Inducted 2023

Born: May 10, 1963 in Fort Knox, Kentucky


Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama (2002), is a playwright, musician, novelist, essayist and performer who has been called one of the most creative forces in modern theater.

She was one of three children born to a career Army officer and an educator. She was born at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and grew up there and in West Germany, California, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Maryland.

Parks earned a B.A. in English and German literature (Phi Beta Kappa) at Mount Holyoke College. She studied with James Baldwin, who encouraged her to become a playwright. She then studied acting for a year at Drama Studio London to better understand the stage. 

“It's not the imitation of life; it is actually life,” Parks said of writing drama. “Once you get to the moment of the curtain up at 7 o'clock at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, those people in the show, they're alive. And the people in the seats are alive. And at the end of the day, literally, when they take their bows, it's about what it means to be alive, what it means to be a community. I love action and activity. I love all the things about theater. It's not just action. It's not just dialogue. It's not just description. It's not just narrative arc. Often it includes song. It includes interacting with living people.”

The first of Parks’ plays to be produced in New York also had a Kentucky angle. “Betting on the Dust Commander” (1987) is a humorous look at the endless repetition of daily life, and its action centers around the Kentucky Derby.

Her best-known play, “Top Dog/Underdog” (1999), is a darkly comic tale of two African American brothers coping with poverty, racism, a troubled upbringing on top of the normal complexities of life. In 2018, the New York Times named it as the best American play of the previous 25 years, since Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (1993).

Parks, who has always been fascinated by history, remembers childhood trips to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville. “And my birthday's on John Wilkes Booth's birthday,” she said. The brothers in “Top Dog/Underdog” are named Lincoln and Booth.

In 2022, “Top Dog/Underdog” began a critically acclaimed 20th anniversary revival — one of four plays Parks has running in New York during the 2022-2023 season.

Her dramatic works have been in production for an astounding 35 years. She has written literally hundreds of plays, including more than two dozen stage plays, radio plays and screenplays that have been produced for major venues. She decided in 2002 to write a play a day for an entire year, then, 18 years later, launched another play-writing marathon during the pandemic.

“She is a genre in and of herself,” playwright James Ijames, who won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in drama for Fat Ham, told The New York Times.

When the MacArthur Foundation awarded Parks one of its lucrative “genius” grants in 2001, it noted that her “risk-taking, dramatic presentations reflect and refract social imagery from American culture and history. By creating compelling stories and characters that dramatize the complex influences that form both individual and collective identity, her explorations challenge us to reconsider our perceptions of others and ourselves.”  The foundation added that her plays “are characterized by her signature use of provocative stagecraft, gritty colloquialisms and wordplay inspired by the looped and spiraling forms of jazz.”

Parks teaches at New York University and is writer in residence at the Public Theater in New York.

MAJOR WORKS

Plays:
The Sinner's Place (1984)
Betting on the Dust Commander (1987)
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989)
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World A.K.A. The Negro Book Of The Dead (1989–1992)
Devotees in the Garden of Love (1992)
The America Play (1994)
Venus (1996)
In The Blood (1999)
Fucking A (2000)
Topdog/Underdog (1999)
365 Days/365 Plays (2002-2003)
Unchain My Heart (The Ray Charles Musical) (2007)
The Book of Grace (2010)
Porgy and Bess (2011) (Book Adaptation)
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3) (2014)
White Noise (2019)
Sally & Tom (2022)
Plays for the Plague Year (2022)
The Harder They Come (2022)

Screenplays:
Girl 6 (1996)
Their Eyes were Watching God (2005)
Native Son (2019)
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Radio plays:
Pickling (1990)
Third Kingdom (1990)
Locomotive (1991)

Novel:
Getting Mother’s Body: A Novel. New York: Random House (2003)

Major Awards:
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
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, Master American Dramatist
2018 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize in Drama
2019 Outer Critics Circle Award, Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, White Noise

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