Of course Suzan-Lori Parks is an amazing writer. I don’t think anybody would dispute that. But this aside, I feel a connection to her work I’m not sure I can put a finger on. I first became familiar with her in 2001, when, off for a semester from grad school to give birth to my daughter, I started reading Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom to the newborn babe. (I was having a little trouble adjusting to motherhood and wasn’t ready for Goodnight Moon.) Thus forged our alliance. The late night hours thinking about Being, and once there was uh me named Barbara, who wondered who she was now that she was a mom.
Okay so now I’m offered to do this essay/interview with Parks and I have to say I’m a little intimidated. She’s a confident, articulate university professor, who has written some really great stuff and oh yeah, won a Pulitzer Prize. I may be out of my league. I take all her stuff out of the library and reread everything I can. Her press person sends over her new manuscript, 365 days 365 plays. I read it in two days. I’m feeling a little better.
2 pm EST Saturday. Parks calls from her cell phone while driving someplace in California with her husband, blues musician, Paul Oscher. She exudes excitement about the new project, which seems to be an enormous undertaking. She had this crazy idea to write a play a day for 365 days, which she did from November 2002 through November 2003, and these plays are going to be performed at various locations across the country, simultaneously and separately, in a play cycle that will last, you guessed it, 365 days. There are fifty-two producing entities in each city handling a week’s worth of plays each. So the same plays that are opening in NYC are opening at various locations across the country. In asking Parks about where she got the idea for this, she says, “Most people, most writers, most people will dismiss their far out ideas, and I’m one of those people who entertains her far out ideas, you know, I invite them home and have them sit down to a good meal.”
The plays are all fairly short in written length (some are less than a page), but, the script sometimes reads like a journal chronicling life. There is a play, THE BIRTH OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN (for February 12th of course) and A PLAY WRITTEN ON A PIECE OF PACKING PAPER, and one called REMEMBER JUNETEENTH. They are varying in style and tone, each one creating its own thing, but somehow connected to the whole in a bigger way. There are also three constants, which I gather will be performed at each show.
Here’s the third constant titled, INACTION IN ACTION:
On stage are 365 things to do, that is, 365 tasks.
What are the tasks? Your choice.
Lights up. Dart around trying to do all the tasks. Make it clear
that you desire to complete all the tasks. Dart around AFAP.
Do your best. Don’t be shy about going all out.
There isn’t anything to hold out for. This is it. Hurry hurry hurry.
Lights go out long before yr done.
And that’s it for the third constant. It could be really long; it could be really short. It could be funny; it could be serious. Parks allows for a wide variety of interpretations. I ask her if a viewer might feel disengaged from the whole piece of work (since they’re only seeing a fraction of the total play) and what she thinks about that. “The 365 national festival is a lot like living in the world. You know because you’re concerned about not seeing the whole thing or reading the whole script but it’s a lot like like living in the universe, how aware are you right now about what’s going on in Borundi or what’s going on in Knottsville, Tennessee, or what’s going on in Mysore, India, or what’s going on in Kohistan? You know how aware are we of every single thing going on in the universe?”
Parks is very comfortable in the role of teacher and as she’s expounding on these ideas I find myself wondering about the idea of Being again and how affected we all are by the watcher and how we incorporate this being watched into our essential being. And is there any ‘real’ self left, one devoid of all this putting on? But I don’t say anything. She may think I’m crazy. But it’s all over her plays….
Like In TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, when Lincoln tells his brother Booth what his Best Customer whispers to him:
BOOTH: Whatd he say this time?
LINCOLN: “Does thuh show stop when no ones watching or does thuh show go on?”
BOOTH: Hes getting deep.
BOOTH: Whatd he say , that one time? “Yr only yrself-“
LINCOLN: “-when no ones watching,” yeah.
We get disconnected. She calls back. I’m getting nervous. I was told I would only have a half an hour. My time is running out.
Cassidy (Rail): There’s three questions I really want to ask you.
Parks: Oh, I just have one thing to say which might be interesting. 365 days/365plays is a black play.
Rail: What do you mean by that?
Parks: I don’t know, it’s just interesting because there’s a lot of labeling going on in contemporary American theatre, you know black plays, women’s plays, and we were in Chicago doing a meeting for 365 and one of the gentlemen said, “Gee Suzan-Lori, are you concerned that there are all these white theatres that are gonna do your play and I just started laughing because 365 is a black play and maybe what that means is “black plays” are plays that cross boundaries.
Now here’s where I mess up the interview, because there are so many questions one could ask about these statements, such as, what does it mean to be a black play, and why specifically is 365 a black play, and why does Parks think black plays cross boundaries?
But I have my other question in my mind that somehow seems related but in retrospect is not really or importantly related at all. So I just let this great subject go…and instead say something like:
Rail: Oh cool. I hear ya. That’s really interesting.
And then I asked my irrelevant question. I’m not going to write it.
So it gets me to thinking though, what does it mean to be a black play? Is a play a black play if it’s written by a black person or does it have to have themes of blackness in it?
Do I see 365 as a black play? I’m just tripping on this. I wish I could talk to her some more now. I don’t really see plays as black plays or white plays anymore. Or maybe I don’t want to. It might have something to do with being white.
In any case it’s hard for me to see 365 as a black play. Yeah, there are some characters who are black. Yeah, there are themes of blackness. But there is more than that there. Parks broaches subjects of universal interest, which as she says cross boundaries, but I don’t think it’s crossing boundaries because it’s “a black play.”
EMPTY (from 365)
I told you it was.
I had to see for myself.
So what do you think
Well, its very-
Anything could happen here because-
Because nothing’s happening here right now?
Yr sort of getting the hang of it. How do you feel?
Less empty. Or empty but ok.
Yr gonna go far. I can tell.
Im betting on it.
Tell me something. Whered everything go, you think?
Good question. Dunno.
So we’re way over our time and I tell her about my late night readings of Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom to my daughter and my obsession with Being and reading Heidegger and does she want to say anything about the theme of being watched—
Rail: I see this connection and this idea always in your work of how we can’t really be ourselves because we’re acting all the time in everything we do. Even when we’re alone, we’re somehow being watched…
Parks: And yeah, that’s the heart of a play isn’t it too. Or maybe, we are ourselves because we’re being watched. I don’t know. That’s a question…we’re more ourselves when because we’re being watched… I don’t know that’s a long question
Rail:Yeah, it’s not even really a question is it…
Parks: (to her husband in the car) What did you say Paul? (to me) My husband says being watched is part of being yourself. And you know why that’s so deep because he says we don’t live alone. And even when you think you’re alone, and if you look at that constant-(from 365) remember who you are, even when you think you’re alone you’re not. And one interpretation could be oh yeah, Big Brother always watching or it could be like God’s eyes on the sparrow—your greater self is watching over you I don’t know…
Rail: Yeah it’s an interesting answer, I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it like that. I saw it as a corruption of ourselves. You put a different spin on it.
Parks: But that’s like every time we think, that’s a corruption thing, we have to realize if you think that, look at the flip side and remember the acorn that became the tree. Was it corrupted? Or the baby that became a little girl? Was she corrupted or did she just grow? Is there another way of looking at that that actually takes into account the bigger picture?
I think I’ll read Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom again. And when Molly says, “Once there was uh me named Mona who wondered what she’d be like if no one was watchin,” I’ll try to see it as that she is actually being more human, more true to her nature than I originally thought. But I may feel sadder.
365 will be performed beginning on November 13, 2006, and will continue for 365 days around the country. For a complete schedule, visit the Public Theater at www.publictheater.org
The following schedule is a guide to NYC performances through 2006 year end:
Week 1: November 13, 2006 – November 19, 2006
LAUNCH: November 13, 2006 (more details to follow)
The Public Theater
Week 2: November 20, 2006 – November 26, 2006
The Foundry Theatre
Week 3: November 27, 2006 – December 3, 2006
Guerrilla Girls On Tour
Week 4: December 4, 2006 – December 10, 2006
Galapagos Art Space
Week 5: December 11, 2006 – December 17, 2006
Queens Theatre in the Park
Week 6: December 18, 2006 – December 24, 2006
Week 7: December 25, 2006 – December 31, 2006
Barbara Cassidy is working on a project with Amie Hartman called Very Different People.Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks is a playwright, screenwriter, songwriter and novelist. In 2002 she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama with her play Topdog/Underdog. Her other plays include: Fucking A, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990 Obie Award), The American Play , Venus (1996 Obie), The Death Of The Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and In The Blood, among others. A recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award, Suzan-Lori lives in Venice Beach with her husband, blues musician Paul Oscher, their pitbulls Lambchop and Boogie-Woogie and their black cat Houndog.