Genius: Aretha EP Suzan-Lori Parks: "Black feminine genius is highly effective in a manner you don't even discover"
It takes a genius to know one. So it only makes sense that the creators of Nat Geo's Genius series would tap Suzan-Lori Parks to show, produce, and write Season 3, Genius: Aretha.
As one of the most famous playwrights of our time, Parks was the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which she received in 2001 for her play Topdog / Underdog. Parks is also a Tony Award winner and MacArthur Genius Fellow. But it's the time she spent as a student of writer, activist, and playwright James Baldwin at Hampshire College that matters most to her.
"He had to write a review for me like you do for your students, and he said," She's a charming and beautiful creature who might be one of the greatest artists of her time, "recalled Parks of TVLine I said, 'OK. I don't have the heart to prove you wrong.' So that shows you all I have to do, doesn't it? But I was invited to walk alongside the greats and tell their stories. "
In addition to Genius: Aretha, in which Cynthia Erivo stars and which premieres on Sunday, March 21 at 9 / 8c, Parks TV credits include writing the HBO adaptation of Richard Wright's 2019 novel Native Son and co-writing 2005's Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Are Watching God (with Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry) and Hulus The United States vs. Billie Holiday (directed by Lee Daniels).
TVLINE | As a playwright, why did you want to compete against Genius: Aretha?
It's funny, I do a lot of television and film and I do film for almost as long as I write theater and theater. I made my first film and made a film (Anemone Me) in 1990 – it's older than some people. My movie thing has picked up a bit in the last five or ten years. But I've done a lot of film and television work. The great thing is that I was in Sundance in 2019 and we opened the festival with Native Son, directed by Rashid Johnson. Then my staff called me. "Brian Grazer wants to talk to you." I like "S – t!" I was in the middle of the street, out in the cold. Then I call Brian Grazer and he says, "Hey! We're doing Genius Season 3, Aretha Franklin" and I think, "OK. Yes. Yes. What are you calling me for?" He says, "You want to write it? You wanna show it What do you think? What do you think? "And I just said," Whoa. Yeah, I'm in. "
You have a saying that the writer on TV is king or queen, you know? I thought I might design this story. I can work with the legacy of an icon, which I've done many times before, whether I was The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, with my girl Andra Day, or at Porgy and Bess (which earned her a Tony) or Native Son. Me a writing student from James Baldwin. I have also adapted Zora Neale Hurston (your eyes have been watching God) and some of Toni Morrison's books. I think this is something I enjoy doing and it's one of the jobs I've been called to do as a creative person in the world. As Brian Grazer (made this offer) I was like yes, I'm in because now we can talk about the genius of the black woman. And I'm ready for it because it's on time, it's spot on because we have Vice President Harris in the White House, we have Ms. Stacey Abrams taking it to Georgia, we have Michelle Obama walking down the steps at the inauguration … . I got up and cheered and someone asked me, "Why are you cheering Michelle?" And I say, "Because she is all that." It is a time to see the genius of the black woman.
Our genius really helps the world understand what genius is. Genie isn't just an ivory tower that predominantly white men have. Or just men. The black female genius is inclusive and powerful in ways that you won't even notice and can bring all kinds of people together like Aretha did. And turn the guidance of life into gold – or, in Aretha's case, into solid gold. Black female genius is the type of genius to dance to. I was just thrilled that they would include an African American woman as well. Not just a black woman. An African American woman. You have to say that, because that is also an important part of the story. (After Einstein and Picasso) This is the first season with an American, a woman, a black person and a mother. I was there like that.
TVLINE | There is a great but subtle scene where Aretha conducts the band and tells them which notes to play. One of the band members mentions that she doesn't know how to read sheet music, but another band member mentions that Charles Mingus and many of the greats didn't read sheet music. Can you talk about why it was so important to address this in this way?
Oh please. That was in there because so many people are very quick to remind everyone that she was a musical genius and didn't read music. It's a backhand compliment. We have to remember that Mingus did not read music. Lennon and McCartney neither read nor wrote music. Elvis didn't read any music. Jimi Hendrix didn't read any music. Eddie Van Halen couldn't read music. So we have a lot of champions and badass mofos who were geniuses who couldn't read music. This is a reminder for everyone that there are no compliments here. This woman could come into a studio and be in charge and they were all men she worked with and she knew what she wanted to hear. When she sang, “You said you love me,” it came straight from her life and then from the horns. Badam, badum bum. And she designed that and withdrew from her own life. Reading music is not required to compose music. It's not like writing. If you are a writer you need to be able to read because you need to know how to form letters and words. But with music, you can play brilliantly and not read music. I play guitar, harmonica, keyboard, violin and can read music, but I don't read while playing. But she had a brilliant ear.
TVLINE | You bring this sensitivity to this project. They have musicality in your arsenal, and that goes beyond being a fan who appreciates their music. As a musician you can say that this is a genius. Can you talk about it
I'm a much smaller musician, but I know what it is to play an instrument. I know how hard it is to play and sing. I cut my teeth on the blues break like Reverend Gary Davis and Lightnin & # 39; Hopkins and Memphis Minnie. Her guitar playing is tough and I spent hours learning how to play these licks in my younger years. These were brilliant black guitarists and then you sing as you play and wonder how you're going to do it. So I know what it is to play complicated music with your hands while singing a song with your voice. Aretha was a genius at it; I'm only a doer when it comes to music, but I know what it feels like to play music with other people and say, "No, no, no." When you are a woman, you have to assert yourself on an entirely different level. You must use every weapon in your arsenal.
A lot of advances are made with music, but it's like show running – it's still a man's world. We have to go through all possible avenues to get them to do what needs to be done. I've been on stage with people who, when the drummer is dragging and slowing the tempo, you have to turn around and move your hand and s-t to make them go faster. Or the bass player is playing too fast because he's too excited. I know what that is. I brought this to my understanding, which she did on a much higher level than ever before. But also how the music influenced the way she spoke because she listened. All of these things were on every line of the script.
TVLINE | And you have Cynthia Erivo who channels her inner Aretha beautifully. How did she come to play the role?
I've been a fan of Cynthia Erivo for a long time. I saw it on Broadway when it was the color of purple. For this she won a Tony Award. And then of course she was a total ass in Harriet. We had a meeting and I heard that she was interested. I thought, “Great! We have a woman who can sing! “And it can act and it is just. That's a triple threat right there that is always great. We met and talked about the role and she just had such an understanding of Aretha's brilliance, her public persona and her need for privacy. Aretha was a very private person. Cynthia felt she understood. She told me this story when she was working on Harriet and there is a scene where she crosses the river and leads her people to freedom. There were those who did not want to go because the water was cold. It took hours and hours to film this and I just realized that she really could go there. The fact that she had so much perseverance and dedication was important because I knew this was going to be equally challenging, but in different ways.
TVLINE | There's also the component of domestic abuse with her first husband, Ted White (played by Malcolm Barrett) that is so difficult to watch and presumably tell. How much did you have to talk about? It's not like Aretha told us. But it has been recorded pretty well over time.
It has been recorded and there are many more public advertisements of domestic abuse that we haven't touched on. We don't have to make anyone look bad. We don't have to make Ted White look worse. Your father, C.L. Franklin had difficulties in his relationships; We didn't mean to make it look bad. But we don't have to whitewash it up to the same point. It's February and it's Black History Month and it's time for our community to get real. We need to look every brother and sister in the eye and say, “I really am your sister. I really am your brother. “There is a lot of cover up and pretense, and we don't want to talk about that. But I think it's a strength to tell the truth.
TVLINE | Right. And she didn't stay, so you have to give her the honor of not putting up with this and pretending it's normal. At the same time, she is not Tina Turner. She is Aretha Franklin. Are you afraid that people will feel one way or another?
Good yes. It's like some people are saying, "Why do you have to say this?" It's like slavery. There are some people, black and white, asking why we need to talk about it. Well, because it happened and in order to understand the people we are talking about, we have to speak honestly about them. Or: "What kind of business is this with Black Lives Matter?" Come on now. "Cops sometimes treat black people unfairly, even if you've never seen it before. We're not trying to ruin people's day, but when they think of black people, these people want to think what they think, not theirs Mildness Make Hard. When some people think of Aretha Franklin they have a certain feeling and they don't want you to ruin that feeling by telling them the truth, but telling the truth gives them an even better sense of how strong she really was.She also had a child at a very young age.
TVLINE | I only saw the first episode. So how deeply will you all delve into who is the father of your first child? Because that's one of those strange rumors that swirled around …
Well, we don't know who the baby's father was. It's more about who the mom is and how the mom persevered. We're not getting into the TMZ rumor mill business – not into business. We are interested in Aretha's genius and want to focus on how she has had staying power since childhood and how her family enveloped her with love. And that helped pull it off. Her father said, "That won't stop you from doing what you should." Her grandmother said, "This will be the family baby." Her sisters helped out. Her brother helped out.
TVLINE | The grandmother is owned by Pauletta Washington and C.L. is Courtney B. Vance from Detroit and it's like he's C.L. How was that experience?
Its performance is fascinating and it only gets better. Courtney B. Vance is a national treasure. Pauletta too. I love Pauletta and I was so honored that she would join us, and she added exactly what we needed for Grandma Rachel Franklin throughout the series. We are so happy that everything came together.
I tried working with this brother, Courtney B. Vance, for years and eventually got a chance. I'm so proud of this show and that I can tell the story because I'm an artist who has a big heart and doesn't look away. And Ms. Franklin called me years ago, she lived in Detroit and I was living in LA at the time. She wanted me to write a stage musical of a lifetime. But we never got around to it. Unfortunately she got sick. But I have a feeling we respect her name here, but we don't gloss over it. I am so proud to have been given this opportunity.
Also read our Black + Bold profiles on Malcolm Spellman (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Ava DuVernay (Queen Sugar), Yvette Lee Bowser (Single Women, Run the World) and Gina Yashere (Bob Hearts Abishola).