It wasn’t until Just Buffalo Literary Center‘s Artistic Director Barbara Cole took the stage that I noticed something out-of-place: a microphone stand. I’m not entirely sure when its last appearance was, but I distinctly remember the vehemence of the audience when whoever used it couldn’t be heard. Everyone else seemed cognizant of the problem too because Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks acknowledged she was warned that “dead spots” might occur if she chose not to use the wireless kit. Unfazed and ready to move, however, the accomplished yogi laughed it off before beginning what the Babel website called her “high-energy performance with storytelling and humor”. We’d all understand the meaning after her first Tasmanian Devil impression came with hands in air and leg bent over knee with perfect balance.
Seeming much younger than her fifty years, Parks came onstage with a wide grin and a bounce to her step. She joked about being a “bag lady” with a large Zip-Lock of note cards at her side; said she wasn’t a postal worker but wouldn’t have missed this performance whether sleet or snow; and continued to talk a mile a minute about her lecture’s purpose: to give “a million suggestions in under an hour”. This is how the noise vomit reminiscent of everyone’s favorite Looney Tunes’ character came into play as some suggestions came at “the speed of words” while others at the “speed of sound”. It was a cute conceit she dove into headfirst like a teacher aurally entertaining and captivating her class, but by the end I wondered at the reality of how little was actually said.
That’s not to say Babel is only good when a lot is said or when what’s said is done so in a specific way. I’m just looking at my notes and noticing how little I jotted down. Perhaps that’s more to do with the conversational way Parks spoke, allowing me to feel like her dialogue was an informal gathering over coffee. It was definitely fun and unlike any other lecture in the series’ seven-year history, but I can’t help acknowledging the gimmick of the performance. I know it’s inherent to her theatrical work and her inability to discern musicality from prose (I love the idea she writes with rhythm and believes her plays should sing off the page). I guess I just wish the substance equaled the concept to give more than fortune cookie sound bytes.
Parks gave suggestion #1: “Entertain all your far-out ideas”. Then #2: “Say ‘No Thank You’ to advice you don’t agree with and listen to your gut”. A Taz scream culminated in #1218: “Practice Listening” and we realized we’ve heard these before and will hear them again; short, important, and relevant statements talking about how success is possible as long as we work for it. Her father’s “You make your own luck” and her own “Cool is nothing” filled in blanks while she took us through her formative years as a horrible speller told she’d never amount to anything as a writer to the famed playwright whose life changed after reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (“Blew my mind. [That was] the S.H.I.T.”), standing on one leg and ready to continue conquering the world.
To me Parks was at her best when telling anecdotes about mentor James Baldwin (“a man my height with a big alien head and eyes that could see through your best bull shit”); her reluctance to take his advice about writing for the theater because she “hated ‘theater’ people” and their fakeness; or her “meeting” with Spike Lee while strolling around NYC in an off-the-cuff conversation wherein he asked if she could write a screenplay about phone sex that would eventually become Girl 6. This was the stuff my pop culture obsessed mind enjoyed hearing—the type of trivia I willingly let clog my brain when current events would probably be more useful. I also liked that she admitted her writing process has no rules. Sometimes she starts with a title, a character, or a joke. The story follows.
The rest of the talk had its moments whether her spiritual angle about us being the sum of all things before us and those that follow, how awards call upon you to spread love and “not be an asshole”, or that we can call her subversive but to her that word necessitates an intent she doesn’t have (unless telling the truth is subversive itself). She talked about how “violence is not a Godless thing”. She refuses to pat herself on the back because her Nobel Prize-winning play “Topdog/Underdog” was written in three days nor does she discount her struggle working odd jobs to stay afloat after college and save money to self-produce plays. Suzan-Lori Parks put in the effort for success and doesn’t appear as though she’ll ever take that for granted. That’s a role model worth having.
 By Robert Kirkham