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Dramatic Transformation of Afro-American Music in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Plays: The America Play, Venus and Topdog/Underdog

  • Journal of Modern English Drama
  • Abbr : JMBARD
  • 2014, 27(3), pp.303-343
  • Publisher : 한국현대영미드라마학회
  • Research Area : Humanities > English Language and Literature > English Literature > Contemporary English Drama

Yon-hee Chun 1

1성신여자대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

This paper aims at researching Suzan-Lori Parks’ original and aesthetically pleasing dramatic methodology of incorporating various genres of music in her three plays, The America Play, Venus and Topdog/Underdog. By adopting philosophical concepts and musical inspiration from the Blues, Jazz and Rap, Parks practices re-production, re-imagination, and re-definition of the master ideologies which have dominated black history. The distinctive traits of these three genres of African American pop music that all find their roots in African culture and the tragic context of slavery after the forced immigration of Africans to America. The narratives of the African Americans are presented through sub-contextual contours in Blues, Jazz and Rap resources. Parks reconnects the juncture of African history by means of a form of rhizomic structure that adopts the dramatic strategy of incorporating musical inspiration from the three genres of music where African-American are not oppressed by someone. In The America Play, Parks pursues and cites the core philosophy of the Blues as a theory of “Black and Whole,” a concept which identifies a perfect state where the volume of dominant white ideology can be turned off to zero. By adopting the theory, she exposes the instability of African American history that has been veiled under the Lincoln myth. In Venus, Parks widens her concern about black history to a universal level, borrowing the technique of the universally enjoyed African American music genre of Jazz. She bestows upon Sartijie Barrtman, a black girl who was on a freak show, a new version of life; the girl is given an opportunity to recover her sense of subaltern subjectivity by singing Jazz in the dramatic frame of Jazz’s philosophy and format. Lastly, a ‘rapper’ takes the role of a significant character in Parks’ Pulitzer winning play Topdog/Underdog to foreground the life of young urban African Americans. Rappers in the play give voice to the existential pain associated with modern American society by adopting extreme formats of gangster rap, which shows a paradigm of Black on Black violence and magnifies the social alienation of African Americans. With these adaptations of three musical genres, Parks surmounts the limits of a subordinate system involving victim/victimizer and challenges the boundaries of dramatic expression in African American theater. She shows experimental and original dramatic methodology through her exploration of using diverse languages to interface with a drama text. She has suggested a new model of relations between theatre and performativity and has tried to represent “Black and Whole” as an independent, unique, and African American cultural heritage. She has transformed conventional textual language into musical lyrics from African American tradition by means of creative mis-en-scene on stage. Parks suggests a new direction for African American theatre by taking it beyond a marginalized, regional audience to a place in mainstream theatre culture that embraces diverse audiences that look beyond racial politics. Her work signifies significant changes in the direction of American theatre.

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.

This paper was written with support from the National Research Foundation of Korea.