These little-town blues
If local playwright William A. Parker can make it in New York City, why haven’t you heard of him in Sacramento?
Think of it as Parker’s paradox.
During the past year, Sacramento’s William A. Parker has experienced the kind of breakthrough that playwrights dream about. It started when Parker’s script Waitin’ 2 End Hell was plucked from obscurity by a well-established New York producer, Woodie King Jr., and staged off-Broadway last summer.
The show netted favorable remarks from The New York Times, which is something every playwright craves for his or her first show in the Big Apple. Better still, the show was a box-office success. The initial run was extended, and Waitin’ 2 End Hell played more than 100 performances before it closed.
Parker reaped a whirlwind of attention—more than he’d ever received in Sacramento. He was mentioned on the cover of Show Business. He was interviewed in magazines and on radio and TV, tabbed as a rising playwright. The show was nominated for three Audelco Awards, which honor achievements in black theater.
Parker is now promoting a West Coast tour of Waitin’ 2 End Hell with a professional cast. The tour touched down in Stockton last week, comes to Sacramento next week and moves to San Jose later this month. There are plans for dates in Los Angeles next year.
What’s that? You don’t recognize Parker’s name? You can’t remember seeing one of his shows? That’s where the paradox comes in.
Parker is as local as they come. He grew up on Stockton’s south side, graduating from Edison High School in 1978. Edison was—and is—a tough school with a high population of minority students and low test scores. (Last year, only 5 percent of Edison students were white. Nearly half of the parents of Edison students had not finished high school themselves.)
Young Parker was casual about the future until his junior year at Edison, when drama teacher Donovan Cummings sparked Parker’s interest in the stage by showing him scripts by black playwrights. Parker landed a leading role in a Stockton production of The First Breeze of Summer, presented at Atherton Auditorium on the San Joaquin Delta College campus.
A lackluster student until that point, Parker decided to attend college. For the first time in his high-school career, he met with his academic counselor. After working to shore up his grade-point average, Parker enrolled in a black theater program with the Sons/Ancestors Players at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS). He graduated in 1982.
The Afrocentric theater program changed things for Parker. “I understood that I was African and why I did some of the things I did,” he said. “It was the first time in my life someone began to put my blackness in perspective.”
Like many young actors, Parker then tried to make it in Hollywood. He made a commercial. He worked as an extra on the movie 48 Hours, but to his great disappointment, his face didn’t appear in the finished film.
Parker returned to Sacramento, planning to hone his theatrical skills as a writer, director and producer. In 1986, he got a contract with the city to stage three original short plays at the Oak Park Community Center. Since then, he’s written 15 plays—some for teens and others for adults—and staged them on his own here in town.
And now we reach the paradox. Parker has made a tremendous leap. Can you name another Sacramento writer who’s had an off-Broadway success in the last 10 years? But unless you’ve had your ear very close to the ground, you probably haven’t seen or heard very much about him.
It’s not that Parker is a hermit. “There are very few artistic directors or producers in the Sacramento community who do not know me,” Parker said. Still, he’s never had any of his plays produced by the established local theater companies, large or small. He’s also had a bumpy relationship with the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.
Why? It’s partly because of the kind of plays Parker writes. In an age when multicultural goals are sacrosanct, Parker writes scripts that speak very specifically to black audiences, in vernacular that’s not necessarily familiar to those outside the culture.
“If you go with me to my mother’s house, there are times when you could sit with the group and not understand what’s being said,” Parker explained. “My mother might tell her niece to ‘go shake the commode,’ or say ‘Why you runnin’ ’round the house like that?’ I know what that means, but someone else may not.”
During a performance, Parker’s plays provoke a lot of verbal response from black viewers—quite different from most theater audiences, which typically sit quietly and applaud at the end. “It’s rare that you see a black production and not have some of that occur,” Parker said. He compares it to the call-and-response tradition among black congregations during worship. “The more insightful the sermon, the greater the response. When the preacher ain’t on, you don’t hear the amens.”
There’s another factor in Parker’s paradox. To be frank, Parker likes provocative topics. Waitin’ 2 End Hell is about a family breaking up as the result of marital infidelity. As noted in SN&R’s review of the local production [“Heated controversy” by Jeff Hudson; SN&R Theater; December 18, 2003], “Parker … starts lighting matches in the presence of a combustible issue in the very first scene. As several black friends gather for dessert and champagne, the conversation wanders onto a topic guaranteed to raise somebody’s blood pressure: Is the man the head of the family (and the wife’s superior), as the Bible seems to suggest?” The review, which was the first formal critique the play had received, continued: “Through a series of escalating statements at the party, Parker deals with the questions of male dominance and female equality.”
Reviewing the New York production in June, critic D.J.R. Bruckner of The New York Times made almost the same points. “The battle between the sexes is a fight to the finish in Waitin’ 2 End Hell. Frequent back talk from the audience is a reminder that Mr. Parker is known for provoking visceral reactions to his ideas about fractured relationships of men and women in black families.”
Bruckner described Parker’s characters as “real people: good humored, cautiously affectionate, but wary of one another and lonely in their laughter. … Getting to know them is not always a comfortable experience, but I would bet most people will find it a rewarding one, even if some may come away wanting to dispute Mr. Parker’s ideas.”
Parker realizes that Waitin’ 2 End Hell pushes some people’s buttons. “The play can strike bad chords in the ear of a female who is sensitive about some of the things discussed in the play,” he conceded.
When Parker wrote the play in 1996, he was going through a divorce, as were several of his friends. He wanted to highlight the plight of a husband whose wife wants out, and to respond to the negative portrayals of black men in books and movies like The Color Purple.
The script got a reading at Sacramento’s Celebration Arts in 1997. Afterward, a CSUS faculty member told Parker that the play was offensive and recommended that he junk it. Parker disregarded that rejection, producing the play himself in 1998 at CSUS. He made revisions and organized another reading in 2002 at Valley High, where he’d worked as a drama teacher. Then he staged a second production at Valley High in 2003 and recorded a DVD of the performance, which he sent to Woodie King Jr. in New York. Parker had been communicating with King since 1995.
King decided to stage the play, and King’s name opens doors. King was in the Broadway cast of The Great White Hope in the late 1960s. He’s also produced several Broadway shows, including For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, which ran for more than 700 performances in the 1970s. King founded New Federal Theatre and the National Black Touring Circuit in 1970 and continues to work as producing director of both to this day.
Last summer, Parker flew to New York to be part of the staging process for Waitin’ 2 End Hell. He held his breath as he waited for the reviews. “New York is a tough town,” he admitted. “If too many critics say, ‘Thumbs down,’ you close!”
But the reviews were largely favorable, and there were nearly 20 of them. This was quite a contrast to Sacramento. Parker estimates that all of his plays together have garnered a total of four local reviews.
The one seriously negative evaluation came from The Village Voice. “She didn’t really review the play in my opinion,” Parker said of the review’s author. “She castigated some of the lines. But you accept the reviews as they come. I didn’t mind including her review with the others. But, of course, I did put it at the bottom of the stack.”
Those who saw Parker’s 2003 production in Sacramento will spot a new ending in the touring production, which Parker revised at King’s suggestion. The tour also marks a homecoming for Parker. Waitin’ 2 End Hell opened last week in Atherton Auditorium, where Parker first starred as a high-school performer in the ’70s.
Parker is learning about organizing a theatrical tour as he goes. “Producing in multiple cities is quite a challenge,” he admitted. “Locking in contracts, flights, promoting on radio and TV, sending postcards, and fund-raising.”
At tour’s end, Parker will begin work on another New York show, planned for May 2005. “We’ll do the process in reverse,” he explained. “Tour the play first, then head back to the East Coast.” The script, which Parker wrote last year, is called Me and My Boy.
Parker makes no bones about patterning his career as a writer, producer and director after King, whom he acknowledges as a mentor who’s given him a big break. “Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams, exercise your faith and accomplish those small and big things you believe you’ve been given to do in life,” he concluded.