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Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks explores the pandemic in 'Plays for the Plague Year'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Is it too soon to explore the pandemic through art?

Not if you're Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote a short play a day while sitting at home for 13 months and has now turned those into a full-length performance at New York's Public Theater.

It's part of a very big year for one of the country's most acclaimed playwrights.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Suzan-Lori Parks, Playwright: I play the writer.

Actor: I will play the hubby.

Actor: I play the kid.

Jeffrey Brown: Suzan-Lori Parks both plays and is the writer of "Plays for the Plague Year."

Suzan-Lori Parks: I play the stalker.

Jeffrey Brown: A series of songs and scenes.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Sit down. Catch your breath.

Jeffrey Brown: Small personal moments.

Suzan-Lori Parks: I will make you some tea and I will put some honey in it.

Jeffrey Brown: And big collective traumas.

Actor: I was just wanting to alert people, because I'm a doctor.

Jeffrey Brown: That take us through the first year of the COVID pandemic.

Actor: And then I got sick from the virus.

Actor: She says you probably have it too.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, great.

Jeffrey Brown: It's based on an assignment Parks gave herself in real time: Be present, observe, write every day.

Suzan-Lori Parks: It's a way to keep watch, if you will, you know? It's a way to bear witness. It's a way to say, yes, this happened, yes, I'm watching, and I'm going to write it down.

Jeffrey Brown: It's also about the roles we all play every day.

Suzan-Lori Parks: I have a typewriter, the Olivetti Valentine.

Jeffrey Brown: And, for Parks, who often writes on an old red typewriter, it really is a new role. For the first time, she herself acts and sings and plays guitar in one of her plays.

Did you have any fear, trepidation putting yourself into the story like this?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes, I have so much fear and so much trepidation. And I think a lot of us realized during the first year or so of the pandemic is that there were things we were afraid of, are afraid of, and that we had to really look at those things.

And so I looked at a lot of those things. And one of them was, oh, I'm putting myself in the story,

Actor: I'm getting too old to be sleeping in that chair, man.

Actor: It's my place. You don't got no place.

Jeffrey Brown: Now 59, Parks is best known for her play "Topdog/Underdog," in which two brothers, named Lincoln and Booth, are bound by family ties and the burden of American history.

Actor: We put aside $100 for the rent; $100 a week times four weeks makes the rent, and we don't want the rent spent.

Jeffrey Brown: It won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Parks the first African American woman to receive that honor, and last fall had a 20th anniversary revival on Broadway, part of a busy, attention-getting year for Parks that included her theater adaptation of the 1972 hit reggae film "The Harder They Come" and a new play premiered at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater titled "Sally & Tom."

That's Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, set in both past and present.

"Plays for the Plague Year," produced at New York's Public Theater, is her most personal yet and includes experiences at home with her real-life husband, Christian Konopka, and their son, now 11 year old Durham...

Suzan-Lori Parks: It's close. It's super close.

Jeffrey Brown: ... who's suddenly as tall as his mother. They and many other actual people are portrayed on stage by a group of Actors who take a variety of roles in short plays...

Suzan-Lori Parks: I'm scared. I'm sorry.

Jeffrey Brown: ... that unfold chronologically.

Actor: I'm sorry too.

Suzan-Lori Parks: It's really a celebration of everyday things, whatever was happening. My office is at the kitchen table in our one-bedroom apartment, so I was writing at one end of the kitchen table.

At the other end of the kitchen table, there was our then 8-year-old son who was in -- doing remote schooling like so many kids, and he was having his remote schooling things happening, what -- with the screen and whatnot, all that kind of glitching and all this stuff, and trying to get used to it. So the play might be about that.

Actress: I don't got time to be dead. I have important work to do. I'm a principal.

Jeffrey Brown: Also given voice on stage, a number of those lost during the pandemic.

Actress: And I have kids looking up to me.

Jeffrey Brown: Parks has honored them with their own short scenes.

Actress: So, I'm their example. I can't let them down.

Jeffrey Brown: And the social justice protests after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Actor: You see me lying here? You see the knee on my neck?

Suzan-Lori Parks: I see it. It's real.

A lot of people, in this country especially, we think that to grieve bad things that have happened would bring us down. The opposite is true. When we look with love and with interest and curiosity towards something that -- something difficult that happened, we are released from its power to weigh us down.

Jeffrey Brown: Your way to do that as a playwright is write them into the play and bring them on stage.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes. Well, yes, that's the way the world works. The right...

Jeffrey Brown: The world works or the theater world?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Well, all the world's a stage. The writer writes them into the play. That's why were here. We have been written into a play. Isn't it fun?

Jeffrey Brown: The two of us?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Sure

Jeffrey Brown: This is a play, right?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Well, sure.


Suzan-Lori Parks: I'm very -- yes, yes, right.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, yes, yes. But is this the way you think about life?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Oh, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes. That's really what's going on. We have been written into a series of plays. That's what "Plays for the Plague Year" really is looking at, how reality is made.

Jeffrey Brown: That feels like a good definition of all Parks' work, in fact, exploring how our individual and collective reality is made.

One guide in shaping that approach, none other than James Baldwin, who first suggested to Parks, then in college and writing short stories, that she try writing a play.

Suzan-Lori Parks: I never would have gotten into playwrighting had it not been for Mr. Baldwin.

Jeffrey Brown: But, I mean, that is a high-level mandate.

Suzan-Lori Parks: He suggested that I might be good at what I do. And I didn't have the heart to prove him wrong. Yes. I mean, someone has faith in me. I -- it means a lot to me.

Jeffrey Brown: Parks, the daughter of a college professor and Army officer, came to see her work as a calling.

Suzan-Lori Parks: My parents used to tell me, because we traveled all around the world, you are an ambassador of your race, meaning we traveled a lot of places where people hadn't met Black people before.

And as an adult now, I realize I'm one of the ambassadors of the human race. And I will take that on.

Jeffrey Brown: The one thing I was wondering about with this play is...

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: The question, is it too soon?

Suzan-Lori Parks: Maybe it's too soon. I don't think so. The reaction we're getting from the audience, it feels like it's time.

Why stuff the stuff down? Why shove it down and not think about it? Until when? That's one of the reasons why I'm on stage. I'm not saying, yes, go, reflect on the pandemic. Go over there. No, I'm like I'm here with you.

Jeffrey Brown: And so with you that audience members are invited to reflect on their experience of lockdown by filling out cards about what they want to remember or forget.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Public Theater in New York.

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