Examining Trauma, Style, and Language: A Closer Look at Suzan Lori Parks’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom

The magic of any of Suzan Lori Parks’s works often lies in its ability to make her audience laugh, feel, remember, and rethink. With more of a specific lens on her plays, one might say that Parks masters writing through texts, histories, and time as she uses her characters and settings. Her work is unique and transcends one particular history, memory, or moment. She writes not to recreate, but rather to retell and bring silent voices and stories to life in order to expand the bounds of history. To illustrate such, in this essay I will argue that Suzan Lori Parks’s play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, works as a textual and theatrical performance that enables Parks to make a grander commentary on black history. More specifically, it is through her focus on the theme of trauma from the Middle Passage, implementation of style by means of repetition and revision, and execution of language that enables Parks to make such commentary on black history.

To begin, it is important to establish a framework that helps to read Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom as a performance. This play definitely reads as a black performance. However, Parks is not writing or explaining black history in the traditional fashion that one may expect. There are no dates, single moments in history, or significant figures in this play that outline the history Parks is highlighting. Rather, she pulls on the effects of performance, the power of memory, and an application of the technique to do the work for her in narrating this history. To explain this method, I turn to Joseph Roach’s writing History, Memory, and Performance — he describes this as surrogation. Roach writes,

This book, in fact, takes up the three-sided relationship of memory, performance, and substitution. In it, I propose to examine how culture reproduces and re-creates itself by a process that can be best described by the word surrogation. In the life of a community, the process of surrogation does not begin or end but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric.

This concept of surrogation is important because it is through this continual process of recreating and reproducing culture by means of substitution, performance, and memory that Suzan Lori Parks is able to make commentary about black history. She uses this theme of trauma to enter into and push past what has happened. Then, she engages stylistically with this process of repeating and revising, which is similar to Roach’s notion of reproducing and recreating, to create a space that triggers more than just a one-dimensional response. Mirroring much of how memory functions, Parks dances on how the audience sees, hears and feels. She does this in order to reproduce a history, through performance, that is kept alive by its culture, creativity, and ability to convey truth past just simple facts or time.

With working with the concept of surrogation, one of the major themes that Suzan Lori Parks is tackling throughout this play is the working of trauma that is presented throughout black history. Furthermore, by focusing on the Third Kingdom and its reprise, Parks takes on the task of performing the Middle Passage. From the naming of the actual characters to the way they speak to each other, one is able to see that there is an underlying trauma that these black characters are enduring — and it is through performance that Parks is attempting to both bring this trauma to life and shed light on the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Middle Passage.

To put Parks’s efforts in context, I turn to Glenda R. Carpio’s chapter, The Tragicomedy of Slavery in Suzan Lori Parks’s Early Plays. Carpio touches on this idea of trauma and describes it as this concept, Neo-Hoodoo. She writes, “Although Park’s plays are grounded in history, she does not restage or reinterpret the past. Rather, through a creative process that is based on what Ishmael Reed would call Neo-Hoodoo principles, she conjures the structures of feeling produced by the past” (Carpio 199). Here, Carpio provides a framework that helps readers to see that Parks is not necessarily trying to re-create trauma. Rather, Parks is invoking the feelings and sentiments in which the audience and readers are able to step into the work that characters are doing in order to gain some perspective on the weight that the trauma of the middle passage has.

Continuing along with Carpio’s account of Parks’ approach to this digging of the past and focus on trauma, readers are able to specifically see how trauma appears in this particular scene in the play. Carpio writes, “‘One of my tasks as a playwright [is to use] literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life [to] locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, hear the bones sings, write it down’… Parks serves as a medium for ancestors who enter the contemporary world.’” (Carpio 199) Clearly, Parks is situating herself as a link between the past and present. Moreover, she is positioning herself as the labor in which one journeys deep into the past and brings the stories to the forefront.

One particular part of the Third Kingdom scene that shows this would be when Kin-Seer, Over-Seer, and Shark-Seer speak briefly in conversation. Parks writes,

KIN-SEER: My uther me then waved back at me and then I was happy. But my uther me whuduhnt wavin at me. My uther me was waving at my Self. My uther me was waving at uh black black speck in thuh middle of thuh sea where years uhgoh from uh I had been — UUH! OVER-SEER: Jettisoned. SHARK-SEER: Jettisoned? KIN-SEER: Jettisoned. (Parks)

Appreciating this scene as mainly a performance through text, one is able to sense an eerie and lost feeling as it reads. There is definitely something happening here where the Kin-seer is going through some destruction of self. There are multiple “other selves” that the Kin-seer is referencing — some are very much alive and waving back, while others have been thrown overboard. The text is helpful in drawing out this distinction and helps to illustrate the fragmentation that this Kin-seer is experiencing as the character destructs notions of self — that eventually lead to being thrown overboard and dying.

Also, watching this scene on stage will also convey these eerie and traumatic feelings that arise from going into the past and history of the middle passage. There is arguably more of a visual advantage when it comes to stage because you can see the expressions conveyed as the three characters travel through this brief, but integral conversation. Whether it is through the actual sound of the water making Kin-seer go “UUH” or the change in tone as they speak of black bodies being thrown overboard after being taken from their homes, one is able to noticeably see that Suzan Lori Parks is highlighting in this performance the deep trauma that exists within black history.

Given the context of trauma within black history that Parks is writing about, one method of style that Parks implements to execute raising these feelings of the past would be her use of repetition and revision. Parks makes it clear that she is not re-creating history. She is not concerned with writing history or re-stating facts. Rather, she tasks herself with this style of repetition that highlights the gaps in history and also revising to create a rhythm that invites readers to not just “read” into what is happening but also to feel what’s happening. Carpio speaks to this by highlighting the musicality and connection to the blues-jazz tradition that is created through repetition and revision. She writes,

Through repetition with revision, Parks creates a linguistic musicality that also insinuates memory: in the space between reiteration, in the intonation and placement by which each reiteration changes… Parks’s music insinuates the memory of the cultural and linguistic uprooting that was the Middle Passage and suggests the ways that such uprooting has mutated across time. (Carpio 202)

Evidently, this style of repeating and revising helps to create this sound that emphasizes time. It shows how the importance of the space in the in-betweens and makes a commentary that illustrates the effects of the traumatic event in which masses of people were taken from their home country and put on this boat to work in an unfamiliar land. The level of musicality that is created resonates with the actual history and the effect of the performance. Not only are viewers able to textually read through history, but they are also able to feel the pain, silences, and discomfort caused in this moment of black history.

One point in the play that embodies this style of repetition and revision would be the Shark-Seer’s role in both the Third Kingdom and the reprise of it. Firstly, the location of the reprise of the Third Kingdom is a strategic and stylistic move. They are not performed right after each other, rather, they are separated and contribute to this rhythm and musicality that Parks is creating. For example, in the Third Kingdom, Shark-Seer says, “Edible fish are followin us. Our flesh is edible tuh them fish. Smile at them and they smile back. Jump overboard and they gobble you up. They smell blood. I see sharks. Ssssblak! Ssssblak! Gaw gaw gaw eee-uh. I wonder: are you happy?” (Parks) In this example, readers are able to tap into quite literally what Shark-Seer sees which is the sight of sharks eating the black bodies that are thrown overboard. It is undoubtedly a disturbing experience and is very telling of what happened in the middle passage.

Furthermore, in the reprise of this particular moment, readers/spectators are able to see the same things happening. However, the sound and effect created throughout its repetition suggest that the reader/spectator dig further into the scene and consider the sentiment and damage that is done due to the difficulties of the Middle Passage. Parks writes, “SHARK-SEER: I dream up uh fish thats swallowin me — SHARK/KIN: And I dream up uh me that is then becamin that fish and I dream up uh dream of that fish be-camin uh shark and I dream up that shark be-camin uhshore.” (Parks) Shark-seer is definitely describing the same disturbing experience in this particular part of the reprise. However, what is different is that there is an emphasis on the rhythm that the repetition and revision of seeing sharks and black bodies go over aboard creates. In the reprise Parks brings in this idea of a dream that raises questions of perspective and understanding of the Shark-seer. The shark-seer does not to refer to him/herself as explicitly thrown over the boat. However, the Shark-seer is describing a state of being dead. When it happens may be irrelevant — however, the ghostly and chilling tone in which this dream is conveying helps with the conceptualization and contextualization of the Middle Passage.

Textually, one physically reads through repetition and revision. Even reading without a framework of what the Middle Passage was, one can see how Parks reworks the role of Shark-seer throughout the Third Kingdom section and its reprise. Reading the Third Kingdom at first is helpful with situating oneself to understanding the traumatic effects of the Middle Passage on a preliminary level. Then, with the added reprise, one is able to receive the rhythmic and musical effects to get even more a sensory response. Arguably, the same happens on a theatrical level. To that extent, one is able to visually see the time in between. One would notice that while the words and rhythm may have changed, the underlying effect remains the same. That being the Middle Passage translating, even years later, as a painful journey into a new land that becomes the crux of any commentary on traumatic experiences framing black history.

One way in which Suzan Lori Parks executes both her contextualization of trauma from the Middle Passage and implementation of the stylistic method of repetition and revision would be her treatment of language. Language in Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom operates to make commentary about the realities of the experiences of these characters. Parks is not concerned with merely what words mean. Rather, she is occupied with all aspects of language including, pronunciation, spelling, meaning, and more. She does this to draw out and speak to the emergence of black vernacular in this colonial and imperialistic context.

One example of how language serves as execution of Suzan Lori Parks’s choice of content and style would be the following exchange in the Third Kingdom Reprise between Shark-Seer and Kin-Seer. Parks writes, “SHARK-SEER: This is uh speech in uh language of codes. Secret signs and secret symbols. KIN-SEER: Wave wave wave wave. Wave wave wave wave. SHARK-SEER: Should I jump shouldijumporwhut? Should I jump shouldijumporwhut?” (Parks) Looking strictly at the text, a reader can absorb much through how Parks is treating language. The first thing to come to mind would be actually what Shark-seer is saying about the language in general. It connects to Parks’s perspective of language because much of what and how the different characters are speaking is through a coded manner that requires work to decipher. Additionally, the repetition of the text creates a scenario where words are the only means of understanding what is currently happening. The repeat of “wave” and “should I jump” appeals to this scene of deep contemplation, trauma, and suicide as a means of escape.

When examining how language may operate on stage, the audience has to rely mainly on pronunciation, speech patterns, and the audible effects of the words and phrases spoken. The repetition and revision style that Parks owns show to be incredibly useful here. Carpiro also comments on this and writes, “The result is a ‘word-sound choreography’ that, while evoking the creativity of Black English, ‘the spontaneity of jive, the ritual storytelling of the beauty parlor, juke joint, or barbershop,’ incorporates what Parks calls her ‘foreign words & phrases,’ which are invented tor improvised from spoken English” (Carpiro 195) Certainly, the repetition of “wave” and “shouldijump” communicates a rhythm that invites the audience to hear and sense what a traumatic suicidal experience may seem like.

However, what stands out here is the fact that the language stems from this breaking of the English language. This is not standard English or grammar, and when one hears these words read aloud, they would definitely pick to hear that. Yet, through the repetition and sensory effects from the sounds that these words juxtaposed together make, one is still able to see the commentary that Parks is making about black history. This is that when it comes to language, black culture has created its own form of language that stems out of a deeply traumatic history. Therefore, language is one example of how Parks implements repetition and revision to shed light on the theme of trauma, which services, both textually and theatrically, as a means to make a grander commentary on black history.

To conclude, one would argue that Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom functions as both a textual and theatrical performance that allows Suzan Lori Parks to comment and critique history — black history. Essentially, what she is saying is that the Middle Passage and slavery as a whole had sparked a deep traumatic response in black life. Driving that point further, she is claiming that this trauma also ignited a level of creativity, that only through this constant style and aesthetic of repeating and revising one can see. When one looks at the musicality, origin, creation, form, and effect of black language, one senses the power of black language on multiple levels — intellectual, sensational, and historical level.

Artist and Curator