Parks keeps `Venus' alive through break

The play continues during intermission

August 25, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

If you think about it, intermission has always been an opportunity for the audience to take a breather - to allow theatergoers to stretch, get a drink, chat. To switch off temporarily. And that's the very last thing that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wants them to do.

It's not that she ignores the great theatrical law that a comfortable audience is a more receptive audience. But the whole notion that a play is what happens in the breaks between the rest of your life rubs Parks the wrong way.

"A play is a living thing," Parks says over the phone from her home in Venice Beach, Calif. "I didn't want to cut it up. So I decided to have the play continue on through the intermission."

In Parks' 1996 work, Venus, which opens tonight at the Olney Theatre Center, the house lights turn on at the end of the first act. Ushers guide the audience into the lobby. Meanwhile, the actor on stage continues to perform, his words broadcast over speakers into all parts of the theater complex.

Because that particular scene is a reading from a medical tract, the audience doesn't need to follow every word. Theatergoers can smoke a cigarette or visit the restroom, occasionally catching a stray phrase of dialogue, without being lost once they retake their seats. It's ingenious, idiosyncratic, uncompromising - and vintage Parks.

Venus tells the story of 20-year-old Saartje Baartman, whose enlarged buttocks and sexual organs lead to her being labeled the "Venus Hottentot."

Baartman was brought from her native Africa to Victorian England in 1810. Although slavery was illegal in that country, she was forced to parade nude before visitors as a freak in a circus animal act. She became a prostitute and alcoholic and died at age 26.

Parks' interpretation of this real-life saga includes elements of fact (excerpts from court and medical records) and fiction (a love affair between Venus and a French physician).

Although Parks' heroine is very much a tragic figure, Venus aroused the ire of some African-American scholars because the play implies Baartman played a role in her destruction. Parks, 41, says she wasn't trying to write a historically accurate play. She merely was using a historical figure to explore a situation that interests her.

"There is a remarkable relationship between the victim and the victimizer," she says. "That is the truth that I found out while writing this play. And that is very difficult for people to hear, actually. It's not all her fault by any means. The world was against her. But she had a little hand in it."

It's a provocative statement. But it is softened by her cheerful, almost guileless manner. Parks talks easily and with a lack of pretension. Her favorite expression seems to be "blah, blah, blah." She has a dog, Lambchop, and loves to surf.

Born in Kentucky in 1963, Parks moved frequently while growing up because her father was a U.S. Army officer. Her teen years were divided between West Germany and Maryland.

"We lived in Aberdeen in the late 1970s or early 1980s," she says. "I remember the Chesapeake. It's beautiful."

She wrote her first short story at age 5. Later, she and her younger brother put out a family newspaper. "I've always been under the spell of words and the energy they convey," she says.

Parks graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. She studied with the great American writer James Baldwin and began to examine absolutely every aspect of the writing process, throwing out anything extraneous or that didn't make sense. For instance, there's her approach to spelling. What the dictionary calls "chocolate" in Venus becomes "choklut." "Your" is "yr."

"I spell words in a way that will convey energy to the actors," she says. "For example, apostrophes are often unnecessary. ... I've been doing without them for years. When you look at Shakespeare, the line breaks convey energy and breath, movement. The ideas locked in the words become active and alive, and actors inhale them like food."

She wrote her first play while she was in college. Ten more followed. And a novel, Getting Mother's Body. And screenplays, including one for Spike Lee's Girl 6. In 2001, Parks received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. The next year, she became the first black female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Her dialogue has been praised for its rhythms and cadences as unmistakable as, though totally different from, such verbal masters as playwright David Mamet. Perhaps that's because Parks, who is married to legendary blues musician Paul Oscher, listens to music when she writes, everything from classical to jazz. Not only does she remember what was on the stereo when she wrote Venus (Bach's Goldberg Variations) she remembers the pianist (Glenn Gould).

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