Conversation with The Book of Grace playwright/director Suzan-Lori Parks and ZACH Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley:
Suzan-Lori Parks rehearsing ZACH Theatre's production of THE BOOK OF GRACE, Photo by Kirk Tuck
Dave: In The Book of Grace I’m struck that there are three characters who are each writing their own “book” and each of them is presenting their book to an imaginary audience.
SLP: Right. There’s Grace who’s writing a book called “The Book Of Grace”, and in her book she includes what she calls “the evidence of good things.” Her husband Vet works for the Texas Border Patrol. He doesn’t think much of books, but he’s writing a speech in his head that he’ll give when he accepts his award for a job well done. And there’s Vet’s son and Grace’s step-son Buddy, whose book is going to be on Facebook and the Web. Each of these characters have their imaginary audiences they present their books to: Grace pretends she is reading her book aloud at a library — like writers do — to her imaginary audience; Vet, imagines giving his speech as he practices it to himself; and Buddy imagines being seen by millions of people on the Internet as he gives his manifesto. What’s cool is, through the magic of theatre, their imaginary audiences will become real, because the ZACH audience will be in those seats.
Dave: The play riffs on the idea of how we create borders and fences and also deterrents, inside and outside of our homes.
SLP: Borders and fences — things that keep people out, things that keep people in. Vet works at the Texas border fence as a patrol guard, and his job is to keep people out and, at home, he’s dug a hole in his yard as a deterrent — just to remind Grace that if she oversteps herself, she’ll end up in that hole. The hole he’s dug is a deterrent to questionable behavior, a scare tactic. And remember that great country song Don’t Fence Me In? Holes and fences are related as deterrents because if you go to the actual border fence, sometimes it looks like a big huge fence, and sometimes it looks like a regular garden fence on our side. But if you go and peek over into the Mexico side, right before the fence starts for them, there’s this big hole, there is a “moat” on their side. So the “moat” on their side is a deterrent, like the hole.
Dave: When you and I went to McAllen on a research trip to look at the border fence there were also big gaping holes within the fence itself.
SLP: Right. There are these big, huge “ginormous” gaps in the actual border fence. The border agents told us that they are waiting for more funding so that they can build some big swinging movable gate to fill in these holes. But in the meantime there is a gap, and to monitor that gap, they shine a big light into the hole, 24/7. Just so if anyone comes and runs through the gap, they can catch them, and exercise the law.
Suzan-Lori Parks gives direction, Eugene Lee (Vet) watches in the background, Photo by Kirk Tuck
Dave: Your play makes us think about the way families also create borders or fences inside and outside of the home.
SLP: Your neighbors have a fence around their yard and when the realtor showed me the house, the realtor said “They have a fence because they have kids.” Ah, to fence the children in, to keep the children safe so the children don’t run out into the street. Sometimes it makes sense to have a fence. One could argue that civilization needs boundaries. We have codes of behavior. We have ways to behave around each other. We have appropriate ways to speak in meetings or in social settings; at work we have dress codes, things like that. Those are all boundaries, those are all fences. But then there are the fences that crop up, the borders that crop up between family members that are not always good. In our own families, sometimes we have people who are accepted and people who are not accepted. So civilization might need a kind of demarcation, but it also it can be a real negative thing too. Sometimes by keeping certain people out we’re not allowing ourselves to include and expand and grow. That is why the American experiment is really amazing actually. Because you go around the world and you see similar people inhabiting countries, and then come back to America and you’re like, “Wow, we’ve really done something great.” All these different kinds of people with our different races, ethnicities, religions, and persuasions, are all, pretty much, co-existing. And that is really very, very cool.
Dave: And now you’re in Austin directing your play that is set in Texas.
SLP: My mom is from far west Texas, Odessa. We spent a lot of time there growing up. I feel like I am a Texan. The play is set near the border fence, which says something about the psychological state of the characters, much like Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which there’s a storm and the environment is reflecting what is going on in Lear’s heart. The fence environment of The Book of Grace reflects what is going on in the hearts of these characters, as well as being an actual Fence that is dealt with. And the act of grace is the wisdom that passes all understanding, really. The act of grace is almost greater than the human mind can encompass. Our minds are rarely that expansive, that generous, that graceful. So we sort of have to believe in the possibility of grace and lean toward it and allow our minds to expand into it. And this allows for you to include people who are not like you, who do not believe what you believe in, who have done wrong. It allows you the ability to forgive and include them, which is a great act of bravery. The character Grace is a waitress and she’s also a down-home, spiritual warrior. She’s really committed to bringing together the estranged father and son. She’s committed to creating this family because she wants a family and because they should be reconciled. She doesn’t know how much this is going to cost her and it is going to cost her a lot.
Dave: The play possesses a great juxtaposition in this family, between Vet who desires borders and Grace who actively entertains the idea of “grace” – something that’s all expansive: containment versus something that is infinite and limitless.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks rehearses THE BOOK OF GRACE, Photo by Kirk Tuck
SLP: Exactly. Vet is very, very human. And Grace is much more connected to the bigger way of living, which has its downsides because she, personally, has “boundary issues.” These two people are married, just as we, each individually, are a married whole of two halves. One side of us is very human, the side made of clay, is married to the other side made of the spirit, and they are often in conflict. Your human side is often in opposition with your better nature and you’re always, within yourself, trying to reconcile those opposites.
Dave: They physically manifest in your characters differently based on the generation and age of the person.
SLP: They really do. Vet’s the oldest guy and he is way, way back there before the written word. But he is very literate, very bright, very smart – doesn’t write anything down but “writes” and “records” everything in his head. Grace, whose age is between Vet and Buddy, she writes things down using pen and paper. And then Buddy is the kid on Facebook and longs to be seen by the universe. These three world views, these three “books” collide in The Book Of Grace and the play is an invitation to see your own family in this family, and to see your own story in this story, and to see your own limitations in the limitations of these characters, and to see the enormity of your own possibility in the possibility that you see expressed in the play. Like Grace says, “Camp David begins at home.” I think that that is really true. I am a firm believer that, if we could have more Camp David happening at home, if we could more meaningful conflict resolution inside the home, we might have less need, we might have an easier time resolving problems that happen outside the home. If we could just work it out with the people we know then we’d have a much easier time working it out with folks we’ve never met.
PS: Go online and post something that you’d like to be included in the online book of Grace at http://www.zachtheatre.org/grace.
Special thanks to Kirk Tuck for photography.