Suzan-Lori Parks: A Casebook

By Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.; Alycia Smith-Howard | Go to book overview

1
Figures, Speech and Form in
Imperceptible Mutabilities
in the Third Kingdom

Shawn-Marie Garrett

Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom premiered in September 1989 under the direction of Liz Diamond at the Brooklyn Arts Council (BACA) Downtown Theatre in front of approximately 75 people. Diamond also later collaborated with Parks on The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1992) and The America Play (1994). She was introduced to Parks’s work by the New York experimental theatre’s designated mentor, the playwright Mac Wellman. Parks and Diamond met in 1988 at the Lincoln Centre café, hit it off, and agreed that they should work together on the premiere of Imperceptible Mutabilities.

Audiences and critics would soon share Wellman and Diamond’s excitement about Parks. The New York Times’s Mel Gussow lauded the play, the premiere, and Parks’s ‘historical perspective and theatrical versatility’ as well as her ‘ingenuity and humanity’ (C24). The Village Voice awarded Imperceptible Mutabilities its 1990 Obie Award for ‘Best New American Play’. To many people, Imperceptible Mutabilities signalled the long awaited arrival in the American experimental theatre of a politically minded new playwright of originality and substance, physically possessed by words, mindful of their many shapes and powers, and heedful of their long halflives. The arrival was even more exciting because this new experimental dramatist was an African-American woman. Apart from work by Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange, American theatre in the 1980s was dominated by white playwrights.

Time has not diminished Imperceptible Mutabilities’ power. In dense, allusive theatrical poetry, it exposes hidden connections among AfricanAmerican literary and historical figures who span several hundred years, two continents and the Middle Passage. Its obsessively precise language shows, paradoxically, the impossibility of pinning language down: Utterance, identity and space all imperceptibly mutate as they regenerate over the course of the performance. Like the plays it precedes, Imperceptible Mutabilities is fundamentally concerned with the problem of history, especially the problem of the self in relation to history, i.e. the problem of identity.

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