Quesadillas with Suzan-Lori Parks

This afternoon I attended a SAG Indie panel with Suzan-Lori Parks at the American Pavilion. Parks is in Cannes promoting The Making of Plus One, which she is starring in.

Not only is Parks one of my favorite playwrights but she is also an alumna of Mount Holyoke, where I currently attend college. The discussion was very informal – Parks began by sharing her quesadilla with the students. Then every student introduced themselves and their interests in the film industry. We discussed Mount Holyoke and she loved that there is now a film major at Mount Holyoke. Ironically there was also a UMass and Smith student in attendance so there was a ton of Five College pride – and competition – in the room.

Parks discussed at great length her writing process (to always be writing), her favorite playwrights (too many to name) and her advice to aspiring screenwriters. Her main advice was to always be writing but know when it is someone elses turn – a director or producer – to take over the creative process.

Writers are often told to only write about what they know, which translates into writing about yourself. Parks however advised to ignore that and to just write about what you want.

Her anecdotes about James Baldwin (who mentored her while she was student at Mount Holyoke), and Spike Lee I was excited to learn that her next work Father Comes Home From the Wars is premiering off-Broadway in the next few weeks.

It was a great opportunity to meet Suzan-Lori Parks and to learn about her creative process. The informal conversation was a one in a lifetime chance – much like attending the Cannes Film Festival – to meet and chat with a reknowned playwright. And the quesadilla was pretty tasty as well.

The unusual experience of Parallel Lives

Two supreme beings stand before us, creating the world as we know it. They construct man and woman, establish the power dynamic that exists between the sexes, and then proceed to watch over the society they have formed. This is the opening scene of Parallel Lives.

Originally a two-woman show written and performed by Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy in 1986, Parallel Lives is a series of vignettes that address and poke fun at topics including abortion, menstruation, sexuality, gay rights and gender and family relationships. Hannah Scarritt-Selman ’09, Rosie O’Shea ’11 and Leah Minchello ’08 have reworked Gaffney and Najimy’s Parallel Lives.

Director Scarritt-Selman first worked on the play when it was her senior project in high school. “I wanted to look at this piece again from a different perspective and with different elements,” she explains. Using improvisation, a fourteen-member cast, dance, and music Parallel Lives is updated for today’s audience. “We cut a lot from the original play,” explains assistant director O’Shea, “[It] is a little dated in terms of where they were in terms of Aids, gay rights, abortion.” By making the scenes more lighthearted, it allows for the subject matter to be more affecting.

Improvisation has reshaped this production of Parallel Lives. It provides unexpected moments of humor about everything from love and homophobia to sex and tampons. The cast are primarily members of Mount Holyoke’s improv group, The Usual Suspects and their expert ability to improvise scenes is seen throughout the show. “We told the actors early on they could do whatever they want [when] improvising the characters.” says Scarritt-Selman. “Every moment in the show is different each time they do it and I think that’s really exciting for them.”

Like improvisation, music is incorporated throughout the play to offer a new way of looking at Parallel Lives and in a greater sense, the world. The music is all mashups, combining everything from hip-hop, indie rock to Broadway show tunes. It pulls the seemingly unrelated scenes together in a way that provides an abstract reading of the world. “The idea of using mashups in the show gets to the whole idea of bringing things together in a unified sense,” explains Scarritt-Selman. “What we’re doing in the show is providing a new way of looking at the show and this a new way of looking at the music.”

Reworking Parallel Lives in the way Scarritt-Selman and O’Shea could be viewed as removing relevant social commentary from the original and highly feminist work. As Scarritt Selman explains, “I think that it is [a feminist play] and I’m proud that it is. I think it deals with a lot of the same issues as [the original], but in a way I’m more comfortable dealing with it”. O’Shea agrees, “It’s not about making it [the play] less feminist. Improvisation and music in this sense are used to draw attention to difficult subject matter in a different light.

Parallel Lives for Scarritt-Selman also “I want it to be fun for the audience because it is fun for the cast. I want people to dance in their seats and to sing along if they want.”

Parallel Lives is sponsored by Project Theater. Performances are on Thursday April 14 through Saturday April 16 at 8pm and on Sunday April 17 at 3pm. To reserve tickets email: ptboxoffice@gmail.com or parallel.lives.tix@gmail.com

Published: April 17, 2008
The Mount Holyoke News