Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the dominant figures in American theater today. And when we first spoke earlier this year, she said she was just beginning to reflect on her work over the past decades to come up with an overarching philosophy.
When I followed 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’ final show at the Off-Broadway Public Theater is Play for the plague year, and this is her first acting experience. That’s part of why, right now, Parks said she felt like she couldn’t be “further to the edge of my creative imagination.” She just finished the premiere of her play Sally and Tom, a musical about Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. She is working on her next show, an adaptation of the 1972 Jamaican crime film The more they come for off-Broadway. And when we talked, she was wearing a beanie that said Topdog / Underdog — merch from the revival of his acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is on Broadway right now.
This is a flood of new works from someone already known to be prolific. The child of an army officer and a college professor, Parks was inspired to write plays in 1982 by James Baldwin, who was a visiting professor at her college. Since then, she has written plays, screenplays, novels and, of course, other plays.
Parks was on set as the writer for a TV show that had to be put on hiatus when COVID hit. So she began to write one short play a day – plays that would eventually become Play for the year of the plague.
“My intention was to write something to help us, to document, to testify and to help us celebrate our return together,” she said. “I thought it was only going to last 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.
Play for the plague year it’s more than rehashing a trauma
Many fast-moving pieces address the routine pains of daily pandemic life with her husband and son in New York. But each is also a reminder to really feel what’s deep in your gut – even as the world goes through these massive changes. “So we can clean our own cobwebs and purify ourselves,” she said.
In one scene, The Writer character, played by Parks, and Hubby, her husband, are both sick with COVID. They both share symptoms – nausea, burning eyes, hot skin – until Hubby reveals he can’t breathe while lying down. And so he sits at the kitchen table at night, and The Writer gives him a yoga block to rest his head on. It’s a bit of kindness – all, really, the writer has to give right now.
“A lot of things sucked,” Parks said in an interview. “And a lot of things were beautiful.”
Quickly, death and mourning become a major concern of the series. There are coins commemorating names you’ll probably recognize – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. And names you couldn’t – Dr. Li Wenliang, who warned other doctors about early infections in Wuhan, or Parks’ own ex-husband, blues musician Paul Oscher, who died in April 2021. For Parks , there is no greater act of love she can give than writing someone in her plays.
“We don’t just rehash 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 going even when things are very, very tough.”
Things continue to be difficult. Almost as if it was written in the show itself, plague year had to take a brief hiatus after several cast members had COVID. This is quite appropriate for a room devoted to the preservation of recent years. But the thing about preservation is that you can store something in amber forever and never watch it, or you can watch something over and over again and keep learning something new every time.
Marc J. Franklin
This 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 Time critic at the time called it “the most exciting new local 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 run-down apartment. The eldest brother is called Lincoln. Coincidentally, he works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade where patrons can pretend to shoot him day after day. His little brother is called Booth.
“I’m too old to sleep in this chair,” Lincoln complains in one scene.
BOOTH: This is my house. You have no room. Cookie, she fired you. And you can’t find another woman. You’re lucky I let you stay.
LINCOLN: Every Friday you say my house is my house.
BOOTH: Every Friday you go home with your paycheck. Today is Thursday and I’m telling you brother, it’s a long way from Friday to Friday. All sorts of things can happen. All kinds of bad feelings can surface and erupt while your little brother waits for you to bring your share.
It’s important to note that both brothers are black, so the Lincoln impersonator spends much of the room in whiteface. It’s a move that makes audiences wonder what Parks is saying about race with this piece. It’s a good 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 glimpse of the revival, she realized it was about something deeper. “I thought, oh, I write about how reality is constructed. How the world is made.”
Find something new in Topdog / Underdog
Parks talks about this idea of Topdog / Underdog in fact, it’s about “reality constructing” theater as if it were something she had just learned about herself and her own work. But it makes perfect sense to see Topdog / Underdog this way, as the characters continue to lie to themselves, to each other, and to the audience.
Rashid Johnson, visual artist and filmmaker, worked with Parks as co-writer on Richard Wright’s 2019 screen adaptation native son. He said he saw Topdog / Underdog in his twenties, and found Parks’ writing about black characters complicated in a way that was uncommon at the time. “It lends agency and space to these characters’ existential journey in a way that’s romantic, beautiful, thought-provoking, and disturbing.”
With all of her “reality under construction,” as she put it, Parks hopes to prioritize honesty over entertainment and judgment. “Drop the personality,” she said. “Dive into what I like to call the river of song. Dive into this rhythm that runs through us all. And I have this belief – oh, aren’t we the same person?”
There’s a spirituality that Parks found in acting. A loop, of sorts, where every day you get up there, build a reality, the curtains close, and you’re back in the “real world”. But it’s not like the two are separate realities. And his work asks – why bother to pretend?