Suzan-Lori Parks’ idea for her latest play hit her while watching, well, a Suzan-Lori Parks play. “There’s a moment in Father Comes Home From the Wars, Part 2 [her play about slavery] where Hero and Smith are standing together and wondering what it would be like in the future. Should Hero be walking down the road a free man, he wonders if the white lawmen will just be OK with him being on his own if he’s not owned by someone,” she recalls. “As I watched that part of the play night after night after night, I could hear the new play happening.”
Flash forward 150 years from Hero’s question to the present day answer in Parks’ White Noise, premiering Off-Broadway at The Public Theater March 5 and already extended through April 21, where four best friends from college confront “the deep realities of our world” after one of them gets hassled by the cops.
The educated, progressive, “woke” former bandmates (played by Sheria Irving, Tony nominee Thomas Sadoski, Zoë Winters, and Tony winner Daveed Diggs) must reconcile racism, friendship, and what Parks calls the disintegration of the social contract of humanity. “In this play, the white guy isn’t the bad guy and the black guy the good guy—that’s so f*cking boring,” she says. “Everybody’s culpable. Everybody’s complicit.”
And don’t let the potential archetypes fool you, either. Parks hones in on specifics in each of their humanity. “I am the white woman character, black woman character. I am the black man character, the white man character,” she says. “I have to stand in that person’s shoes.” Parks requires Olympic-level introspection from her actors, as well; it’s why she enlisted Public Artistic Director Oskar Eustis as the director. “I love how he’s getting them to really dig in, go past your comfort zone,” she says.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright pushes us to reconcile the dark ideologies roiling within ourselves—even in the most liberal minds. Parks, as is her nature, unearths the unspoken. “It’s not saying [unspoken beliefs], it’s thinking them and feeling them. Those thoughts are more of the thing that needs to be uncovered and examined,” she says. “There are wounds that are festering that we are not attending to. We have to work through our sh*t.”
But Parks is not here to do it for you. “It’s like a fairy tale,” she says. “[Fairy tales] give you a context in which to talk about some things that you’re experiencing in your day-to-day. Theatre works in the same way—if it’s good theatre. When it’s well-crafted, well-honed, it opens wounds for the purpose of encouraging conversation while also giving us the tools with which to have that conversation.”
Parks harbors a lot of questions for herself and her audiences, and she probes deep. “I ask big, ’cause I’m Suzan-Lori Parks,” she says. “This is what I do.”