If you looked only at the subjects Suzan-Lori Parks has tackled--racism, homelessness, sexual hypocrisy--you might mistake her for a polemicist. Yet her dislocating stage devices, stark but poetic language and fiercely idiosyncratic images transform her work into something haunting and wondrous. Not one but two of her plays revolve around a character who makes a living as an arcade attraction playing Abraham Lincoln; patrons pay to impersonate John Wilkes Booth, grab a pistol and shoot him. (The image simply "burned itself into my mind," she explains.) Her spiky plays often take place in a strange nowheresville and feature Greek-style choruses or Brechtian song interludes. For one play, F------ A (Parks doesn't use the dashes), she invented a new language that some characters use when they talk about sex. In Venus, her epic on the life of the Hottentot Venus, a 19th century African woman displayed as a freak because of her huge buttocks, one scene runs through the intermission. "I try to tell the story I'm hearing in my head, by any means necessary," she says. "And sometimes it comes out looking weird."
An Army brat who started writing stories in the third grade, Parks was nudged into theater by James Baldwin, her creative-writing teacher at Mount Holyoke. Now she has caught the attention, against all odds, of Disney, which has hired her to write a musical about the Harlem Globetrotters. "I don't set out to make statements," she says. "I like theater that comes from the guts." And theater that has guts.
--By Richard Zoglin