarchy. Sometimes people would be talking, and I'm like “Quiet please, the writer is in the room, and the writer is writing.” So, things like that, but it's all understood. I also don't jump on stage and perform for them. I would ask them to do something. So it's collaboration with an understanding of what your department is, what my department is, what your lane is, what my lane is. 

Jo Reed: These characters live in your head, and they live on the page. Can you tell me about that moment when you actually see them embodied on the stage? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: It's an absolute joy. So far in my career, I have not been one of those writers who-- I mean, I talk to some of my friends and colleagues, they're disappointed: “Oh, it's not as good as I had in my head.” For me, so far, I have been the opposite; it's always a lot better than I imagine in my head. I mean, the costumes! <laughs> I think I wrote this play for the costumes, really. Every character has a really pretty costume. No, that's silly. Of course, I didn't. But at the same time, I did write in the script, notes to the design. One character, Maggie, says “Because my costume is killer.” So that was a note, a hint to production that we wanted awesome costumes, which Rodrigo definitely gives us some of the most beautiful outfits. It's just so much better than I had in my head, of course, because the actors are so great, and the set is beautiful. I sat watching the show yesterday afternoon and was just so pleased and happy for the company that we have managed to get the show to this beautiful, beautiful place. 

Jo Reed: I'd like to just briefly touch on your relationship with music, because there's such musicality in your language. I mean, in this conversation, certainly in your work, and you've written music. <laughs> Your play, “Plays for the Plague Year”, what did you write, 25 songs for it? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, “Plays for the Plague Year”, what a joy that was. We premiered, world premiere at Joe's Pub last year, I guess it was? We won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play. Yeah, I wrote 20, 25 songs for it. Maybe we actually performed maybe 20. Words and music, I write. I have a band called Sula and the Joyful Noise, and we are performing all around town, and out of town too. We were a six-piece band with a horn section. <laughter> I was a songwriter before I was a playwright. 

Jo Reed: That's what I was going to ask you. Did music come first? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, music came first. In my experience, writing was a safer space, we could say, than the world of music. So I ended up gravitating more toward just writing plays and novels and things like that, and then have in the past 20 years, or 15 years, allowed myself to step back into my songwriter space, and I'm having a wonderful time. Working with musicians is very different. Being in a band, having my horn section, and my husband's a bass player, and we've got drums and a vibraphone player. It's intense. It's very different from being the playwright sitting in the house giving notes, that kind of thing.

Jo Reed: I bet, yeah. Can you tell me just a little bit about your background, where you're from? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure. My dad was in the army. He was a career army officer. It's funny, my mom just told me recently, he joined the army in ROTC. He came from a very economically disadvantaged situation, and the army had just been integrated. That was the only way he was going to get to college. He wanted badly to go to college, and the family, his family did not have any kind of money. So he joined the ROTC as a way to get to college. So he graduated from college and then was a career army officer. My mom was a college professor, sociology, and later, oral history. We moved all around the country. We lived in Germany for a good amount of time. My parents, in their wisdom, they sent me to German school. All the American kids are going to American school, they sent me and my brother to German school. Not only were we the only Black kids in the school, <laughs> but we had to learn German, which came in handy, of course, as learning a language always does. Also, because now my husband is German, so we speak German around the house. But that's it. 

Jo Reed: How did you get involved in playwriting? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: So there I was studying creative writing with James Baldwin in this creative writing class in the early ‘80s. As people know, in a creative writing class, it will be your turn to present your work. Usually, the students would sit at the table and very brilliantly read in a modest voice their works. For some reason, and I don't know why, but I would always read <elevates voice> like this, “And then she ran across the field, and she picked up the cotton candy, and she said ‘Oh my God!’.” I would be doing that. I do not know why. Maybe because I was a singer songwriter who wasn't <laughs> singing songs, but I was kind of singing the song. But anyway, I would perform my short stories, and at one point after class, Mr. Baldwin said “Miss. Parks, have you ever thought about writing for the theater?” I was like “No, sir, I haven't.” In my mind, in my little tummy, I thought “Oh no, he's trying to tell me that I suck as a writer.” Because it's like <adopts thespian accent> “Get me to a theater!” That kind of thing. I thought “Oh no!” Because I didn't like theater, what I knew of theater, again, it was the ‘80s, it was all the people I knew who did theater, I was at Mount Holyoke College, and they were all from New York City, and they all talked <adopts thespian accent> like this, “Oh darling, darling, darling.” They were all from New York City. So there was a lot of faking going on. There was a lot of affect, and a lot of <adopts thespian accent> “Ugh,” this kind of behavior. I was like “I am not like that. I'm real. I like real things! <roars>,” like that. So I didn't think the theater was a place for me. Although, riding the bus home that evening back to my dorm, I started writing my first play, because I thought “Well, it's Mr. Baldwin. <laughs> It's James Baldwin. <laughter> <overlapping conversation> I might as well give it a try.” It's like I'm still trying my hand at writing for the theater. It's just continued. So that's how I got into it, yeah. 

Jo Reed: Well, yeah, it's interesting because, okay, so with “Plays for the Plague Year”, 25 songs, it's like a theatrical concert. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes.

Jo Reed: We have the meta play going on with “Sally & Tom”, and then you did “365 Plays / 365 Days”, <laughs> a play a day for a year. It's almost like you're continually creating new structures for your work. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes. Strange, isn't it? <laughter> Yeah, no, thank you for acknowledging that. Yeah, for “Plays for the Plague Year”, yeah, I just sat down and wrote a play a day as a way to just-- I wanted us to have something with which we could celebrate when we got back together. When I started writing those plays, of course, we were all in lockdown. Getting back together was not a sure thing. But I felt like “Well, I'll write something and then when we get back together, we'll have a song to sing together,” if you will. A song of days, all the days. I would just listen to the news, or read the news, or whatever, and write a play about something that caught my eye. Yes, and as you pointed out, it was very much like in 2002, I guess it was, when I started and I wrote a play a day for a year. That was just as a way to say thank you to theater, because it had given me so much. I'd won the Pulitzer Prize several months before, and I was just saying “Thank you,” by just showing up. Again, attendance, perfect attendance. <laughter> Showing up every day and writing a little play as a way to say thank you. With “Plays for the Plague Year”, it was showing up every day as a way to say “Attitude of gratitude while we're in this difficult place.” Anytime I would write a song, I would throw it in. I wrote a song when I heard that Chadwick Boseman died. I wrote a song for Chadwick Boseman called “R.I.P. The King”. Or a song when John Lewis died, as the mourners crossed the Pettus Bridge with his casket, they shouted “We got it from here.” So I wrote a song called “We Got It from Here”. Or there was a song for John Prine I wrote, because he also passed away during that time. So, songs would come up like that and I'd just throw them in, and not even knowing if we'd ever come back together. And then we came back together, Oskar Eustis at the Public Theater said “Well, why don't you put them on?” I said “Really?” He said “Sure! You wrote a part for the writer, why don't you be the writer?” I'm like “Oh, okay.” So there I was in Joe's Pub performing the play,five, six nights a week with a wonderful group of actors. Directed by Nigel Smith. Great direction. Great to work with Nigel Smith.. 

Jo Reed: I mean, your whole career is extraordinary, but you've really <laughs> had a couple of extraordinary years. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Thank you.

Jo Reed: “Topdog/Underdog”, your Pulitzer Prize winning play, was recently revived on Broadway. What a revival that was. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, what a joy. Again, another director, another wonderful director, Kenny Leon, and two brilliant and beautiful and generous and kind and loving actors, Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Just splendid, splendid brothers. Righteous brothers. The kind of actors that you want to work with. I would sit in rehearsal,  when we got into the Golden Theatre, which is a beautiful theater on Broadway, I would shout in rehearsal, <laughs> they were doing the play, and I'd go “Sing the song!” like that. Because they were up there, so brilliant, so wonderful, so inclusive, because it's a play about two dudes in a room. But they were just very inclusive to my thoughts and my contributions, not just because I was the writer, but because they value the opinion of women, <laughs> which is a great thing in a man, yeah. 

Jo Reed: You were the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama back in 2002. I'm wondering, when you think about it, when you think about the past 22 years, what changes you've observed in theater? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: I mean, fortunately for world culture, I think it's become more inclusive. I think it's become more diverse. These words are sometimes hot-button issues and triggering for people, on both sides of the aisle, if you will. I think the spirit is generous and loving and encourages inclusion, even when it's difficult, and encourages respect, and encourages understanding, and encourages kindness. These are the <laughs> truths that I hold to be self-evident. Show up, be kind, don't save your kindness for just the higher ups. Kindness should be shared and spread, and it's not easy to do every day. But anyway, so I do think that theater has become more open and engaging and more joyous, and it also is allowing us to take a look at some things that perhaps we haven't had a chance to look at yet. Inviting in the voices of, we would say, underserved communities. There are plays on Broadway…. well, last year, you can see “The Thanksgiving Play”, or “Fat Ham”, or alongside  “The Piano Lesson”, and “Death of a Salesman”, and  “Good Night, Oscar.”  So there's a whole wonderful offering. I mean, and this is just me, but I think that the world is hungry for daily bread, meaning sustenance, meaning food that feeds you in a deep way, and not just cash money bread. I would ask theater, as we continue to be inclusive and expansive, not just to go for the cash money bread, the entertainment dollars, but also to find ways to continue to innovate, and find ways where we can offer audiences daily bread, and not to abandon the offering of daily bread in the pursuit of cash money bread. In a way, to bring it back to “Sally & Tom”, that's one thing that begins to happen with Good Company. The play that they're performing is originally called “E Pluribus Unum”, “Out of Many, One.” The producer doesn't like the title so much. The writer, Luce, lands on a title that's more appealing all around, to herself included, which is called “Pursuit of Happiness”. So the understanding of “Out of Many, One” is, I would say, discarded for the endless yearning of “The Pursuit of Happiness”. So it's just interesting. So I would hope that as theater, as the arts, as the world continues to expand, as the universe continues to expand, that we can find ways to continue to deliver to each other daily bread. 

Jo Reed: You are a playwright-in-residence at the Public Theater. What does this experience allow you to do? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. As a human person, I traveled around so much as a kid, and so people say “Where are you from?” Like Johnny Cash, “I'm from everywhere.” But I traveled around so much that I never really felt like I had a home. I mean, always living with, of course, my parents, but never really having a home. I feel like being the writer-in-residence at the Public Theater has allowed me to have an artistic home and to put down roots and to have a seat, in the good way. If we were ever to hang out, Josephine, you'd see, I'm one of those people who does not sit down. I'm always dancing around. <laughter> I'm always in the back of the theater, dancing around, watching the show. But to take your seat in the way that the scripture or that the books talk about taking your seat and knowing that you have a place that is for you, and the strength that comes from that, and the daring that I've continued to exercise, because I have a seat, because I have a chair at the Public Theater, which is a theater coming when I was coming up, I always-- like “Wow, it's the Public Theater.” I still feel that way, “Wow, it's the Public Theater.” <laughter> Because so many great artists have come through that theater. I had my first play there in 1994, 30 years ago, when George C. Wolfe was the artistic director of the Public Theater, a show in the Martinson where “Sally and Tom” is now, called “The America Play” about a Lincoln impersonator. <laughs> A Black man who dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. So that was 30 years ago in the Martinson at the Public Theater with George C. Wolfe as the artistic director. Let’s see, Liz Diamond was the director of that play, and now 30 years later, there is another play <laughs> about history and America, which features people dressing up as historical characters. It's my jam, yeah <laughs>. 

Jo Reed: Well, one thing you do at the Public Theater is Watch Me Work. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, thank you for mentioning that <laughs>. 

Jo Reed: Can you explain that and what it is you do and how it works <laughs>? 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, thank you, Josephine. Oh, it's one of my great joys. Watch Me Work, I started it about 14 years ago. A dramaturg friend of mine who, at that time, worked at the Public Theater, Jesse Cameron Alick, was doing a theater festival, I think on East 4th Street, in some little theaters on East 4th Street. Jesse said “Okay, SLP, I've got a lot of plays on the docket already by young writers, and I'd love to include a play by--” and I said “Oh, by an old writer?” We laughed. <laughter> I said “Okay, man.” I just started talking; it was unscripted. It was a very weird moment. I opened my mouth and I said “Jesse, I do not have time to write a play for you, but I tell you what I'll do. I'll sit in front of the audience with my red typewriter, and we will work together for 20 minutes. For the remaining time in the show, I will take questions from them about their creative process, and we will call it Watch Me Work.” It was like something was speaking through me in that moment. So, we started it, in a little theater festival, and then we quickly after that moved into the lobby of the Public Theater. It became a weekly thing, and people would come, just hang out in the lobby of the Public Theater. We would work together for 20 minutes and then I would take questions from them about their creative process. COVID happened, I went online, Public Theater and HowlRound hosted us online on Zoom, and then it was every day. I wanted to do it every single day. During the first months of lockdown when community really needed-- so many people needed somewhere to go, and so many people needed to be around other people, and we could not physically be around other people. Everything was closed down. So I just said “Every day we're going to get online and do Watch Me Work.” We had people from all over the world Zooming in, and  we create a community. After lockdown, we came back from everything. Now we're back to once a week. <laughs> Once a week, Mondays, 5:00 P.M., you can sign up through the Public Theater website. What's great about Watch Me Work is I'll talk to you in real time about your creative process. You don't have to be in a university program. You don't have to be a matriculated student anywhere. You don't have to live in the United States. All you have to do is have access to some kind of online portal situation. Come on, I'll talk to you, and I'll talk to you about your work and your creative process. It's fun! I love it. I love doing it. Yeah, I've been doing it for a long time <laughs>. 

Jo Reed: As we’re ending, do have any final thoughts you want to share about “Sally And Tom”

Suzan-Lori Parks: I was thinking, things I want to say. We say, in the play, “This is not a love story.” It's more like a truth and reconciliation story. So, just to give people that as a way to think about it. Also, I'm amazed at how the play, it resonates with all kinds of audiences, but especially younger audiences. We had a group of young partners, they call them at the Public Theater, the other night, and it was like “Whoa!” It was electric. So that's very moving to me, to know that the transmission is happening. So that was joyful. I think people coming up and coming into their adulthood, or in the first 10, 20 years of their adulthood, are very eager and open in ways that are really valuable to our culture. So I would just encourage that openness, people who are coming up, because we need you. 

Jo Reed: I think that's a great place to end it. Thank you so much.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Thank you so much, Josephine. This is so fun. What fun! 

Jo Reed: It was great, thank you. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah, thank you. You asked all the right questions.

Jo Reed: That was the incomparable playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, we were talking about many things--especially her play “Sally and Tom” which has been extended at the Public Theater through May 5. You can keep up with her at We’ll have links in our show notes to her website and to the Public Theater where you can get information about “Sally and Tom” and SLP’s project Watch Me Work.  You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us. 

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

MacArthur Fellow and 2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Drama for Topdog/Underdog,  Suzan-Lori Parks tells us about her current play Sally & Tom* now having its NYC premier at the Public Theater. It’s a play-within-a-play about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson and combines Parks’ love of American history and theater. We discuss the play's exploration of fraught subjects such as enslavement, sexual coercion, Black and White families living under the same roof under very different circumstances, and the paradoxes within Jefferson's life as a figure of enlightenment who owned slaves. Parks discusses how Sally & Tom invites audiences to engage in tough yet essential conversations about America's history and its echoes in the present—reflected in the meta-theatrical structure of the play, which allows for a layered examination of history, storytelling, and the act of creation itself. She shares that her writing is not just a form of artistic expression but is also a spiritual practice that allows her to engage with historical figures and narratives in a way that transcends traditional storytelling, inviting both creators and audiences into a space of reflection and transformation, fostering both nuanced conversations and broader implications for understanding American history. 

Parks also discusses her relationship with music and its intersections with her theatrical work and her personal and professional journey, from her upbringing in a military family to her initial reluctance towards theater, and how encouragement from James Baldwin led her to embrace playwriting.  She reflects on the evolution of theater over the past two decades, emphasizing the essential importance of inclusivity and diversity, and the continued need for spaces that offer both entertainment and nourishing content. And she discusses her residency at the Public Theater, her artistic home that supports her experimental and innovative approach to storytelling exemplified with her ongoing project Watch Me Work

Finally,  I also want to say that I have been privileged—to use, with great sincerity, an overused word—to speak with the people I do for this podcast. I have been moved, taught, had my heart expanded and my mind stimulated by these interviews. But I have never spoken with anyone as vital or present as Suzan-Lori Parks nor with anyone who made me feel so enlivened by the conversation. It’s a pleasure to share this.

*Sally and Tom has been extended and will run at Public Theater through May 12.