Around the USA in 365 Plays
In her latest project, Pulitzer prize-winning dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks covers the country.
By Jared Craig
Four years ago, Suzan-Lori Parks set out to do what no dramatist, no matter how prolific, has ever done before. The Pulitzer prize-winning playwright decided to write a play for each day of the year. Her mission completed, the scripts are currently being performed in hundreds of communities throughout America. Parks and her producer, Bonnie Metzgar, call the project 365 Days/365 Plays and claim it is “the largest shared world premiere in American theatre.”
Those impatient for a gander at the dramas in a theater near them should take the opportunity to read 365 Days/365 Plays — the year’s worth of scripts are predictably uneven, but still make an impressive showing on the page.
The festival of premiere productions is split up into regions: theater companies sign-up to do different selections of the plays. The Public Theatre in New York City is producing all 365 plays, staging the entire week’s worth of scripts each Sunday. The Public’s artistic director, Oscar Eustis, calls his approach the theatrical version of “church.” Boston, which is part of the Northeast region, will be responsible for the April/May and September/October portion of the festival.
Most of the plays span no more than a page; some are no more than spurts of dialogue while others consist of split scenes in which there are three or more different actions happening at the same time. There are playlets that are just stage directions. All of this formal playfulness indicates that Parks is nothing if not self-conscious, even risking becoming terminally wry. A recurring character, The Writer, makes several appearances, acknowledging that we are seeing a play and, at times, sometimes questioning whether it should have been written.
But contemporary political realities are very much on Parks’ mind. Many of the sketches deal with social issues, proffering dramatic versions of editorial cartoons, such as “In The Presidential Race, Circa 1972”: “3 men… run a 50 yard dash in slow motion… The Black Man wins… Writer as a Small Child: [speaking] When I was a kid I thought the presidential race was like a race in the Olympics so I couldnt understand why there werent any black presidents.” The play is riddled with themes that include race, feminism, and chauvinism. Parks is an equal opportunity exploiter and she comments on every social and political forum she can think of – all in the name of activist theatre.
The idea that theater should be part of a national dialogue about controversial issues suggests why Parks wants to have her plays produced in communities across America. She is working to establish the theatre as a place for political discussion and dissent about difficult issues of race and war. For example, an 11-part series of plays called “Father Comes Home from the Wars” documents different men or groups of men returning from a nondescript conflagration. Parks even throws in a “Mother Comes Home from the Wars,” in which she preaches that the theater is still important “now more so than ever.”
But Parks does not just take on sticky issues of politics and race. There are as many topics as there are plays: subjects range from family and friendship to history and love. Abraham Lincoln is another recurring character — he has appeared in a number of Parks’ earlier plays. Here he appears in a series of Lincoln fantasies, including the comical “The Mr. Lincoln Rose,” which features a potentially controversial ending.
Of course the 365 plays are meant to be seen, but there’s an idiosyncratic facet of Parks’ artistry can only be appreciated on the page. The stage directions in 365 Days/365 Plays are particularly fascinating (and revealing) because many would be impossible to pull off on stage. The playwright’s impish notes include “And the world keeps turning” (in “A Play for Barry White), “a man unveils a great pile of nothing” (in “Show me the Weapons of Mass Destruction”) and “they beat the 1st Grot – / not to death, not enough to cause a riot – but just enough / to make us all doubt the interconnectedness of all things” (in “2 Examples of the Interconnectedness of All Things”).
One explanation for the absurdity is that Parks wants her plays to be performed by a variety of theater companies, including those with small budgets and modest performance spaces. Thus her stage directions are not to be taken as pragmatic guides to production. Instead, her notes, which illuminate her characters’ inner lives, are an attempt to fuse the strengths of fiction and theater — they offer literary riches to readers as well as clues to performers. Parks also wants to warn performers and directors that the scripts should not be treated as realistic slices of life. The plays are meant to spark the imagination of the theater companies, to encourage them to come up with their own images and possibilities.
For example, there are several scripts that never end. “In The President’s Puppets,” the final stage direction is “He goes on playing like this forever. Maybe we see him / in the background or hear him from offstage, etc., / throughout the rest of the plays.” Sometimes the playwright’s notes are written in verse, suggesting that the script is a poem. A smattering of the plays are long poems in the form of monologues. Some plays include such stage directions as “Maybe this happens” or “Maybe it doesn’t, you decide.” She is truly relinquishing artistic control over to the producing companies.
According to Parks and producer Metzgar the mission of the festival is to strengthen “a shared commitment to putting art at the very center of life — not as a monument but as a daily necessity.” The book 365 Days/365 Plays has a crucial part to play in the project: it gives readers an opportunity to become part of the festival, inviting them to imagine how the scripts would be performed on stage. Perhaps they would be curious enough to attend some productions in their area. Ultimately, Parks wants to revamp American theater by reviving a theatergoing community, one day and one play at a time.
365 Days/365 Plays
by Suzan-Lori Parks
(TCG Publications, $17.95)
For those in the Boston area, MIT will present “A Conversation with Suzan-Lori Parks” on February 21, 2007. And MIT’s Dramashop will stage Parks’s early play “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom” February 8 through 17. Details are available here.