(Alexis Soloski’s interview appeared in the Guardisn, 10/12; Photo: ‘I was basically ripping the face off of civilisation’ … Ken Nwosu as Leo and Helena Wilson as Dawn in White Noise. Photograph: Johan Persson.)
In a drama that taps straight into these angry, anguished times, a Black artist responds to a police beating by becoming his white friend’s ‘enslaved person’. Pulitzer-winner Parks explains why she rewrote sections to make it even harder-hitting
In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, protests began in Washington Square Park, a pigeon’s flight from Suzan-Lori Parks’s New York apartment. Parks and her son went almost every day, marching and chanting and waving signs, helping America along in its overdue racial reckoning.
Parks, 58, a Pulitzer-winning playwright and in-demand screenwriter, has been doing this for decades, though rarely with so much cardboard and poster paint. Her work – lyrical, incantatory, bleak and bright – digs into what she has called, in her 1993 drama The America Play, “the great hole of history”, the exploitation and exclusion of Americans of African descent. So it’s no surprise that Parks has written precisely the play for this anguished moment, White Noise, which had its UK debut at the Bridge theatre in London this month. The surprise is that she wrote it years ago.
In 2014, Parks found herself in the audience at New York’s Public theatre, watching performances of her 1860s-set play Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). In one scene, the play’s protagonist, named Hero, wonders about life after slavery. When white patrollers stop and ask him who owns him, what will he say? Parks knew that her next play would try to find an answer.
She finished White Noise two years later. Her most realistic work to date, it centres on four friends – two are Black, Leo and Misha, and two are white, Ralph and Dawn. One night Leo, who suffers from debilitating insomnia, goes for a walk. Police stop him and shove him to the ground before letting him go. Leo, an artist, has freedom. But he doesn’t feel free. And he no longer feels safe. So Leo comes up with a radical proposition: he wants Ralph to own him, for 40 days, and to offer him the security that a well-connected white man can provide.
‘Why do you have to go there?’ … Suzan-Lori Parks with the cast. Photograph: Johan Persson
“So, Ralph, bro, in exchange for this protection I’m talking about, I will be your enslaved person,” Leo says.
It’s one hell of a provocation, which Parks knows. “I was basically ripping the face off of civilisation!” she says, punctuating the words with an exultant, “Ha, ha!” White Noise strips away the well-meaning lies we may tell ourselves about freedom, about equality, about justice. It pushes its audience to ask how we can live with ourselves and each other when our current systems fail so many of us.
I meet Parks at a cafe near her apartment. She bounces up in boots, miniskirt and fuchsia hoodie, with the thick black glasses associated with brutalist architects and the energy of a stadium-packing motivational speaker. Erudite and irrepressible, she is a figure of great moral suasion.
White Noise namechecks Afro-pessimism, a philosophical orientation that sees anti-Black violence and exclusion not as an accident of civil society, but as one of its underpinnings. The drama traffics in this discourse, but pessimism has clearly never been Parks’s thing. She sees her plays as acts of Afro-optimism, not necessarily for their content but for how they may affect their audiences.