“One million suggestions in under an hour” was the ambitious pledge of Suzan-Lori Parks last Tuesday evening at Kleinhans Music Hall as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel author series. Joy spread among those fortunate enough to be in attendance as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author preached her mantra of daily creativity and passion for her craft.
The evening opened with an announcement that appeared to perfectly tie into Parks’ message. Noah Falck, the education director at Just Buffalo, delivered the news that it will be opening a writing center for students to further its goals of facilitating the creative process within the area’s young people.
Following her introduction, presented by Just Buffalo’s artistic director Barbara Cole, Parks attempted to answer the question on everyone’s mind: What was it like winning a Pulitzer? Modest and humorous, she replied with a statement of gratitude. She noted that there were many African-American women playwrights who came before her and paved the way for her success. Parks’ quirky onstage mannerisms foreshadowed a presentation that was exciting, to say the least. She warned that she moved in gestures, and may even strike a yoga pose throughout the lecture. Her witty remarks and aura of comfort made for an enticing presentation. Parks discussed the role that her childhood had in her writing, saying that as an Army child, she was able to watch her parents’ version of the American dream unfold. Through brilliantly vivid descriptions, audience members were able to grow up with Parks, as she discussed her trials and tribulations in her AP English class, a nod to all of the high school students present.
Parks’ “suggestions” served as effective transitions between different eras in her life. Suggestion No. 2 highlighted the need to listen to those around you but also touched upon your right to reject advice in search of your own path. Parks inspired the student-filled crowd by recollecting a conversation she had with her guidance counselor, in which she was told to give up her dream of writing because she lacked the spelling skills deemed necessary to write on a professional level. Through the stories of her youth, the audience gained greater insight into her writing, realizing most of it was spurred from her resistance to the negativity around her, whether it be regarding her skill, her background or her roots.
Parks followed that up with a story about her mentor and major influence, James Baldwin. Her next suggestion was to occasionally take advice from knowledgeable people who are invested in you. It was Baldwin’s advice that she take her theatrical short stories to a new level and write plays instead of prose. Her stories of self-produced plays, featuring Christmas lights in a bar called the “gas station,” evoked laughter and illuminated her perseverance.
Parks talked about her personal journey to creative success but touched upon broader themes of holistic goodness, suggesting that one should “lift others as you climb.” Despite the shortcomings she faced as a youth struggling to find her niche in her community, she stressed the importance of practicing “radical inclusion.” The themes of ethics and personal morality peppered throughout her plays are tied up in the statement “we are all ambassadors of the human race,” indicating that though we are different, our actions represent human existence as a whole.
Throughout her lecture, Parks focused on the process, how one’s experiences and journey, dictates one’s life. Parks’ final suggestion for the audience: “Enjoy the trip.”
Lillian Kahris is a junior at City Honors.