Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Parks wrote three memoirs during his life. This play is based on the first, "Choice of Weapons," published in 1966 and recipient of the Notable Book Award from the American Library Association. In this memoir, as in the play, we see Parks as a young man face the cruelty of racial prejudice, and how easily it can spiral into violence. Parks resists the temptation to enter into that spiral, choosing the camera instead of knives and guns to attack discrimination and hatred by exposing its truth to the American public. In this way, Parks is very specific to the origins of a boundary-breaking career. Yet the play can resonate with any young person's struggle to find a meaningful path in life, in particular to take the less often chosen road in the face of numerous obstacles, as did Gordon Parks.
Rivers and Hickman-Winfield succeed handily in telling his story, beginning with Parks at age sixteen, sent from his childhood home, a farm in Fort Scott, Kansas, to live with his older sister and her husband in Minneapolis after his mother dies. Compared to rural Fort Scott, Minneapolis and Saint Paul had sizable Black communities. As the youngest of fifteen children, Parks had a special bond with his mother, who understood that he saw the world in different ways than most boys and would need a wider community of others who looked like him to find his footing. Throughout the play, his mother's care and confidence in him continue to be a source of strength.
The printed program provides an excellent timeline of highlights in Gordon Parks' storied life. This is useful to flesh out the incidents depicted in the play, as well as to learn more about how Parks built upon those pivotal years to launch a remarkable career. The incidents in the timeline, though, depart from some of those enacted in the play. If anything, the trials and tribulations of his actual young adulthood were more numerous than depicted in the play; perhaps its creators felt the need to consolidate into a more compact storyline, even if it meant altering some facts.
The timeline, for example, lists many jobs Parks held during his early years, but doesn't mention a stint at a diner as the first person of color ever hired by its white proprietor. That boss ends up being a great supporter of Parks' ambitions, underscoring Parks' mother's admonition that not all white people are bad. If that relationship is an invention of the playwright, it offers an opportunity to understand the workings of Parks' mind. For most of us, other than scholars of Parks' life and work, it is probably more important to appreciate the cauldron of his young adulthood and the influences and processes by which he forged a remarkable career than to be able to recite his biography.
Talvin Weeks directs Parks, making excellent use of a revolving stage that fluidly takes us from one setting to the next. The abstract setting is the work of Seitu Jones (like Parks a multi-disciplinary artist), with a single raised platform and a stand-alone door frame serving a multitude of uses. Three framed screens set above the stage are hosts for video projections, created with care by Kathy Maxwell, that extend the environment and expand upon the issues. Costumes (Sarah Bahr), lighting (Merritt Rodriguez), and sound (Dameun Strange) all add to the well-integrated physical staging.
Music is inserted throughout the play, with music director Darnell Davis at the piano. These are not original songs and I would not classify Parks as a musical, but the music–ranging from spirituals to pop ditties to folk music to jump jive–gives characters added opportunity to express their feelings and, especially in a well-staged party scene, to liven things up with sprightly dancing along with the music. Parks' singing of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is especially moving, and the entire cast joins in on the folk song "There's a Hole in the Bucket," offering offer welcome comic relief while Parks expresses pent up anger at a racist society that doesn't allow people like him to ever win.
Brown's portrayal of Parks is low key, without the declamatory roar we often associate with a groundbreaking personage, but this seems in keeping with Parks' introspective nature and his "choice of weapons." When he does feel rage, Brown shows us Parks' initial response to direct it inwardly before recognizing its source and finding his own strategy for addressing it.
James A. Williams is a narrator called Pigeon Man (the elegant pigeon metaphor is made clear in the course of the play). The remainder of the cast play multiple roles and handily move from one character to another. Strong impressions are especially made by: Jamila Anderson in the guise of Parks' mother; Ivory Doublette as his first serious romance; Mikell Sapp portraying his soft-spoken father; Darius Dotch and Darrick Mosley as Parks' loyal buddies; and Pearce Bunting as all of the white characters, notably the sympathetic owner of that diner mentioned above.
Gordon Parks went on to a career as both a fashion photographer and a socio-documentarian, including two decades on the staff of Life magazine, to author those three memoirs as well as the semi-autobiographical novel "The Learning Tree" and numerous books about photographic technique, and to publish collections of his photography. He also was a painter, composer, and notable filmmaker, following his breakthrough as the first African-American director of a major Hollywood studio movie (the film version of The Learning Tree) with megahit Shaft and its several sequels.
That it all started in the Twin Cities, where Parks bought his first camera, had his first photo exhibition, and made, to the betterment of us all, his choice of weapons, gives his story added resonance for our hometown audience, but Parks would be worth seeing by anyone interested in how a young man can live through heartbreak, dispossession, discrimination and harassment without being broken. Parks does an excellent job of what it sets out to do: capturing the turmoil, tenacity, talent, and twists of fate that melded to form an extraordinary artist.
Parks runs through April 10, 2022, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $35.00 - $48.00; seniors (age 60+) $30.00 - $43.00; under 30 -$30.00; Students, ages 5-18, $15.00 with ID. Golden Circle tickets: $53.00, no discounts. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwright: Harrison David Rivers; Collaborator: Robin P. Hickman-Winfield; Director: Talvin Wilks; Music Director: Darnell Davis; Scenic Design: Seitu Jones; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Merritt Rodriguez; Sound Designer: Dameun Strange; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Production Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Stage Manager: Laura Topham, Haley Walsh.
Cast: Jamila Anderson (Mother, ensemble), Kevin Brown, Jr. (Parks), Pearce Bunting (Mr. Connor, ensemble), Darnell Davis (pianist), Darius Dotch (ensemble), Ivory Doublette (Sally, ensemble), Darrick Mosley (ensemble), Mikell Sapp (Father, ensemble), James A. Williams (Pigeon Man).