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For playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, theater doesn't just reflect reality – it creates it

Suzan-Lori Parks (right), and the cast of <em>Plays for the Plague Year</em>. Parks, a prolific playwright, is doing something new with this play — she's acting.
Joan Marcus
Suzan-Lori Parks (right), and the cast of Plays for the Plague Year. Parks, a prolific playwright, is doing something new with this play — she's acting.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the dominating figures in American theater today. And when we first spoke earlier this year, she said she was just starting to think about her body of work over the past few decades in order to come up with an overarching philosophy.

When I followed up with her a few weeks later to see if she found a way to make it more digestible, she said no. Instead: "I learned all my lines! It's miraculous!"

Parks' latest show at the Off-Broadway Public Theater is Plays for the Plague Year, and it's her first go at acting. It's partly why, at this moment, Parks said she feels like she couldn't be "further at the edges of my creative imagination." She just wrapped up premiering her play Sally & Tom, a musical about Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. She's working on her next show, an adaptation of the 1972 Jamaican crime movie The Harder They Come for off-Broadway. And when we spoke, she was wearing a beanie that said Topdog/Underdog – merch from the revival of her acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is on Broadway right now.

This is a flood of new work that's coming from someone already known for being prolific. The child of an army officer and a college professor, Parks was pushed toward writing plays in 1982 by James Baldwin, who was a visiting professor at her college. Since then, she's been writing plays, screenplays, novels and, of course, more plays.

Parks was on set as the writer for a TV show that had to go on hiatus when COVID hit. So she just started writing a short play a day – plays that would eventually become Plays for the Plague Year.

"My intention was to write something to help us, to document, to witness, and to help us celebrate when we got back together," she said. "I thought it was only going to be three weeks."

She kept writing for over a year – she didn't really know when to stop until someone close to her died of COVID.

Plays for the Plague Year is more than just rehashing trauma

Many of the brisk plays touch on the routine pains of everyday pandemic life with her husband and son in New York. But each one is also a reminder to really feel the stuff that's down deep in your gut – even as the world endures these massive changes. "So we can clean out our own cobwebs and cleanse ourselves," she said.

In one scene, the character of The Writer, played by Parks, and Hubby, her husband, are both sick with COVID. They both share symptoms – nausea, burning eyes, hot skin – until Hubby reveals that he can't breathe lying down. And so he sits up at night at the kitchen table, and The Writer gives him a yoga block to rest his head on. It's a small bit of kindness – all, really, that The Writer has to give at the moment.

"A lot of it sucked," said Parks in an interview. "And a lot of it was beautiful."

Quickly, death and grief become a major concern of the show. There are plays memorializing names you'll likely recognize – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. And names you might not – Dr. Li Wenliang, who warned other doctors about early infections in Wuhan, or Parks' own ex-husband, the blues musician Paul Oscher who died in April 2021. For Parks, there is no greater act of love she can give than writing someone into her plays.

"We're not just rehashing some trauma – I mean, I'm a better writer than that, God willing," she said. "What we're actually demonstrating is the power of community and how we can just keep on keeping on even when things are very, very difficult."

Things continue to keep being difficult. Almost as if it was written into the show itself, Plague Year had to go on a brief hiatus after several of the cast members got COVID. It's fitting for a play dedicated to the preservation of these past few years. But the thing about preservation is that you can store something away in amber forever and never look at it, or you can look at a thing again and again, and keep learning something new each time.

When <em>Topdog/Underdog </em>first premiered it was hailed as a masterpiece. This revival stars Corey Hawkins (left) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right).
/ Marc J. Franklin
Marc J. Franklin
When Topdog/Underdog first premiered it was hailed as a masterpiece. This revival stars Corey Hawkins (left) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right).

Which is what happened to Parks as she watched the revival of her acclaimed play Topdog/Underdog.

When the show first premiered in 2001, it was hailed as a masterpiece. The New York Times review at the time called it "the most exciting new homegrown play to hit Broadway" since Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

This revival stars Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II playing two brothers who share a dilapidated apartment. The older brother is named Lincoln. Coincidentally, he works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade where customers can pretend to shoot him day after day. His little brother is named Booth.

"I'm too old to be sleeping in that chair," Lincoln complains in one scene.

BOOTH: Its my place. You dont got a place. Cookie, she threw you out. And you cant seem to get another woman. Yr lucky I let you stay. 

LINCOLN: Every Friday you say mi casa es su casa

BOOTH: Every Friday you come home with yr paycheck. Today is Thursday and I tell you brother, its a long way from Friday to Friday. All kinds of things can happen. All kinds of bad feelings can surface and erupt while yr little brother waits for you to bring in yr share

It's important to note that the two brothers are Black, so the Lincoln impersonator spends much of the play in whiteface. It's a move that forces the audience to ask what Parks is saying about race with this play. Which is a fine question to ask – Parks just hopes you don't stop there.

"So a lot of people say the play is about race relations," she said. But as she watched a recent preview of the revival, she realized it was about something deeper. "I thought, oh, I'm writing about the way reality is constructed. How the world is made."

Finding something new in Topdog/Underdog

Parks talks about this idea of Topdog/Underdog actually being about theater "constructing reality" like it's something she's just learning about herself and her own work. But it makes perfect sense to view Topdog/Underdog in this way, as the characters keep lying to themselves, each other, and the audience.

Rashid Johnson, a visual artist and filmmaker, worked with Parks as a co-writer on the 2019 screen adaptation of Richard Wright's Native Son. He said he saw Topdog/Underdog in his 20s, and found Parks' writing of Black characters complicated in a way that was rare at the time. "It gives the agency and space to the existential journey of those characters in a way that is romantic, beautiful, challenging and disturbing."

With all of her "constructing reality," as she put it, Parks hopes to prioritize honesty over entertainment and judgment. "Drop the personality," she said. "Drop down into what I like to call the river of song. Drop into that thrum that we all have going through us. And I have this belief – oh, aren't we the same person?"

There's a spirituality Parks has found in acting. A loop, of sorts, where every day you go up there, construct a reality, curtains close, and you're back in the "real world." But it's not as if the two are separate realities. And her work asks – why bother pretending?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.