It takes a genius to know one. So, it only makes sense that the creators behind Nat Geo’s Genius series would tap Suzan-Lori Parks to showrun, executive-produce and write Season 3, Genius: Aretha.
One of the most heralded playwrights of our time, Parks was the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, which she earned for her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog. Parks is also a Tony Award winner and a MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient. But it’s the time she spent as a student of author, activist and playwright James Baldwin at Hampshire College that she holds most dear.
“He had to write an evaluation for me, as you do for your students, and he said, ‘She’s a charming and beautiful creature who may become one of the greatest artists of her time,'” Parks recalls to TVLine. “And I was like, ‘OK. I don’t have the heart to prove you wrong.’ So, that shows you everything that I’ve got to do, right? But I’ve been invited to walk alongside the greats and tell their stories.”
In addition to Genius: Aretha, which stars Cynthia Erivo and premieres Sunday March 21 at 9/8c, Parks’ TV credits include penning HBO’s 2019 adaptation of the Richard Wright novel Native Son, co-writing 2005’s Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Are Watching God (which starred Oscar winner Halle Berry), and scribing Hulu’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday (directed by Lee Daniels).
TVLINE | As a playwright, what made you want to take on Genius: Aretha?
It’s funny, I do a lot of TV and film, and I’ve been doing film for almost as long as I’ve been doing theatre and playwriting. I made my first film and directed a film (Anemone Me) in 1990 — that’s older than some people. My film thing in the last five or 10 years has started to get some traction. But I’ve done lots of film work and TV work. The great thing is I was at Sundance in 2019, and we opened the festival with Native Son, directed by Rashid Johnson. Afterward, my reps called me. “Brian Grazer wants to talk to you.” I’m like, “S–t!” I was in the middle of the street, in the cold. Then I’m on the phone with Brian Grazer and he’s like, “Hey! We’re doing Genius Season 3, Aretha Franklin,” and I’m like, “OK. Yeah. Yeah. What are you calling me for?” He says, “You want to write it? You want to showrun it? What do you think? What do you think?” And I was just like, “Whoa. Yeah, I’m in.”
They have a saying that in television, the writer is king or queen, you know? I thought, I get to architect this story. I get to work with the legacy of an icon, which I’ve done many times whether I’m writing The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, with my girl Andra Day, or working on Porgy and Bess [which earned her a Tony] or Native Son. I was a writing student of James Baldwin. I’ve also adapted Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and some of Toni Morrison’s books. So, I feel like that’s something that I love doing, and it’s one of the tasks that I’ve been called to do as a creative person in the world. So, when Brian Grazer [made that offer], I was like yeah, I’m in, because now we get to talk about Black female genius. And I’m up for that because it’s right on time, it’s right on point, because we’ve got Vice President Harris in the White House, we got Ms. Stacey Abrams bringing it home in Georgia, we’ve got Michelle Obama walking down the steps at the inauguration…. I was standing up and cheering and someone asked me, “Why are you cheering for Michelle?” And I’m like, “Because, she’s all that.” It’s a time to recognize Black female genius.
Our genius helps the world really understand what genius is. Genius isn’t just some ivory tower thing that predominantly white men have. Or just men. Black female genius is inclusive and powerful in a way that you don’t even realize, and can bring all kinds of people together, like Aretha did. And turn the lead of life into gold — or solid gold in Aretha’s case. Black female genius is the kind of genius you can dance to so, I was just thrilled that they were going to include an African American woman, too. Not just a Black woman. An African-American woman. You got to say that because that’s an important part of the story, also. [Following Einstein and Picasso] this is the first season with an American, a woman, a Black person and a mother. I was so there.
TVLINE | There’s a great but subtle scene when Aretha is conducting the band and telling them what 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 a lot of the greats didn’t read sheet music. Can you talk about why that was so important to address in that way?
Oh, please. That was in there because so many people are very quick to remind everyone that she was a musical genius and she didn’t read music. It’s a backhanded compliment. We have to remember Mingus didn’t read music. Lennon and McCartney didn’t read or write music. Elvis didn’t read music. Jimi Hendrix didn’t read music. Eddie Van Halen couldn’t read music. So, we’ve got a lot of champions and badass mofos who were geniuses that couldn’t read music. That’s a reminder for everybody that there are no backhanded compliments here. This woman could come in a studio and take command, and these were all men that she was working with and she knew what she wanted to hear. When she sang, “You said you loved me,” that came right from her life and then the horns. Badam, badum bum-bum. And she architected that, pulling from her own life. Reading music is not necessary to compose music, it’s not like writing. When you’re a writer, you need to know how to read because you have to know how to form the letters and the words. But with music, you can play brilliantly and not read music. I play guitar, harmonica, some keyboard, some violin and I can read music, but I don’t read while I play. But she had a brilliant ear.
TVLINE | You bring that sensibility to this project. You have musicianship in your arsenal, and that goes beyond being a fan who appreciates her music. As a musician, you can say this is genius. Can you talk about that?
I’m a musician on a much smaller scale 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’ Hopkins and Memphis Minnie. Their guitar playing is hard, and I spent hours hanging out in my younger days learning how to play those licks. These were brilliant Black guitar players, and then you sing while you play and you wonder how you’re going to do it. So, I know what it is to play complicated music with your hands while you’re singing a song with your voice. Aretha was a genius at it; I’m just 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’re a woman, you have to be assertive on a whole different level. You have to use every weapon in your arsenal.
With music, there’s a lot of progress being made, but it’s like showrunning — it’s still a man’s world. We have to use all kinds of ways to get them to do what needs to be done. I’ve been onstage with folks where, if the drummer is dragging and slows down the tempo, you have to turn around to him and move your hand and s–t to get them to speed up. Or the bass player might be playing too fast because he’s too into it. I know what that is. I brought that to my understanding of what she did on a much higher level than I’d ever done. But also how the music influenced the way she spoke, because she listened. All those kinds of things were in 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 her on Broadway when she was in The Color Purple; she won a Tony award for that. And then of course in Harriet, she was a total badass. We had a meeting and I heard she was interested. I thought, “Great! We have a woman who can sang!” And she can act, and she’s righteous. That’s a triple threat right there, which is always awesome. 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 like she understood her. She told me this story about when she was working on Harriet and there’s a scene where she crosses the river and leads her folks to freedom. There were those who didn’t want to go because the water was cold. It took hours and hours to shoot that, and I just realized that she could really go there. The fact that she had such stamina and commitment mattered, because I knew that this was going to be equally challenging but in different ways.
TVLINE | There’s also the domestic abuse component with her first husband Ted White (played by Malcolm Barrett), which is so hard to watch and presumably to tell. How much had to go into talking about that? It’s not like Aretha told us. But it’s been pretty well chronicled over time.
It’s been chronicled and there are much more public displays of domestic abuse that we did not touch. We don’t need to make anybody look bad. We don’t need to make Ted White look worse. Her father, C.L. Franklin, had difficulties in his relationships; we didn’t want to make him look bad. But to the same point, we don’t need to whitewash it. It’s February and it’s Black History Month, and it’s time for our community to get real. We have to look into the eyes of each and every brother and sister and say, “I am truly your sister. I am truly your brother.” There’s a lot of covering up and pretending s–t is fine and we don’t want to talk about that. But I think there’s a strength in telling the truth.
TVLINE | Right. And she didn’t stay, so you have to give the credit back to her for not putting up with that and pretending it was normal. At the same time, she’s not Tina Turner. She’s Aretha Franklin. Are you worried that people are going to feel some sort of way, one way or another?
Well, yeah. It’s like some people go, “Why you gotta tell that?” It’s just like slavery. There are some people, Black and white, who ask why we have to talk about that. Well, because it happened, and to understand the people we’re talking about, we need to talk honestly about them. Or, “What’s this Black Lives Matter business? Come on now.” Cops sometimes treat Black people unfairly even if you’ve never seen it happen. We’re not trying to ruin people’s day, but those people, when they think about Black people, they want to think what they think and don’t want you to harsh their mellow. When some people think about Aretha Franklin, they have a certain feeling and they don’t want you to ruin that feeling by telling them the truth. But by telling the truth, you get to an even better feeling of how strong she really was. She also had a child at a very young age.
TVLINE | I’ve only seen the first episode, so how deep are you all going to go into who the dad of her first child is? Because that’s one of those weird rumors that swirled around….
Well, we don’t get into who the baby’s daddy was. It’s more about who the momma is and how the momma persevered. We don’t get into the TMZ rumor mill bulls–t business, we’re not into that. We’re interested in Aretha’s genius and to focus on the fact that from the time she was a little girl, how she persevered and how her family enveloped her with love. And that’s what helped pull her through. Her father said, “This is not going to stop you from doing what you were meant to do.” Her grandmother said, “This is going to be the family’s baby.” Her sisters helped out. Her brother helped out.
TVLINE | The grandmother is played by Pauletta Washington, and C.L. is Courtney B. Vance who’s from Detroit and it’s like he is C.L. What was that experience like?
His performance is mesmerizing and he only gets better. Courtney B. Vance is a national treasure. Pauletta, too. I love Pauletta and felt so honored that she would join us, and she added just that exact thing that we needed throughout the series for grandmother, Rachel Franklin. We’re so glad it all came together.
I’ve been trying to work with that brother, Courtney B. Vance, for years, and finally I got a chance. I’m so proud of this show and that I get to tell the story because I am the kind of artist who has a big heart and I won’t look away. And Ms. Franklin called me years ago, she was living in Detroit and I was living in LA at the time. She wanted me to write a stage musical of her life. But we never got around to it. She got ill, unfortunately. But I feel like we’re putting respect on her name here but we’re not sugarcoating it. I’m so very proud that I’ve 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 Ladies, Run the World) and Gina Yashere (Bob Hearts Abishola)