White Noise follows thirty-somethings Leo, Misha, Ralph and Dawn – college friends who are liberal, open-minded and socially aware.
Praised by August Wilson as ‘an original’ whose ‘fierce intelligence, and fearless approach to craft, subvert theatrical convention and produce a mature and inimitable art that is as exciting as it is fresh’, Suzan-Lori Parks is a multi-award-winning American playwright and the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her Broadway hit Topdog/Underdog. A prolific playwright, screenwriter and novelist, this month Suzan-Lori’s work comes to The Bridge Theatre as her most recent play White Noise makes its European premiere.
White Noise follows thirty-somethings Leo, Misha, Ralph and Dawn – college friends who are liberal, open-minded and socially aware. While Misha is producing the hit online show ‘Ask A Black’, Ralph is waiting for tenure at his university, Dawn works as a lawyer fighting for social justice and Leo strives to be a visual artist. But, everything changes when Leo is assaulted by the police in a racially motivated incident.
We caught up with Suzan-Lori to discuss her prodigious career and what audiences of White Noise can expect…
Hey Suzan-Lori, please introduce yourself?
Suzan-Lori Parks. 100% African-American, 93% joyful, 85 % angry, 100% aware of hypocrisy. Ancestry: from African people, Indigenous American people, Irish people, Amerindian people, Caribbean people. Black Girl/Woman/Soul Sister. I’m a Mom, I’m happily married to a German musician. Passionate about telling black stories. Funkadelic lover. First black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Former creative writing student of the great James Baldwin. New York City living but neither born nor raised there. What do I do? I write things: Plays, screenplays, teleplays, music and lyrics for songs, novels, poems, grocery lists, essays, wrongs, reviews, I also occasionally produce and direct and lecture and teach and play guitar and harmonica and Witness!
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
So, I’ve read that you originally predominantly wrote poetry and prose but were persuaded to start writing plays by James Baldwin – how far is this anecdote true?
True. I was one of Mr Baldwin’s creative writing students in the 80s. I was writing short stories. When I read them aloud in class I “performed” them and Mr Baldwin suggested I try my hand at writing theatre. (More) truth be told, He thought I had a lot of potential and I didn’t have the heart to prove him wrong.
What later attracted you to expanding your craft into screenwriting?
I love the cinema.
Your plays are particularly known for incorporating a unique writing style based on the repetition and revision integral to jazz music, which you have called “Rep & Rev.” How did you develop this writing style?
I love music (playing, listening, performing) – growing up, my parents were big music fans (soul, opera, jazz) – my writing takes its cue from those musical influences. Repetition and Revision is also integral to the way African-American people speak. I keep my ear on the pulse and I work to put the pulse on the page.
Do you find that your writing style is essential in enabling you to tell the stories you want to tell?
Yes. As the poet Charles Olsen says “form is an extension of content.”
I also have to ask: in the early 2000s you wrote 365 plays in 365 days – is this the most difficult writing project you’ve embarked upon thus far?
The most difficult writing project is always the one I’m working on! During this last year, I wrote another play-a-day cycle, Plays for the Plague Year. It’s a real challenge, a test of stamina and faith — like ultra-marathon running.
So, let’s talk about White Noise. This is the first play you’ve written since Father Comes Home from the Wars in 2014. In the interim, you wrote the screenplays for Native Son and The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Why in particular is White Noise a story for the stage as opposed to the screen?
Just to add, in the time between our world premiere of White Noise and our UK production I was also the head writer and Showrunner of Genuis: Aretha. While White Noise could work well on the screen – what makes the play really essential for the way we live now is the radical embrace of contradicting opinions and the fact that, as a theatre piece, it invites peoples to sit in close proximity while the actors express a clash of world views live and in real-time. What might be tough for one audience member to swallow might be music to the ears of another audience member. That live-and-in-person experience (which is ultimately for the purpose of healing) can only happen in the theatre. And I’d love to adapt White Noise into a film – but it would have different purposes, other agendas.
A couple of your plays refer to the ‘Great Hole of History’, a symbol for the erased histories of African Americans. How far do you think White Noise achieves your description of theatre as ‘the perfect place to ‘make’ history’?
History is made every day. For me, the writing of White Noise goes far outside my comfort zone in that I give each character their “solo” where they can express their point of view – and while I don’t always agree with them I let them speak their piece. The way the characters open up to the audience – the way I had to open up to write the play – is a kind of “hold a mirror up to nature” experience – which I feel is necessary for us to go forward – so that we can continue making history.
In White Noise Misha is hosting a hit online show called ‘Ask a Black’. You wrote your first play, The Sinner’s Place, in 1984 before the development of Twitter and clicktivism – how far do you think these developments impacted the way in which you explore African American history and identity in your work?
Everybody’s got a say these days which can be good, which can be problematic. We’re living in a time when people don’t know what “truth” is, what “facts” are. People think that “history” is an agreed upon set of occurrences – let’s just say that this belief makes for some interesting conversations.
At the centre of White Noise is the racially motivated assault of Leo by a police officer. Racially motivated assaults of this kind are still all too familiar. What is your particular purpose for including this event in the play and how do you hope audiences respond to its inclusion?
To be specific, the event is included in the play, but it’s not shown on stage. I’m borrowing a method from classical drama, where a violent action is kept offstage (like, say, in Oedipus Rex.) I have Leo act as his own messenger. His re-telling of the event and the characters’ response to the event provides the play’s central action. While I do not show a black man getting assaulted by cops, I do show and want us to witness the ways in which the fallout to violence can infect and erode our most intimate relationships. I’m inviting us to participate in an exploration of how violence disrupts our world even if we are doing our best, even if we think we’ve got it all figured out. And I’m offering (again borrowing from classical mythology) a chance for Leo, the young black man who is the hero of the play, to experience what’s called “katabasis” as he journeys to a low point in search of a Quest object – a boon for his community.
Have you got any upcoming projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?
I’m developing new projects for television and film. I’ve got a new play premiering in the states next year. My show Watch Me Work is starting up again (it’s a free writing seminar — check out the Public Theatre’s website). My son just turned 10. And, of course, there’s always fun to be had with my band.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
- A book you have to have in your collection? Carter Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro.
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Also Flying Lotus (& Kendrick Lamar’s) Never Catch Me.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? I wish I had that kind of time.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? Reading Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls…. Then getting cast in a production of it. I had the great blessing to play Lady In Blue in a production directed by Laurie Carlos, who originated the role on Broadway.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Hattian refugees at the border (sad). Ivermectin (mad). My son’s 10th birthday (glad).
White Noise plays at the Bridge Theatre from Tuesday 5th October to Saturday 13th November. Book tickets and find out more here.