Draft the proclamation. Call the mayor. Dust off the ceremonial keys.
If Tuesday isn’t officially Suzan-Lori Parks Day in Buffalo, it should be.
In a serendipitous turn of events that has the city’s literary and theater communities buzzing, the acclaimed playwright and novelist will appear here Tuesday for two high-profile events: A reading and performance in Kleinhans Music Hall as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel reading series and the Buffalo opening of her adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” on the stage of Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
During a phone interview late last year, Parks was surprised to learn that both events would be taking place on the same night. Asked about the cumulative citywide effect of her visit and “Porgy and Bess,” which together will reach at least 17,000 Western New Yorkers, Parks mused that Buffalo’s brief but intense obsession with her work will at the very least give people something to talk about other than sports or the weather.
“It makes the line in Starbucks very interesting, doesn’t it?” she said. “The fact that we have decided to engage in a common activity gives us a very exciting thing to talk about when we get together. So we’re not just talking about, ‘Hey, how are the Bills doing?’ or, ‘Hey, how’s the team doing?’ like that. We’re also talking about, ‘Did you read that?’ ”
In Buffalo, a significant chunk of the population did, “that” being Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” a play swirling with huge existential ideas about urban life, crushing poverty and the urge for self-improvement and centered on two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth.
The show has been immensely popular since its 2001 debut at New York City’s Public Theatre, and was most recently produced locally by the Shaw Festival in 2011. Ujima Theatre presented a staged reading of the play on Friday.
Like many featured books and plays in the popular Babel series, Cole said, Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” is part of the curriculum at several local schools and colleges, including the University at Buffalo’s theater and dance department and the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.
Rethinking a classic
In 2010, Broadway director Diane Paulus Parks enlisted Parks to flesh out the characters in “Porgy and Bess,” the iconic opera by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. What followed was a loud and often ugly controversy on Broadway and beyond that has yet to die down.
The opera, based on DuBose Heyward’s fictional account of a black community in South Carolina, is perhaps the best-known American opera and its songs (“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So”) have been reinterpreted countless times by artists as different as Billie Holliday and Tom Waits.
But the music itself has a considerably better reputation than the opera, which has long been criticized by African-Americans and many others for its stereotypical portrayals of Southern blacks in the early 20th century.
So Parks’ task, as she saw it, was to correct certain inaccuracies in the original story and characterizations of the original, which she tactfully called “less than accurate.”
“Part of the history of this show is that while it was very much loved by lots and lots of people, there were also lots of people who were like, ‘Oh my God, what’s up with that?’ ” Parks said. “It seemed to, for lots of folks, perpetuate some kind of negative or less than accurate – not negative, but less than accurate – images of a group of people.”
This was delicate and controversial work, and Parks took plenty of flak for it.
In a widely read piece in the New York Times before the production debuted, the composer Stephen Sondheim accused director Diane Paulus of being “willfully ignorant” of the authors’ intent and essentially pilloried Parks for putting too fine a point on what were meant to be broad, operatic characters.
“Not to be hatin’ on the original, I’m not doing that at all, don’t misunderstand. I’m just saying that it was written in a time long ago where certain things just weren’t even considered. And now here we are in our time and age where we do really believe that we are all people and we are all equals,” Parks said in defense of the revival. “It was as if people thought that one day I rolled out of bed and thought, yeah, I’m gonna mess with ‘Porgy and Bess.’ ”
But in the end, she suggested, the controversy surrounding the “Porgy and Bess” revival has been worth it.
“I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people, from actors in the show to people in the street, stop me in the street and say, ‘You know, I always loved the music, but I couldn’t stand the story. And now I love both.’ People of all races and creeds are loving it, the whole thing, now.”
Parks’ work, whether she means it to be or not, is intertwined up with the ongoing conversation about race in America.
Her retooling of “Porgy and Bess” was an acknowledgement of the original work’s implicit, if unintentional, racism.
Likewise, “Topdog/Underdog,” by considering the plight of two black men in a society that obviously regards them as second-class citizens long after the death of slavery, is an invitation to think more deeply and talk more often about racial biases across all aspects of society – whether that conversation happens at intermission or in the checkout line.
Asked whether she dreams of a day when heated conversations such as the one that grew out of her work on “Porgy and Bess” are no longer necessary, Parks politely dismissed the question as beside the point.
“If that’s our reality, that’s where we are. I don’t fight reality,” she said.
Still, there was a note of weariness in her voice as she talked about the continued need to make the same old arguments against the same old stereotypes in American art and life.
“We are still having that conversation. And we still have to stand up and defend the fact of our personhood. We still have to say, ‘We’re not archetypes, we’re not stereotypes, we’re people who deserve to be written as characters with backstories just like everybody else.’ That’s what equality means. Equality means just like everybody else,” Parks said. “It’s still a conversation we are having in this beautiful country that we all love.”
A double dose of Parks’ work
A choice of events
Suzan-Lori Parks will give a reading and performance at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Kleinhans Music Hall, 3 Symphony Circle. Tickets are $35. Call 832-5400 or visit justbuffalo.org.
“Porgy and Bess” opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St., and runs through Sunday. Tickets are $32.50 to $67.50. Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org