Suzan-Lori Parks insists that writing plays hasn’t gotten any easier since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 for "Topdog/Underdog."
“It gets more difficult,” Parks says. “It’s like climbing Mount Everest — the air gets rare and it takes a very high level of skill and dedication.”
Her new play “The Book of Grace,” opened Wednesday at The Public Theater. It’s the story of a man, Buddy, who returns home to confront his father, a border patrol officer in South Texas. Buddy’s stepmother, Grace, is hopeful that the two men will be able to mend their relationship, despite the fact that they haven’t spoken in 15 years.
“If 'Topdog/Underdog' is a Cain and Abel play, 'The Book of Grace' could be seen as a Garden of Eden play,” Parks says. One character jokes that the reunited family mirrors the Biblical trinity of Father, son, and Holy Ghost.
“There are trinities we’re playing with,” Parks explains. “Adam, Eve, snake; father, son, Holy Ghost. Powerful entities that come together and create worlds or destroy worlds.”
The threat of “aliens” on the other side of the border fence looms large for Buddy’s father, Vet. He stalks the perimeter of the stage, peering at the U.S.-Mexico border through binoculars. When he embraces his son for the first time, the gesture becomes a pat-down, and he jokes that his suspicious treatment of Buddy is “my version of Homeland Security.”
“It's his job to police the border, and he’s very good and honorable at his job,” Parks says. “But he brings his work home with him and runs into difficulty.”
Parks says she doesn’t mind if audiences take away a larger political message from the play, as long as it doesn’t distract from personal introspection.
“Please don’t stop thinking about the situations in your own home,” Parks says. “The strangers and aliens in your own family…and the border fences you have in your own life, and in your own social circles.”
Vet’s wife, Grace, is the counterpoint to his cynicism. Between shifts as a waitress at a diner, she compiles newspaper clippings, photographs, and stories and assembles them into a “Book of Grace.” She calls her collection “the evidence of good things.” As the fragile relationship between Buddy and Vet continues to deteriorate, Grace remains hopeful. She cheerfully opines, “Looking on the bright side don’t cost hardly anything!”
Parks challenges the idea that Grace is a hapless victim of her own optimism. “It’s very easy to be pessimistic, and it’s very fashionable to be pessimistic,” she says. “I think it’s lazy, and I think optimism takes hard work."
Parks adds that her "question for people who see this play is: What’s in your Book of Grace? Where is the evidence of good things in your life? What do you see as good and beautiful in the world?"
"I love the thorny questions and to embrace the complexity of living, and to encourage enthusiasm.” Parks says. “The old-school version of enthusiasm, meaning closeness to God and closeness to the spirit. That is a rough translation of what enthusiasm used to mean.”
“The Book of Grace” runs until April 4.