Last week, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play premiered at Manhattan’s Public Theater. And at L.A.’s Center Theatre. And at Austin’s Groten Stage. Plus 11 other theaters around the country. If the Tonys, the Drama Desks, and the Voice‘s own Obies gave prizes for scheduling, organization, or sheer temerity, Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays would be besieged with trophies.
From November 13, 2002, to November 12, 2003, Parks wrote a play every day. From November 13 of this year to November 12 of the next, 14 regional networks will each stage all of these plays. Each network has had to locate 52 theater companies willing to perform a week’s worth. Venues will reportedly range from traditional theaters to plein air stages, school auditoriums to a nursing home. In New York, plays will take place in all five boroughs, produced by both well-known companies (New York Theater Workshop) and more abstruse ones (Robot vs. Dinosaur).
In 2002–2003 Parks traveled cross-country to promote her first novel and to England for Topdog/Underdog‘s London production; neither jet lag nor writer’s block led her to miss a day. She told The New Yorker that she wrote “[w]hether I was busy or not, whether it was good or not. . . . And it became this prayer, almost. To theatre. To life. To the art process.” The resulting short works testify to the joy and strain of writing a play every day. They range from the very serious to the very silly, the profound to the punchy. Sometimes they are sweetly enthusiastic; other times they betray the playwright’s anxiety. The August 21 play, Bear, begins with a woman declaring, “I dunno. I feel very—insignificant. I’ve been writing—’plays’ I call them. I have, what my dad would call, the ‘audacity’ to call them plays. Shits. They’re shits. 365 shits.”
Actually, it doesn’t take much audacity to describe these works as plays. They’re short, yes, and consequently often slight. They don’t have the linguistic depth of Parks’s earlier works or the resonant characterizations of her more recent ones. But they are plays and sometimes very good ones, nearly all providing a peek at the writer and her concerns. Violence frequently manifests itself, as does an obsession with history, and the sort of impishness that would lead her to put the newly deceased George Plimpton and John Ritter in a play together. (Other plays grieve Barry White and Gregory Hines.)
Parks also pays tribute to literary forebears. Chekhov, Brecht, Faulkner, and Aristotle each receive a play. Holidays are honored in the form of a Thanksgiving play, Santa play, Valentine’s play. The war in Iraq, the military, and prisons are often in Parks’s mind as is her husband, blues musician Paul Oscher. She has great fun staging metaphorical concepts: A window of opportunity, a rumor mill, and a site labeled “The Motions,” which a tour group goes through, all appear.
A few plays excepted, Parks doesn’t just go through the motions, and neither did director Michael Greif or the eight-member cast who performed the first week of plays at the Public Theater. Greif staged them playfully, if minimally, almost in the style of a revue or cabaret. Curtains on strings swished back and forth; an accompanist plunked away at a visible piano; actors stepped up to read the stage directions rather than attempt any grand mise-en-scéne. All seven plays came and went in barely half an hour. In the first play, titled Start Here, the goddess Arjuna balks at Krishna’s attempts to hurry her along. She seems nervous, scared. “If we’re going somewhere I don’t like, I may choose not to go,” she says. Krishna reassures her, “At the start there’s always energy. Sometimes joy, sometimes fear. By the end you’ll be so deep into the habit of continuing on, you’ll pray you’ll never stop. Happens all the time. . . . Let’s go.” Arjuna follows. So should we.