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Pulitzer Prize winner shakes off labels

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When hip-hop artist and actor Mos Def came backstage last summer after the off-Broadway première of "Topdog/Underdog" by Suzan-Lori Parks, he could barely contain his excitement. The play is about two African-American brothers who are named Lincoln and Booth as a joke by their father.

"Mos Def ran backstage and told one of the actors, 'Ah, man, what a great play. The guy who wrote this.....' And the actor laughed. [Because] a woman was the playwright," Ms. Parks recalls.

Parks tells the story with a giggle, to explain how her work has earned the label "experimental" – at least until now. On Monday, "Topdog/Underdog" won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Her plays have been hailed for their creative mix of fantasy, myth, and history, expressed in metaphor and language that capture the explosive patois heard on the inner-city streets and in the rural backwaters of America.

With their unsettling and unconventional ways of prodding audiences to consider the heritage of race relations in US society, they have been traveling the regional theater circuit for more than a decade.

Now, as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and with the rave notices for "Topdog/Underdog," which opened on Broadway Sunday at the Ambassador Theatre, Parks has hit the mainstream.

"I've been writing plays for 20 years, and I've been experimental in lots of different ways," she says. "My plays aren't stylistically the same. Just being an African-American woman playwright on Broadway is experimental. As far as I know, there [are] four of us: Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, and now me. It's also experimental as a woman to write a play that just involves two men and to write it so well that people think a man wrote it," she says.

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