NEW YORK — Suzan-Lori Parks interrupts herself to look up a word on her cellphone, because that’s the kind of thing the Pulitzer-winning playwright does. She’s playful yet exacting: Is it fair, Parks, 52, wonders amid the upscale clatter of a downtown Manhattan lunch with comparatively laid-back friend and fellow Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage, 51, to label their latest plays “ambitious”?
Whether the context is their newest shows on Washington stages this month or their track records of muscling up the country’s dramatic repertoire, the answer is a resounding yes. Parks’s “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)” gets its regional premiere later this month at Round House Theatre after triumphing last season at her longtime artistic home, the Public Theater. The Greek-influenced Civil War epic — projected to have nine parts whenever the “Topdog/Underdog” playwright finishes it all — is already slated for productions in Los Angeles and London.
Nottage’s “Sweat” arrives at Arena Stage this week as a premiere co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the drama first appeared in July. The acclaimed author of “Ruined” researched the hard times in Reading, Pa., for more than two years, digging into the blue-collar economic decline from 2000 to 2008.
The dramatists have been friends since emerging on the national scene together in the 1990s. Parks has been a brazen experimentalist from her early “The America Play” and “Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” to the astonishing cycle “365 Days/365 Plays” (where the title “Father Comes Home From the Wars” first surfaced). Nottage is stylistically more conventional yet topically as daring, writing everything from the rape-in-the-Congo “Ruined” to the sprawling court drama “Las Meninas” and the social satire “Fabulation.”
Both are MacArthur “genius” grant winners. Both teach — Nottage at Columbia, Parks at New York University. They are the only two African American women to win drama Pulitzers.
Three days before Christmas, the writers talked in a bistro near the Public, where Parks is in her sixth year of the free Watch Me Work program. (You can show up and write with Parks, and she’ll talk about your work — but not hers.) Subjects ranged from writing fearlessly to Parks’s “bad boyfriend” theory of the presidential campaign.
Parks: It seems to me we are writing in our time. These times are ambitious times. They’re big, from Black Lives Matter to whatever.
Nottage: Starting from 9/11, as writers, as thinkers, we are being challenged in different ways. When we step outside the door, we’re facing poverty, inequality, social justice issues, wars in Africa and the Middle East. When I was an emerging writer, I felt I could sit back more comfortably and reflect. Now I feel that there is an urgency to be engaged.
Parks: Twenty-five years ago, people were thinking theater’s dead because it’s not TV or film. I don’t hear that conversation anymore.
Nottage: For a period I was really frustrated with my students because it felt like they were not socially engaged. They were interested in being famous and not interested in being artists. Now they feel the call to action. Today, they see their parents being pushed out of their homes. They see that they’re not necessarily going to have the same access to health care and to a livelihood that another generation had.
Parks: I don’t think people were scared. Yeah, they wrote those little-ass plays, those four-character plays. There’s always fear. We weren’t scared, because, because, because —
(Parks thumps the table)
Nottage: Why weren’t we scared?
Parks: Because we weren’t going to be scared, that’s why! It wasn’t in the budget, girl.
Nottage: It didn’t factor in, because we never assumed we would make any money. So we weren’t afraid not to.
Parks: I mean, I have fear, but I’m not going to be so scared that I’m just going to live my life in some sort of reduced state. Because why, then, am I in the arts anyway? We could be doctors! We could be in the medical profession right now!
Nottage: We could.
Parks: Okay, I’m looking it up here: “ambition.” It’s tricky: “An earnest desire for some kind of achievement or distinction, power, honor, fame or wealth. A particular goal or aim, something that someone wants to achieve.” From French Latin: “To go around canvassing for votes.” That’s why it’s an interesting word: it’s not about the work so much. It’s about —
Nottage: The goal.
Parks: The goal. And that’s why I always go eeeek! when I hear the word.
Nottage: “Sweat” really began to take shape when I met a group of steelworkers who had been locked out of their factory. The majority were middle-aged white men who had signed on to the American dream. They fully believed that they were going to retire with healthy pensions. They found themselves locked out of the factory, their pensions frozen, without health care and back to square one, being asked to work for what they were making when they started. They said no. I found myself incredibly moved by their story. We were all sitting in a circle, and I thought, We are finally in the same circle, where these men understand what it is to be marginalized and overlooked, and pushed out of society, which is something that we as women and people of color experience on a daily basis.
Parks: I went back to the original impulse for the title [“Father Comes Home From the Wars”], and that was my dad coming home from the war. He was a career Army officer, and that was the re-occurring thing. I started writing Parts 1 and 9. I figured I’d write the end, and then the middle would just appear.
Nottage: You’re going through to the present?
Parks: It will come to the present. But I thought it was going to be about my dad, and actually it starts in 1865, which was a surprise for me. That’s the play. It’s a total mashup. The things that are happening in 1865, of course, they’re going to take their cues from today. It’s like a wormhole, and time goes back and forth. Which is why some of the characters are named Homer and Hero and Odyssey Dog.
Nottage: It feels as though our politicians are really distracted by terror and things outside this country and not really focusing on what I think is the real terror, which is poverty and inequality, the lack of services and crumbling educational system. ISIS isn’t as immediate a threat to me and my family and my friends as poverty and inequality.
Parks: It’s like a bad boyfriend: Just talk about the thing that’s not really the thing to be talking about, so I don’t have to talk about the thing that’s really the thing to be talking about. I know what I really need to be talking about — but I don’t want to talk about it.
Nottage: So let’s look way over there.
Parks: If we continue to encourage things like poverty and inequality, then we will continue to have young men and women who have to join the armed forces because there’s no other way to get anything going for themselves.
Nottage: But they come back damaged, and become a much greater burden on the system then they were initially.
Parks: Totally! I didn’t say it was a good plan. It did work in my dad’s day. It was the only place where a black person could be assured of equal opportunity within the system.
Nottage: I think it’s great, but the one problem was there were so few voices of women of color included.
Parks: I went to a women’s college. This is old news. Meaning feminism: Somehow, we have to struggle to get the idea to be large enough to include women of color.
Nottage: There’s the half of me that looks at that impulse with a great deal of excitement. And there’s the other half that says, ‘Oh, well. Once again, we’re not invited to sit at the table.’ And feeling very frustrated that whoever organized it didn’t think to look at those lists and say, “We have a problem here.”
Nottage: Just getting up in the morning, turning on the radio, opening the window, taking walks around the block, having conversations. Then you do what you do: Write plays.
Sweat by Lynn Nottage. Jan. 15-Feb. 21 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets: $40-$118. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks. Jan. 27-Feb. 21 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets: $30-$61. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.