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Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks Handles Heavy Themes In Racial Drama 'White Noise'

Apr 14, 2019
Originally published on April 14, 2019 6:48 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. She's one of the most productive and acclaimed people working in theater today, and she's known for pulling off remarkable feats like writing 365 plays in 365 days or finding humor and tragedy in a play about a black Lincoln impersonator who works in whiteface - that's "Topdog/Underdog" - for which she won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize.

Now she's back with a new play, and it's another high-wire act. It's called "White Noise," and it focuses on a group of four people who've been friends since college. Misha is a black rising YouTube star who's decided to make blaxplaining (ph) to white people her thing. Ralph, Misha's boyfriend, is a white university professor with a trust fund. Dawn is a white lawyer with social justice on her mind, and she's dating Leo, a black artist who's been suffering with insomnia since childhood.

And yes, race does matter because in the beginning of "White Noise" we learn that Leo's insomnia keeps him up at night, so sometimes he walks. And late one night while walking, he's attacked by police. And that incident causes him to come up with an outrageous plan. And Suzan-Lori Parks is with us now from New York.

Thank you so much for being with us.

SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Thanks for having me on the show - so exciting (laughter).

MARTIN: And I just have to say that, you know, one of the pleasures of seeing a play early on is that you don't know anything about it. You can just walk in without knowing anything, and then your mind is blown. And I just have to say that there's - I feel badly, but there's no way to talk about this play without one spoiler.

PARKS: Yeah, sure.

MARTIN: So if you're listening, and you don't want to know, now's the time to get a cup of tea. Having said that, do you want to tell what the outrageous plan is?

PARKS: Yeah. So his outrageous plan, right - and it's - well, that's the whole thing about spoilers. But it's like "Oedipus." You know, we all know what happens. It's how it happens and why that hopefully will continue to be interesting even after we learn that - yeah, so Leo's outrageous plan, his far-out idea - he wants to feel safe, protected and respected, and he's really run out of options.

And so he lands on this idea that he will voluntarily enslave himself to his best friend Ralph for a period of 40 days. And he will just do basically what turns out to be a 40-day internal meditation on a theme. He says he will go to a, quote-unquote, "low place." And after that, hopefully, he will be truly free. And that's his plan.

MARTIN: And it's crazy (laughter). And...

PARKS: Yeah, it's...

MARTIN: So...

PARKS: ...Cray-cray (ph). It's - yeah.

MARTIN: Yes.

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: So Leo is played wonderfully by Daveed Diggs.

PARKS: Yes.

MARTIN: And people probably know Diggs best for his dual role as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in "Hamilton."

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let me play - this is the one clip I'm going to play...

PARKS: Oh, cool.

MARTIN: ...Which Leo is trying to explain how he came up with this plan. And I'm going to warn people here that there's language that some might find offensive. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHITE NOISE")

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Leo) Back in the day, a guy like me would be walking someplace, and he would get stopped by the law, some law enforcement individual. And there would be a whose nigger are you, nigger moment. And a guy like me would be, like, I belong to Mr. So-and-so. And the law would be, like, oh, if you are master so-and-so's property, then you cool with us, and go on ahead with your black self. And a guy like me would go on because he was owned - because the brother was the property of the man. He was safe because he was...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Don't say it.

THOMAS SADOSKI: (As Ralph) A slave.

DIGGS: (As Leo) Bingo.

MARTIN: OK. How on earth...

PARKS: How on earth...

MARTIN: ...Did this come to you?

PARKS: Well, it was - it's very simple. You see, there was this play in 2014 called "Father Comes Home From The Wars." Yeah. And I wrote it. So I was sitting in the Anspacher, the very theater where we are world premiering "White Noise." And there is a moment in that play, the "Father Comes Home From The Wars" play, which takes place in the 1860's in America where the main character, Hero, is imagining the future. And he's trying to imagine what it's going to be like to be free.

And if he is free - if I'm free, I think he says - I'm paraphrasing - you know, and I'm walking down the street, say I'm coming home from work, and I got stopped by the patrollers, and they'll say, who do you belong to? And I'll say, well, I belong to myself. And he wonders if that will be enough for them to - the patrollers to let him, you know, go on home. And his friend that he's talking to, Smith, doesn't know if that's going to be enough to have him feel safe, protected and respected.

And so watching that moment in the play night after night after night in 2014, I said, oh, wow. I'm going to write a play about the future. And I started writing "White Noise" from there.

MARTIN: Wow. That - first of all, there's so many difficult ideas in this. I don't want to give it away because it's both fascinating and cringe-inducing. I mean, it's like this real-life, real-time experiment.

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And one of the things that's both fascinating and cringe-inducing - there's so many things - but how quickly Ralph takes to the role...

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: ...Of being Leo's master.

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that fascinated you?

PARKS: Well, one of the things that I hold dear and that I told the actors and I tell them every day - but I told them on the first day of rehearsal, and I just wanted them to know how much I love deeply each of the characters and how the world that they live in, the world which is much like the world we live in today - the world has pushed each of these four characters into a corner - into an opposing corner, if you will. And I want them to work through their stuff. And for me, that's one of the most important things about the play.

And it surprises me, I guess, how during the rehearsal process, which was very deep and intense but without unnecessary drama. And we had some intense discussions about who we are and race and privilege and what does that mean. And a lot of times, it wasn't easy. But we had them. We had to.

MARTIN: You know, other things that fascinated me - I was looking back over some of the reviews and interviews that you've done over the years. One of the things that fascinated me was how many of the things that you wrote about in prior plays that people felt were just crazy or outrageous or over-the-top have now become...

PARKS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...True. Like, for example, in "Topdog/Underdog"...

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...It was a - you know, one of - it's a two-character play, and one of the characters is a Lincoln impersonator, but he's performed...

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: ...By an African-American actor who performs in whiteface.

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: And, lo and behold...

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: Here we are...

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...All these years later. We're having this huge political scandal in Virginia because white politicians were...

PARKS: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...Understood to be wearing blackface.

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: And I just wonder, how is this for you? I don't know if you read the reviews, but to have...

PARKS: Well...

MARTIN: ...Things that you've written about, people think, oh, that's crazy. That would never happen. And then...

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: ...It is happening.

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering if you're having a moment. Or what do you...

PARKS: (Laughter) I'm having - at every moment, I have a moment. You know what I'm saying? (Laughter) I mean, it's like - I feel that if we listen deeply, we are going to see what's going on. What's going on is what has been going on for a long time. So it's not about, like, prophecy or anything. It's just watching and listening and paying attention - you know, things that we're encouraged to do. But there's also humor. I mean, I have to tell you...

MARTIN: It's true.

PARKS: The names of the four characters - it's Leo, Misha, Ralph and Dawn. So if you've heard of the "Ninja Turtles" - you know, the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PARKS: ...So Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael. So there I - That's where I got their names from. So my son loves the "Ninja Turtles," right? So he has the "Ninja Turtle" figurines. And I'm, like, that's the name of the characters from my play.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PARKS: And I start laughing so hard, he's, like, mommy, why are you laughing? And my husband goes, because you're about to go down deep.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PARKS: And I'm, like, yeah. That's what I do. Before you take a dive down deep, I tell myself a joke. So Act 1 of the play is - of "White Noise" is filled with jokes, lots of jokes. And then act two, we go deeper. There's still a lot of jokes in Act 2, but we go deeper. We go deep, deep, deep, walking on the nerve endings of the audience - ow.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PARKS: It's - you're laughing. See? It feels good, doesn't it?

MARTIN: Yeah.

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I want to ask about that James Baldwin quote that you have at the top of the script.

PARKS: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: You actually had the opportunity to study with him in college.

PARKS: I did.

MARTIN: And...

PARKS: I did. Oh, bless his heart.

MARTIN: And the quote reads, "not everything can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." Yeah.

PARKS: Leo quotes that - half-quotes that in the play. He says, like the brother said, nothing can be changed until it's faced. All right. He doesn't quote the first part of the text. So he believes that by continuing to work toward a beautiful solution that that beautiful solution will come to have his own humanity recognized - that that is a possibility. He believes that. And yeah, so do I.

MARTIN: That's Suzan-Lori Parks. Her latest play, "White Noise," is showing at the Public Theater in New York until May.

Suzan-Lori Parks, thank you so much for talking with us.

PARKS: This is awesome. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER TRIO'S "HUMAN NATURE (TRIO EXTENSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.