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Visiting lecturer, playright stresses dedication

BY LUKE VOELZ | FEBRUARY 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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Suzan-Lori Parks stood in front of several hundred people, leaned down, and exploded.

It was an explosion of sound, pwshhhshfhsh, launched from her lips into the microphone as she delivered a lecture at the Englert Theatre, 21 E. Washington St., on Wednesday. She said the sound represented the speed of the countless inspirations she has gathered over her life.

“I have a million suggestions tonight, so bring your earplugs,” she said. “Plfssshhfshh — that’s the sound of suggestions whizzing by at the speed of sound.”

The playwright spoke to the crowd about her life as a writer, one that began scrawling stories in a notebook under her parents’ piano as child and has led to a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog. She started writing in the fourth grade.

“You can have your beginning at any age,” Parks said. “You don’t have to be young to start walking in the direction of your great path.”

She spoke of the importance of following one’s ideas regardless of how unrealistic they may seem.

“Entertain all your far-out ideas,” she said. “Invite them to take room in your life.”

This steadfastness inspired her in 1981 to leave her chemistry major at Mount Holyoke College and pursue degrees in English and German.

“I felt like I was dying,” she said of her days in the chemistry lab. “I thought, ‘So this is what it feels like to grow up.”

Her pursuits led her to New York, where she took up writing transcripts and documents for lawyers. It was grueling work, but she was eventually able to produce her first show, which was performed for a crowd of her parents, siblings, and “one hobo from off the streets.”

To change the lighting in the show, she would grab an industrial-sized plug and pull it in and out of the outlet.

But her dedication paid off. She was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer in Drama, and was named one of Time’s “100 Innovators for the Next New Wave.” She won a MacArthur Grant in 2001.

She furthered her playwriting efforts by writing one play a day for a year, presented in a collection titled 365 Plays/365 Days. It has since been produced in more than 700 theaters worldwide.

Jen Shook, founder of Chicago’s Caffeine Theater and a first-year English Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa, has been interested in Parks’ style of playwriting since she began teaching.

“She has a great intuition about what works on stage,” Shook said. “Her plays are so different from what you normally see on stage, so a director really has to be creative.”

Third-year UI English Ph.D. student Callie Garnett had never read Parks’ work, but she came to the lecture after hearing Parks’ name in her classes.

“Her idea of recommitting every day to your work really stood out,” Garnett said.

Despite her apparent successes, Parks said, the concerns of producing her best work and making a living off writing haven’t entirely faded.

“[The concerns] don’t fade with fame,” she told The Daily Iowan as she conversed with friends following the lecture. “But having friends like these helps.”


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