"Say Yes": Consent, Marriage, and History in the Drama and Fiction of Suzan-Lori Parks

By Severs, Jeffrey | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

"Say Yes": Consent, Marriage, and History in the Drama and Fiction of Suzan-Lori Parks


Severs, Jeffrey, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Acclaimed African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is best known as the author of experimental and metatheatrical plays about history and the malleability of racial identity, including among others The America Play (1994), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog (2001), and, most recently, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3) (2014). In 2003 Parks added a novel about an African-American family, abortion, and exhumation in 1960s rural Texas, Getting Mother's Body, to her multi-genre portfolio, which also includes essays, work as a film and TV writer, and even songwriting. In this essay I argue that one overlooked point of unity for this diverse oeuvre is Parks's preoccupation with acts of agreement and consent as they are varyingly depicted on stage and page. How many ways are there to signify agreement? For Parks, there seem to be dozens, each distinct in meaning. In a 1995 interview, for instance, explaining her use of "o.k.," she reveals her great attention to single phonemes of consent, even in the most casual rhetorical questions:

    [I]f someone says, "I'm going with you, 'k?"
that's different from,
   "I'm going with you, o.k.?" ... It's a recording
of, not only the way
   words sound, [but] what that means. The difference between
'k' and
   'o.k.' is not just what one might call black English versus
standard
   English ... I am trying to be very specific in what's going on
   emotionally with the character ... If you jump on that word faster,
   ... you're feeling something differently. (Kolin and Young 69) 

In her 1994 essay "Elements of Style," a riposte to Strunk and White, she lists under the "foreign words and phrases" of her work the expression "do in diddly dip didded thuh drop." It is "[p]erhaps an elaborated confirmation, a fancy 'yes!' Although it could be used as a question such as 'Yeah?'" ("Elements" 17). Elsewhere, she mentions "'doo-a-diddly-dit-dit' ... that one means 'yes.' Actually, that's more like 'yeah!' or, sometimes, 'yeah?'" (Drukman 68).

Far from transparent, simultaneously declarative, exclamatory, and interrogative, these fancy yeses can result in phrasings that encapsulate both Parks's jazz-based strategy of "Rep and Rev" (repetition and revision) and her persistent claim that history saturates the present ("Elements" 9). In Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989), for instance, four characters reckon with the Middle Passage in a surreal scene of call-and-response and complex amens as they enact the fate of unknown millions of slaves lost to the sea: "[W]e are not in uh boat!" says one, to which another replies, "But we iz. Iz iz iz uh huhn. Iz uh huhn. Uh huhn iz" (40). Such interpenetration of present-tense being and "uh huhn" suggests that the ultimate object of consent in Parks's work may be history itself--or the "'new' historical events" ("Possession" 4-5) that she credits inventive theater about the black experience with being able to "'make'" (4).

In this essay I examine the varying ways Parks's "yes"--often coerced, but sometimes more freely given--interacts with black emotional life, legacies of slavery and marriage, and the understanding of history in her work. In the end, examining the wreckage of thwarted black women's consent and romantic love, I suggest that Parks's ethic of "making" history partially redeems her characters' traumas by transforming the present-tense act of our consent to her creations into the central issue: audiences' and readers' consent to, or belief in, this difficult history of consent becomes Parks's plea for a love across centuries and across races. While invoking a range of plays, I compare Getting Mother's Body (hereafter GMB) primarily to Venus (1996), Parks's controversial exploration of Saartjie Baartman, the Khoisan woman from southern Africa with a large posterior who was sold to freak shows and displayed in 1810's London and Paris as "the Venus Hottentot." (1) Upon her death, she was dissected by anatomist Georges Cuvier, with her remains exhibited in a French museum until the 1970s. …

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