Geeks Review Books: Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Book of Grace”

Review of The Book of Grace by Suzan-Lori Parks
Published by Theatre Communications Group (TCG)
New York, NY

Review by Kitty Drexel

The Book of Grace is a three-person drama set in rural Texas near the Mexican/American border. Grace is a kind-hearted waitress who stubbornly believes in hope and the human capacity for good. She invites her step-son Buddy home to reunite with his father, Vet. Vet is an honored border security guard obsessed with the wall with abusive tendencies. Buddy is the adult-son, military dropout that Vet abandoned for a new life with Grace. While all three search for common ground, Vet’s unforgivable sins surface to haunt their new lives. The Book of Grace is a companion piece to Parks’ Topdog/Underdog.

Parks’ defines her characters in no uncertain terms. We are given cleanly cut profiles that deliver unmistakable messages of anger and fear. Yet, simultaneously, Parks grants the actor portraying each role enough wiggle room to personally tailor the character. The agendas of the characters are set but the personality nuances are not. While a definite challenge, Parks’ writing promises to engage an actor in fierce wrangling of self to separate the role from the person playing it. Interested actors will have a field day with the text. The play provides plenty of monologue and scene study.

This play is tense. The reader is hit with unhealthy levels of anxiety from the first page. It is immediately clear that there is something deeply wrong with our players even if we don’t know what yet. This foreboding is heightened by the chillingly slow-paced reveal of offenses. Vet, for his part, reveals a sociopathic inability to perceive his own wrongdoing. He is troubled with a dictator-like need to control and affirm his power over others. Buddy and Grace are necessary casualties in his mission to conquer.

Even though the title is The Book of Grace, the play is largely about Vet. As anyone who’s suffered at the hands of an abuser can attest, an abuser makes all topics personal regardless of actual involvement. Grace does have a book in which she writes but her plot line pales in comparison to Vet’s influence over their small world. Even a small trifle such as a diary account of kindnesses written by Grace is maliciously twisted by Vet into a tool to harm others. For a man so obsessed with boundaries, Vet has a poor understanding of what it means to respect the boundaries of others.

I had the great fortune to see Company One’s 2011 production. When I first received my copy of The Book of Grace from TCG, I hadn’t realized that I had seen it. Whether it’s a credit to my imagination, C1’s terrific production, or Parks’ writing, the 2011 performance came back to me with immediate color. I could hear their voices and see the set. This is not the kind of play that one forgets easily.  

Also included in this updated, complete edition are production histories (including an important author’s note on multi-racial casting), and an author’s note on elements of style within a production.  

From the TCG website:
“In 2002 Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog. Her other plays include Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, &3), In the Blood, Venus, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Fucking A, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom and The America Play. In 2007 her 365 Days/365 Plays was produced in more than seven hundred theaters worldwide. Ms. Parks is a MacArthur Fellow and Master Writer Chair at The Public Theater.”

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