Being born black and female in American society automatically made Suzan-Lori Parks something of an underdog rising through the ranks as a playwright. She has, however, proved herself topdog this year, both with the commercial and critical success of her play, Topdog/Underdog, Off-Broadway (with Broadway eyed for the spring), and with the announcement that she's been selected as one of 23 MacArthur Fellows this year. All the winners get $500,000 (paid out over five years) with "no strings attached," according to the organization's website.
Founded to "improve the human condition," the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation also gave fellowship grants to a psychologist, a conservationist, a physicist and a concert pianist. Anonymous nominators, who see candidates with "exceptional creativity," give recommendations to a 12-member selection committee, which then makes its own recommendations to the Foundation board. There are no interviews or applications to fill out for candidates. One day they simply get a phone call giving them the good news.
The Foundation picked Parks for her ability to challenge "notions of the historical construction and context of the African-American experience" in such plays as The America Play, In the Blood and her Obie winning Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. The Foundation also lauded the playwright's "use of gritty colloquialisms and provocative stagecraft [to] illuminate important contemporary issues."
In a June 2000 interview with Adam Silverstein of NewMusicBox.org, Parks commented on winning a 1996 Herb Alpert Award (given to early or mid-career composers) by saying, "What I realize is that, for all the awards I get and all the public and private praise and all the boosts–it always all comes down to the work at hand... The day-to-day sitting in front of the blank page or the blank screen–the day-to-day difficult difficult difficult working out of each moment, each word, each line."
Other theatre related MacArthur Fellows in years past have included Luis Alfaro, Mary Zimmerman, Julie Taymor and Mabou Mines' Lee Breuer.