Suzan-Lori Parks knew she would face a flurry of flashbulbs, so she dressed to impress. For the April 7 opening night of Topdog/Underdog, her first play to make it to Broadway, the writer took a cue from her title. She donned a $10 black velvet miniskirt, a matching top and a silver choker—actually a collar from Lamb Chop, her pit bull. Says Parks: “Everybody thought it was some chi-chi thing I bought at Barneys.”
By the next day she was famous for far more than her fashion sense. Parks went to bed hearing echoes of a roaring ovation—”It was like the ocean calling your name,” she says—and woke up to rave reviews. Then, at 3 p.m. on April 8, she learned she had become the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. “It’s thrilling,” says Parks, 39, who, until Topdog‘s Off-Broadway run last year, had struggled to get her plays produced outside of avant-garde theater. “What you do in your most dire straits could be the recipe for victory.”
The recipe for her comic drama—which stars Jeffrey Wright (Ali) and rapper-actor Mos Def as down-and-out brothers named Lincoln and Booth—mixes sociological insights, slick con-game patter and a few off-the-wall notions (Lincoln works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, where patrons pretend to assassinate him). “It’s rare these days that you get a playwright who thinks that big and is able to condense their vision into something so much fun,” says New York Times critic (and Pulitzer judge) Ben Brantley. Says Wright: “She looks at the world in some ways as this wonderfully mad circus.”
All the sudden attention, says Parks, feels good but “hectic. My husband and I are like a mom-and-pop grocery store. We have this low-key life.” She and blues musician Paul Oscher, 51, who wed last July, split their time between apartments in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where she directs the theater writing program at the California Institute of the Arts. Parks rises daily at 4:30 a.m. to write—she’s working on a novel as well as a miniseries adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Paradise—and unwinds with yoga. “Theater attracts people with huge personalities, but Suzan-Lori isn’t selling a persona,” says a pal, theatrical producer Bonnie Metzgar. “She’s very direct.”
The daughter of Donald, 68, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and professor of education at the University of Vermont, and Francis, 65, the director of African-American programs at Syracuse University’s chapel, Parks gravitated to writing in childhood, which included stops in North Carolina, Vermont and Germany. When she was in fourth grade, she and brother Donald (now 37 and a social worker; sister Stephanie, 41, is a marketing manager) banged out a newspaper called The Daily Daily about family goings-on. “We’d type it every day in our attic,” she says.
She majored in English and German at Massachusetts’s Mount Holyoke College, where she took a memorable seminar with author James Baldwin. “He was the one who first suggested I write plays,” she says, calling his encouragement “like a kiss on the forehead to ward off all evil.”
After her 1985 graduation, Parks moved to New York City, worked as a legal assistant and began writing dramas that won critical praise (including two Obie awards for Off-Broadway plays) if small audiences. In 1995 she wrote the screenplay for Girl 6, Spike Lee’s movie about a phone sex operator. Her research, she says, turned up “a lot of plain old talking to lonely people.”
The telephone proved more romantic in 1998, when a pal told Oscher, a former harmonica player for Muddy Waters, about “this cute chick who wants to learn how to play harmonica,” he says. “I called her. We ended up talking for eight hours.” They met the next day. “It was love at first sight,” Parks says.
In 2001 Parks won a $500,000 Mac Arthur “genius” grant, but her biggest reward is her audiences’ delight. “I love seeing the old hard-core theatergoers and the kids who have their baseball hats backward,” she says. “We’ve got all kinds of people sitting there loving the play, and that’s the most exciting thing.”
Sharon Cotliar in New York City