The Crown of Suzan-Lori Parks: 365 Plays

Review by C. Denby Swanson, Assistant Professor of Theatre

C. Denby Swanson PhotoIn 1992, I was a 22-year old college graduate with a degree in theater and a brand-spanking new non-paying internship in the literary department at The Empty Space Theater in Seattle. The Space was also 22 years old, but it had been producing new and vibrant plays for those two-plus decades, plays by some of the country’s most dynamic writers, playwrights I was just learning how to read: Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes, Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Erik Ehn, Steven Dietz, Eric Overmyer, Marlene Meyer, oh so many others.

But in 1992 The Empty Space had serious financial difficulties. There was staff turnover and downsizing. So not only was I the literary intern, I was the entire literary department.

Still, we got stacks of both solicited and unsolicited scripts every day. Every single day. Stacks of them. Stacks. As part of my internship, and as literary interns have done for millennia, and despite the looming thundercloud of the theater’s closure (which ultimately didn’t happen until 2006), I logged in all the plays, both solicited and unsolicited, read them, wrote up brief descriptions, recommended to the Artistic Director: read or don’t read.

It was a crash course in the structural, characterization, and thematic innovation being produced by American playwrights. Then one day The Death of the Last Black Man In the Whole Entire World, a play by Suzan-Lori Parks, came across my desk, and my reaction was: What. The. Freaking. Hell. Is. This.

The characters included Black Man with Watermelon, who dies multiple deaths over the course of the play, Black Woman With Fried Drumstick, Queen Hatshepsut, and Before Columbus.I’d read Adrienne Kennedy, NtozakeShange, Maria Irene Fornes, a host of writers who smart around with history, archetype. But even in an office teeming with new and vibrant work, tall chimneys of plays literally falling over onto my desk,Suzan-Lori’s work was startlingly fresh, her rich and playful language thick with double and even triple meanings.

Two years before, in 1990, she had won an OBIE award for Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (subtitled: “African-American history in the shadow of the photographic image”), a collection of four short pieces about slavery, pop culture, ancient culture, and a wounded military hero.

Today, she is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, a MacArthur Genius Grant, a Drama Desk Award, a Pulitzer, and Tony Awards. She has written for film (Girl 6, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Great Debaters) and for Broadway (Topdog/Underdog, Porgy & Bess), and has published a novel. She is still frequently writing about slavery, pop culture, ancient culture, and wounded military heroes. And it’s still completely fascinating.

Here’s what I totally love about Suzan-Lori Parks, encapsulated in this quote:

“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.” – SLP Interview with Barbara Cassidy

One far out idea she had in 2002 was to write a play a day for 365 days. Sounds so simple, and also so daunting.A play a day for 365 days. But as Suzan-Lori said in an interview I did with her in 2006, when the whole 365 cycle was produced, “A play a day could be anything.”

And indeed they are, anything and everything. They are reactive and responsive to the public events of the time – the Iraq War, the deaths of John Ritter and George Plimpton, the anniversary of September 11, Christmas – and, simultaneously, to the private themes of Suzan-Lori’s own life – acknowledging her imagination, struggling with boredom, negotiating marriage and parents and siblings and family.

Sometimes the 365 plays are short – just a chorus chanting, “No war! No war! No war!”

Sometimes the 365 plays are Suzan-Lori in whimsical conversation with herself – “This isn’t a play.” Or “This is the same play you wrote yesterday.”

Sometimes the 365 plays are about slavery, pop culture, ancient culture, and wounded military heroes.

Maybe 365 just hit me at a key moment in my personal and writing life, but I continue to find the content and the process of them strikingly, consistently relevant. The published version of the whole cycle, called 365 Plays/365 Days, is the only text I use in my playwriting class, which I teach in the spring. There are several reasons why:

  1. The plays are funny – you can see when Suzan-Lori is cracking herself up.
  2. The plays are honest – she shows up on the page, herself, with all her skills, interests, and imperfections.
  3. The plays are direct – there’s no time, no incentive, to be anything but.
  4. The plays are affirmational – they embrace theatricality, intelligence, awareness, and imagination.

In her Catholic high school, Suzan-Lori was asked by a nun what she wanted to do for a living. Suzan-Lori said, “A writer.” The nun’s reply was something like, “You can’t be a writer, you can’t spell.” So at Mount Holyoke College she initially studied the hard sciences. But one semester she took a fiction writing class with James Baldwin. When she read her work out loud to the class, she would act out all the parts, so Baldwin suggested that she try writing for the stage, which can easily embrace her innate sense of spectacle, the odd active contrast of mundane and profound, the depth of her language and references.

 In 2001, Suzan-Lori gave the commencement speech at her alma mater. The speech was structured as a series of suggestions. Here are a few of them:

SUGGESTION #1: CULTIVATE THE ABILITY TO THINK FOR YRSELF… LISTEN to yr heart, TUNE IN to yr gut. These are just the things for which Mount Holyoke has educated you. Youve all received an excellent education here and education, excellent education, is just a kind of ear training. That’s all it really is Inner Ear Training.

SUGGESTION #2: EMBRACE DISCIPLINE. Give yrself the opportunity to discover that discipline is just an extension of the love you have for yrself discipline is not, as a lot of people think, some horrid exacting torturous self flagellating activity. Discipline is just an expression of Love like the Disciples they didnt follow Christ because they HAD TO.

SUGGESTION #3: PRACTICE PATIENCE. Whether you sit around like I do, working for that perfect word, or yr working toward a dream job, or wishing for a dreamy sweetheart. Things will come to you when yr ready to handle them not before. Just keep walking yr road.

SUGGESTION #16: BE BOLD. ENVISION YRSELF LIVING A LIFE THAT YOU LOVE. Believe, even if you can only muster yr faith for just this moment, believe that the sort of life you wish to live is, at this very moment, just waiting for you to summon it up. And when you wish for it, you begin moving toward it, and it, in turn, begins moving toward you.

As the great writer James Baldwin said: “Yr crown has been bought and paid for. All you have to do is put it on yr head.”