*Editor’s note: Native Son spoilers below*
Novelist, screenwriter and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is a genius. The MacArthur Foundation solidified that assertion in 2001 by awarding her its “Genius” grant. A student of James Baldwin, Parks went on the next year to win the Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog. You’ve seen the power of her pen on the big screen in Girl 6, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Recently named the Public Theater Master Writer Chair, Parks returned to New York’s Public Theater with the world-premiere of White Noise, a play about friendship, race, and our prickly social climate, starring Tony-Award winning actor Daveed Diggs (Hamilton). But it’s her HBO adaptation of Richard Wright’s polarizing novel Native Son that has been stirring up controversy–just as Wright’s original novel did in the 1940s.
It’s the story of young Black man Bigger Thomas, who, thanks to America’s deep-rooted and institutionalized racism, is set up to fail. The more he tries to do all of the right things, staying away from drugs and crime, he winds up right where he was always intentioned to be–a native son of his circumstances. Parks’ adaptation brings the 20th century story into 2019, and leaves one particularly graphic scene out, causing a stir amongst readers.
Shadow And Act caught up with Parks to talk controversy, the cost of desperation, and what Baldwin taught her.
SHADOW AND ACT: In your adaption of Richard Wright’s riveting novel Native Son, the main character, Bigger (Ashton Sanders) rapes and murders his Black girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne). Yet that scene is removed from your adaptation. Why?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: It was a joint decision [with director Rashid Johnson]. Bigger, in our telling of it, he’s not a rapist and a murderer. He does commit murder and it’s a horrible crime. He kills a person, who is a wonderful person. Mary is lovely and that is significant. The parts in the book that were important [to me] were to show how Big and Mary, in 2019, could become friends, you know? So that part of the book [I] really wanted to flesh out, so [that] Mary’s not just a plot point. That’s kind of how it felt [in an] earlier treatment in the book. It just didn’t feel like Mary was a character and so, that diminished Bigger’s humanity too.
SHADOW AND ACT: But in the book, he committed two murders and the rape of his Black girlfriend, Bessie, but that’s not in the film version of Native Son.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Right, so, and when it got to Bessie, of course, it’s like, Big is not a crazy man on the loose, killing women. He makes a horrible, horrible mistake and he kills Mary, yes–but he’s not some guy that goes around raping and killing women. You know what I’m saying? That’s not who he is. It’s very important to me that’s not who he was. Rashid [Johnson] felt the same way. That’s not who our guy is.
SHADOW AND ACT: That being said there has been heated dialogue about that choice, as I am sure that you are aware.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: You can’t write him off, you know what I’m saying? You just can’t write him off, ‘ mother-fucker be killing people’ — alright, whatever, next,’ you know? And then we lose the whole conversation and again it’s not correcting [author] Richard Wright, it’s just putting 2019 into the mix. And when you put our current time into the mix then it changes things up, you know — as it should — which is why it’s an adaptation. We’re not just repeating. We also cut the whole trial scene because we wanted to spend more time on everything that came before.
SHADOW AND ACT: White Noise has been extended at The Public Theater. You have your lead character, a Black man, Leo (Daveed Diggs) offering himself as a slave to his best friend who is a White man. What was the reason behind that choice?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Think about it. What makes a brother shoot another brother? What makes somebody say, excuse the language, but, ‘Fuck it. I’m just gonna suicide by cop.’ Like Leo says in the play, ‘People, Black people especially, are falling prey to despair.’
People in this country, Black people and Latino people, and Asian people, and White people and all kinds of people— Native, Indigenous people— have been promised things and this country hasn’t been coming through. There is a huge amount of despair. So people are taking desperate measures. It’s just a desperate measure. It’s kind of simple. It’s so simple, you go ‘dang.’ That’s the world we live in now.
SHADOW AND ACT: Is it true that James Baldwin encouraged you to write plays?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Mr. Baldwin taught a short-story-writing class the fall of 1982. I was an enthusiastic and hard-working undergraduate in his class. There were 15 of us in the class. I was very animated with all my gesturing and I used voices for the characters in my stories. Mr. Baldwin said, “Have you ever thought about writing for the theater?” I started writing a play that day.
SHADOW AND ACT: What’s the most valuable advice that Mr. Baldwin gave to you?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: The most important thing Mr. Baldwin taught me was how to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit. When I go to the theater for rehearsals, I remember the way he was and I carry that with me.
SHADOW AND ACT: What Baldwin novel would you adapt for the screen?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: They are all great. If Beale Street Could Talk just came out and it was fantastic. The one that I really loved was Raoul Peck’s documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. I loved it. I had not seen Mr. Baldwin in 30 odd years and seeing him, to just sit there and hear his voice was a real treat for me. I love that film. I just love that film.
SHADOW AND ACT: What’s next for you Suzan-Lori Parks on the big screen?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: I’m the show-runner on the Aretha Franklin project for NatGeo which is pretty great. They are doing two projects on Aretha because she’s just all that. [Director] Liesl Tommy is doing one, she’s doing the biopic. I’m doing the one for NatGeo, the Genius series. They did [Pablo] Picasso, [Albert] Einstein and now Aretha Franklin, so that’s pretty cool.
‘Native Son’: Get Inside Bigger Thomas’ Head In Teaser For Film Starring Ashton Sanders And KiKi Layne
A Scripted Aretha Franklin Drama Is Coming To TV As The Third Season Of Nat Geo’s ‘Genius’
‘Native Son’: A Stylish, Witty Adaptation That Tries To Reckon With Its Dark, Tragic Source Material [Sundance Review]