From the Public to a Pulitzer

From the Public to a Pulitzer Lincoln talks. He's letting Booth know how inept Booth is.

Lincoln talks. He's letting Booth know how inept Booth is.

"First thing you learn is what is. Next thing you learn is what ain't. You don't know what is you don't know what ain't. You don't know shit . . .

"There's two parts to throwing thuh cards. Both parts are fairly complicated. Thuh moves and thuh grooves, thuh talk and thuh walk, thuh patter and thuh pitter pat, thuh flap and thuh rap: what yr doing with yr mouth and what yr doing with yr hands. Both are complicated. One dont work without thuh other. Theres guys out there who got great talk with no walk. Guys who can flap but cant rap."

"One day in, I guess, 1998," says Suzan-Lori Parks at a Broadway pre-opening celebration, "my husband and I were walking on Canal Street and saw some people doing a three-card monte scam. While we watched, I heard someone talking to me in my ear, telling me what was going down. It was my husband. Until that moment I had no idea Paul knew anything about three-card monte."

It gave Parks a new approach to a play she was thinking of writing about two brothers, black men, one of whom, Lincoln, would be all rigged up in a frock coat, top hat, whiteface and fake beard to look like his presidential namesake. Now, thanks to Ms. Parks's husband, the other, younger brother — Booth, a 30-year-old of few graces or accomplishments — would be tirelessly trying to master the three-card monte hustle in rivalry with his sibling. And the drama would be called Topdog/Underdog. "Years ago," she says, "I saw that phrase in some book I was reading. I wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it on a wall — good idea for a play someday — you know how writers are. Lincoln and Booth? Oh, that just came to me as a joke. Where does it all come from? I dunno. One of those gifts from God. You have an idea; and before you know it, a play; and before you know it, a reading; and before you know it, a production; and before you know it you're on Broadway! That's the fast-forward version."

Well, yes, but you don't, just like that, get to write four volumes of plays, a fistful of screenplays, some teleplays, a libretto, a novel-in-progress, collect two Obie Awards, be on the receiving end of a $500,000 MacArthur Genius Grant and — the week Topdog/Underdog opens — become the first African-American woman ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

Topdog/Underdog started out in life back in 1994 as The America Play, about a man who left his wife and child to pursue a career he'd thought up for himself as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. The America Play was produced and directed at the Joseph Papp Public Theater by the same George C. Wolfe who staged Topdog/Underdog there this past summer and has now remounted it on Broadway, at the Ambassador Theatre, with Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln and Mos Def as Booth. "It's the fourth play we've done with Suzan-Lori over the years. She writes and we read," says Wolfe, "and we start the journey with her."

The journey to Broadway was nurtured by Topdog/Underdog's producers, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Waxman Williams Entertainment, Bob Boyett, Freddy DeMann, Susan Dietz/Ina Meibach, Scott E. Nederlander and Ira Pittelman. A big hit downtown — "We extended it as long as we could," says Wolfe — it was supposed to go into rehearsals for the Ambassador in October, but then September 11 happened.

At the little pre-opening celebration of Topdog/Underdog, Elizabeth Williams (of Waxman Williams) proposes a toast to "a remarkable young playwright." The remarkable playwright leaps to her feet with a gleeful whoop of "Young!" Two beats. "There's a rumor going around that I'm 31." Can that rumor be nailed down? A just as gleeful withering look declares: fat chance.

Parks, born at Fort Knox, Kentucky, is the daughter of Donald Parks, Colonel (ret.) USA, who later taught at the University of Vermont, and Francis McMillan Parks, a professor of African-American history at Syracuse University and administrator of SOS, the Students' Offering Service. Their Army brat daughter came out of Holyoke College with a BA in English and German in 1985. She could at first glance still be in school there, this loose-limbed livewire lovely, a sophomore or junior in creative writing class under guest professor James Baldwin.

"Holyoke!" she exclaims. "Wendy Wasserstein's school! It's great! I mean, wow! We're covering the waterfront and we're both from Mt. Holyoke, and it's cool."

You'd better believe it when she says she "was very animated" reading her short stories to James Baldwin; he suggested she try a play. "I love writing!" she exclaims, here in a private moment at the Topdog/Underdog party. "I love writing anything."

She also loves Paul Oscher, the blues musician who "was the first white guy to play with Muddy Waters full-time," and who was sitting in a club in Brooklyn "when I walked in and saw him tuning his guitar, and something in my head said: 'Ask him to marry you.' You know, it's like William Faulkner says: 'I listen to the voices.'"

She also loves William Faulkner. Likewise Edward Albee. Faulkner got the Nobel Prize and Albee has three Pulitzers at this writing, but neither of them were sitting where she was sitting, "at my desk in Los Angeles, struggling with something one night last October, when the phone rang out of the blue, and my husband answered it, and listened, and said: 'Honey, this sounds important,' and the safe" — filled with the greenbacks of the MacArthur Grant — "fell on my head." Tell that to the man going: "Watch me close watch me close now. Who see thuh red card who see thuh red card? I see thuh red card. Thuh red card is thuh winner. Pick thuh red card and you pick uh winner.

—By Jerry Tallmer