Spotlight On: Sonja Parks

Acting With Agency

For the 26th National Conference in Washington DC, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and the Leadership U[niversity] One-on-One Program, the Rising Leaders of Color, and the four finalists for the Alan Schneider Director Award. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we are excited to continue to host the Spotlight On Series throughout the spring leading up to the conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to become a professional theatre actor?

Sonja Parks: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an actor. I come from a family of storytellers and whenever we come together, stories are always conjured:

“That one about…”
“Oooo, do ya’ll remember when…”
“Chile, the next thang we knew…”

Even if we’ve heard them a million times before—and we have—there’s always something new in the way in which they are told.

This person starts, then
                                                that person
                                                                      joins in;
                                                                                               someone adds

                                                                a morsel of this

                                                                and

                                       someone                        else

                                                  drops a taste
                                                                               of that,

                                    peppering in a few        extra

                                                                laughs

                                                                                for flavor.

That kind of communal creation was one of the main reasons I became an actor—to share that feeling with as many people as possible.

But that fun/immediate/what-you-got-baby-break-us-off-a-piece/gumbo-ya-ya family tradition of story sharing was not part of the professional theatre I was introduced to. As an actor, it seemed I was the only artist in the room who was not afforded the same creative agency and voice as my artistic peers. I was, instead, a sort of living puppet (move over there, breathe twice, say the line and then move over there) and after undergrad, I really didn’t want to be an actor anymore.

In the mid 1990’s I moved to New York and began studying at the National Black Theatre with Dr. Barbara Ann Teer. A former artist in the Black Arts Movement, Dr. Teer insisted we bring our whole selves to the process.

Art did not live in neat little compartments that could be easily broken up and reassembled later. Art lived in us, in our shared experiences, in our very skin. Our work as actors and designers and directors and playwrights were the collective voice of a people. This work was holy. It was full of the Holy Ghost and you could not do it service by sitting still and being quiet, so SPEAK UP, BABY! Untie your tongue and say it. Say it for the ones who couldn’t say it then. Say it for the ones who still can’t say it now. Say it for the bones resting at the bottom of the ocean and the blood of the yet unborn. Say it for all of us ‘cause it’s bigger than just you.

Dr. Teer helped me realize the inviolable duty of the storyteller, the profound importance of communal creation, and the historical significance of the way I first learned to tell stories. My family was calling ancestors and naming lineages and paying homage and giving praise and constructing roadmaps. Each of us had to share in the telling and make it our own because only then would we know all it took to get us here and all it will take to keep us going. I knew I had to be an actor ‘cause it’s bigger than just me.

TCG: What is one conversation you would like to have with other actors to address an obstacle facing the acting profession?  What would you say to other actors about this issue?

SP: I think as actors, we have to claim and employ more agency in the creative process, particularly we actors of color for, historically, our voices have been marginalized. Actors are the artists charged with holding, physicalizing and involving an audience in the story in real time yet, in the rehearsal space, our artistic contribution—either due to the current structure or of our own volition—is often limited solely to character creation. “Audience engagement” and “community-driven” are the theatrical buzzwords right now, but how can we expect to involve and engage the community-at-large when the creative community is compartmentalized and some of its own members go largely unheard? The microcosm is reflective of the macrocosm and the theatrical community has got to tend to its own house first. I believe the old hierarchal method of theatrical creation is nearing its end. As theatre evolves, its practitioners must evolve too. Inclusivity is the new norm and that must begin in the rehearsal space. 

When I think back over some of my favorite (and some of the most commercially successful) productions, they all have one thing in common: the entire process was “community-driven” in that every artist in the space was invited to contribute their ideas and vision to the production as a whole. Some worked, some didn’t; but the sum was most definitely greater than it’s parts. When the audience entered the space, communal engagement was already at play; they became just a few more “artists” added to the mix.

Actors are social ethnographers. We cultivate an understanding of a world and the people in it—not just within the world of the play, but also the world at large. We are the conduit between the story and the audience and that provides us with a unique perspective and insight(s) that serve to enhance the telling. The onus is “on us” to ensure our artistic contributions are heard, respected and acknowledged.

TCG: What was a moment in your career as an arts leader where you felt connected to a larger community, locally, regionally, nationally or internationally?

SP: I feel as though I’ve had many such moments of connection; when I’m in certain spaces, or meeting and working with artists on a similar trajectory, or when one of my students discovers their own artistic path—many such moments. Recently, I was in Nigeria conducting research on the ancient practice of Oriki (African praise poetry) and the Master Poets I met who trained in this tradition truly felt like kindred. There was a complete submission to craft, a revered covenant between the what-was and the what-will-be, a selfless commitment to the collective experience of the whole that resonated with me. Each moment in the presence of one of these masters induced a feeling of connection on a cellular level. Many of these poets spend years learning not only the various complicated, intricate lineages, but also endeavoring to become and remain clear vessels through which the work can flow. They’re tasked with maintaining the cumulative experience of an entire people—a similar version of my family’s collective history sharing. True communion.

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Sonja Parks is an accomplished actor and has been a featured performer with many notable venues including: The Public Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company-London, The Kennedy Center, Playwrights’ Horizon, & The Guthrie Theatre. She trained at UT-Austin, The Dance Theater of Harlem & The National Black Theater under the direct tutelage of its founder and artistic director, the late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer. She is an NEA Fellow; a McKnight Artist Fellow; a 2-time Minnesota State Arts Board Fellow; a TCG-Fox Distinguished Achievement Fellow; been a featured artist in Time Magazine and named one of “Seven Artists You Must See” by American Theatre Magazine. She is currently developing a performance language for the Theatrical Jazz aesthetic.

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Photo Credits

TOP: Seedfolks is adapted by Sonja Parks, Peter Brosius & Elissa Adams from the book by Paul Fleischman. Photo credit: Dan Norman.

MIDDLE: River See is by Sharon Bridgforth. Pictured: Sonja Parks and Marie Casamir. Photo credit: Daviel Shy.

BOTTOM: Antigone is adapted by Greg Banks from Sophocles. Pictured in Antigone: Sonja Parks and Shawn Hamilton. Photo credit: Dan Norman.

ABOVE: Sonja Parks. Photo credit: Sunny Schwab.

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