Casting the Bones of Willa Mae Beede: Passing and Performativity in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Getting Mother’s Body

Laura Wright, Western Carolina University

This essay examines how playwright Suzan-Lori Parks acts as sangoma—a traditional African bone-casting healer—in Getting Mother’s Body (2003), her only novel to date. Through a sustained intertextual dialogue with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) in which she “Signifies” on the verb “to pass,” Parks resurrects two specific black female bodies: Willa Mae Beede, who passes as white, and her former lover Dill Smiles, who passes as male. Read in this way, Getting Mother’s Body is dialogic, more like a play than a novel in that it engages in a continual call and response between various internal and external audiences who in turn are made up of characters and writers, both living and dead. Furthermore, while it continually posits both its own fictional status (insofar as it pays such clear homage to Faulkner’s novel) and the fluid nature of race and sexuality, the novel stages an overt performance of gendered identity that extends Faulkner’s work beyond the realm of white, heterosexual identification. This essay is significant in that it seeks to link Parks’s only novel to her theatrical works that preceded it and to foreground subsequent discussion of Getting Mother’s Body through a careful analysis of its intertextual relationship to As I Lay Dying.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]