Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Lisa Ze Winters


The Traumatized/Traumatizing Subject in Anna Deavere Smith, Suzan-Lori Parks, and August Wilson explores how drama, as a genre, is particularly suited for capturing aspects of trauma in ways that other genres cannot; this argument reinforces that trauma must be studied within the humanities, specifically within literature programs. Recognizing that trauma in and of itself is tied to issues of narrativization, textuality, and performativity, this project notes that Smith's, Parks's, and Wilson's work collectively attempt to traumatize contemporary viewing audiences and make them aware—cognitively and emotionally—of the hardships of discrimination and racism, which themselves can be seen as examples of generational trauma, trauma linked to diaspora, and trauma arising from long-term, cumulative, and collective suffering. Smith's, Parks's, and Wilson's works are no longer about catharsis, but empathic unsettlement and making audience members realize the ways in which individuals, particularly those who consider themselves to be bystanders, operate, in the parlance of Judith Lewis Herman, as both victim and perpetrator.

These particular authors show how trauma can be conveyed to audiences not only through plot lines, but through various stylistic and aesthetic devices, and as such, their dramas explore the ways in which trauma is manifested and communicated to audiences, while also challenging commonly held ideas about trauma. Smith's monodramas Fires in the Mirror and Twilight, both of which focus on late twentieth-century civil disturbances, provide commentary on the conditions that must be in place for communal healing to occur. Parks's Topdog/Underdog, Venus, and The America Play focus on individuals who succumb to the traumas they are psychically forced to relive. In contrast, Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, the first work in his "century cycle," offers an instance of healing, challenging popular ideas about this process by emphasizing its physicality and the degree to which choice impacts that process. All three playwrights emphasize the communality of trauma and the ways in which it is socially determined and negotiated; they accomplish this by actively engaging audiences through a destabilization of the fourth wall, embedded performances, and a stylistic and thematic focus on dissociation, fragmentation, liminality, and simultaneity.