Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky on May 10, 1963; she grew up with two siblings in a military family. Parks enjoyed writing poems and songs and even created a newspaper with her brother, called the "Daily Daily". In 1974 her father, a career officer in the United States Army, was stationed in West Germany where she attended middle school and attended German high school. The experience showed her "what it feels like to be neither white nor black, but simply foreign". After returning to the United States Parks lived and attended school in several states such as Kentucky, Texas, California, North Carolina, Maryland, and Vermont. Parks says her constant relocation could have influenced her writing. She graduated high school at The John Carroll School in 1981 while her father was stationed in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
In high school, Parks was discouraged from studying literature due to a teacher criticising her spelling. However, upon reading Virginia Woolf's To the Light House, Parks found herself veering away from her initial interest in chemistry, gravitating towards writing. Parks attended and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1985 with a B.A. in English and German literature while a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She studied under James Baldwin, who encouraged her to become a playwright. James Baldwin describes Parks during this time as, "an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time." Parks then studied acting for a year at Drama Studio London in order to better understand the stage.
Parks credits the impact of Mount Holyoke on her career later in life. Since acting at the Drama Studio, Suzan-Lori Parks has received 11 awards, being the first female African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog in 2002. She has also received a number of grants including the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant in 2001, the same year as the production of her play "Topdog/Underdog".
While she was an undergraduate, her Mount Holyoke English professor Mary McHenry introduced Parks to James Baldwin. Parks was initially opposed to theater, thinking that it was "where a lot of people with too much attitude wore funny clothes and funny little costumes, and they talked with funny little voices even though they were from, like, New York or New Jersey. And I didn't respect that." Parks began to take classes with Baldwin and, at his behest, began to write plays. She was still out of touch with theater; the only plays she was familiar with were those of Shakespeare, only because she was a German/English major. Parks also noted that she was inspired by Wendy Wasserstein, a 1971 Mount Holyoke graduate who won the Pulitzer in 1989 for her play The Heidi Chronicles. Parks also credited another Mount Holyoke professor, Leah Blatt Glasser, with her success.
Parks' first screenplay was for Spike Lee's 1996 film Girl 6. She later worked with Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions on screenplays for Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005) and The Great Debaters (2007).
Parks is often noted for her unique voice in the way she experiments and explores with language and dialect, stating how she tries to capture emotion and expression through language: "The difference between 'k' and 'o.k.' is not just what one might call Black English versus standard English, for example.... It's just getting more specific, letting the words hold the emotion. Instead of some parenthetical stage direction."
She is a winner of the 2017 Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) America Literary Awards in the category Master American Dramatist.
Parks once asked a woman on the subway where she could send her scripts because she believed they were "unconventional". Parks creates many roles and plays for people of her origin, while also writing for those not of her origin. She is one of the first in theater to fully exploit the power of spoken Black English, saying she is willing to "show her ass" without apologizing for it. One of her main points is to make the most of what you have, even if you do not have much at all. Parks believes in having faith in yourself and in your projects and sticking to the spirit of the play.
One of her best-known works is titled Topdog/Underdog. This play marked a departure from the heightened language she usually wrote. Parks is an admirer of Abraham Lincoln and believed he left a legacy for descendants of slaves. Topdog/Underdog explains what that legacy is. It tells the story of two African-American brothers: Lincoln and Booth. Lincoln works at a boardwalk arcade, dressing up like Abraham Lincoln and letting the tourists shoot him with plastic guns. He got this job because he could be paid less than the white man who had the job before. Parks does not judge Lincoln in this play, but rather enjoys bringing him into the other characters' lives and seeing how they are affected. She said, "Lincoln is the closest thing we have to a mythic figure. In days of Greek drama, they had Apollo and Medea and Oedipus – these larger than life figures that walked the earth and spoke – and they turned them into plays. Shakespeare had kings and queens that he fashioned into his stories. Lincoln, to me, is one of those." Parks also believes that Lincoln "created an opening with that hole in his head." She makes the case that everything we do has to pass through everything else, like the eye of a needle. She says we have all passed through the hole in Lincoln's head on our journey to whatever lies ahead. Like many of her other plays, Topdog/Underdog takes her characters on a quest to find out who they are and to examine the stories and experiences that have shaped their lives. More than anything, she believes that we have an important relationship with the past.
Parks decided that she wanted to give herself the task of writing 365 plays in 365 days, hence her play 365 Plays/365 Days. This decision was made shortly after one of her books, Getting Mother's Body, was published. She kept herself on schedule and succeeded. She wrote anywhere she had to: on the road, hotel rooms, and modes of transportation. The end result has been produced by more than 700 theaters around the world.
The plays were presented by 725 performing arts groups, taking turns until the entire cycle was performed. The performances started in 2006, and included venues such as the Denver Center Theatre Company, colleges in England and Australia and the Steel City Theatre Company in Pueblo, Colorado. Other venues were the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. The plays were presented at the Public Theater, New York City in November 2006, directed by Michael Greif.
Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater on March 14, 2014 and closed on March 22, 2014 in a developmental production. Directed by Jo Bonney, the cast featured Sterling K. Brown (Hero), Peter Jay Fernandez (Oldest Old Man), Russell G. Jones (Leader/Runaway), and Jacob Ming-Trent (Runaway slave / Odyssey Dog / Fourth). The play returned to the Public Theater on October 14, 2014 and ran to December 7, 2014, with the same director and cast. Jacob Ming-Trent won the 2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play.
The play, which takes place during the American Civil War, is presented in three parts: Part 1, A Measure of a Man; Part 2, The Battle in the Wilderness; and Part 3, The Union of My Confederate Parts.
The play was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Pulitzer committee wrote: "A distinctive and lyrical epic about a slave during the Civil War that deftly takes on questions of identity, power and freedom with a blend of humor and dignity."Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)
Girl 6 (1996)
"Suzan-Lori Parks's Aha! Moment". O. May 2003. Archived from the original on 2008-01-13. Retrieved 2008-12-25.
"Commencement Speech to the Mount Holyoke College Class of 2001". Mount Holyoke College. 27 May 2001. Retrieved 2008-12-25.
Getting Mother's Body: A Novel. New York: Random House. 2003. ISBN 1-4000-6022-2.
1990 Obie Award Best New American Play – Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom
1992 Whiting Award
1995 Lila-Wallace Reader's Digest Award
1996 Obie Award for Playwriting – Venus
2000 Guggenheim Fellowship Playwriting
2001 MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant
2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama – Topdog/Underdog
2006 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts from the Council for the Arts
2007 Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award
2008 NAACP Theatre Award - Ray Charles Live! A New Musical
2015 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History - "Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3"
2015 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize
2017 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Awards for Master American Dramatist
2000 Pulitzer Prize Drama Finalist – In The Blood
2002 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play – Topdog/Underdog
2002 Tony Award for Best Play – Topdog/Underdog
2015 Lucille Lortel Awards Nomination Outstanding Play - Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
2015 Pulitzer Prize Drama Finalist - Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
In 2001, Parks married blues musician Paul Oscher. They divorced in 2011. She is currently engaged to guitar player Christian Konopka.
Parks noted in an interview that her name is spelled with a "Z" as the result of a misprint early in her career:
"When I was doing one of my first plays in the East Village, we had fliers printed up and they spelled my name wrong. I was devastated. But the director said, 'Just keep it, honey, and it will be fine.' And it was."
She teaches playwriting at Tisch School of the Arts in the Rita & Burton Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing.