Suzan-Lori Parks has had a banner year. Her Pulitzer Prize winner Topdog/Underdog had a 20th anniversary revival on Broadway. Her new musical The Harder They Come, adapted from the famous Jamaican movie of the same name, premiered at The Public Theater and is now rumored to be headed for a Broadway production. And finally Plays for the Plague Year, a series of short plays and songs that Parks wrote every day during the first year of the pandemic, has had its belated opening at Joe’s Pub, postponed from last November when several members of the cast came down with Covid.
Parks has worked in the short form before with her 365 Plays/365 Days (2002-3) in which she wrote one play a day for an entire year. This time she created one short play or song a day for the first 13 months of the pandemic documenting her life, current events including the Black Lives Matter movement, tributes to important people who have passed away, and people’s hopes and fears. The cast of eight includes Parks as The Writer, Greg Keller as her Hubby and Leland Fowler, an adult as their eight-year-old child referred to as The Kid, as well as three additional musicians. Described as a concert, the evening made up of 98 skits also includes 20 songs, mainly with Parks playing guitar, and often backed up by guitarist/music director Ric Molina.
When the audience arrives, they are asked to fill out surveys which ask “What would you like to remember?” and “What would you like to forget?” Some of these are chosen and read out loud late in the show. The cabaret setting designed by Peter Nigrini is perfect for what Parks has in mind for Plays for the Plague Year as it works like a revue. There is an interactive moment when the cast goes into the audience and hands out flowers commemorating victim Breonna Taylor, and once the audience is asked to join in and sing one of the songs.
While the playlets seem too slight to have much dramatic weight as they are mainly about one minute long, they do have a cumulative effect summing up a year that was like no other in recent memory. Often the scenes feel like they want to go and continue, but Parks keeps them short. Periodically, we have a one sentence scene telling us how many people have died from Covid as of that date. Beginning on March 13, 2020, the first full day of the shutdown, the playlets continue until April 13, 2021, a year and a month from when Parks started. An electronic sign above the stage states the date of each scene and its name which include such titles as “Home,” “Broadway Is Closed,” “The City at 7 PM,” “Who’s Gonna Pay For This?,” and “Hiatus 4 Months: Holding It Together Together.”
The through line seems to be extremely autobiographical with the leading character being a playwright married with one young child and an ex-husband Paul Oscher, the blues musician, which jives with the facts of Parks’ own life. March 13 begins with The Writer in an Atlanta film studio being told that the set was being shut down for three weeks due to Covid. Returning home to New York City, she, her husband and son quarantine for months until they rent a house in upstate New York one block from her mother. Eventually, they leave the son with his grandmother, and both go to Atlanta when the set eventually reopens on September 25, but they are back in New York in time for Christmas.
Along the way holidays are celebrated in new ways (birthdays, anniversaries, Juneteenth, Kwanzaa), a national election takes place, the January 6 insurrection takes place, and notables who have passed away from Covid are given tributes: Doctor Li Wenliang, songwriter John Prine, rock and roll legend Little Richard, playwright Larry Kramer, and businessman Herman Cain, as well as Black Lives Matter victims Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Other famed people who passed away during this time are also represented: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Representative John Lewis and set designer Ming Cho Lee.
Known up till now as a playwright and songwriter, Parks, who appears in almost every scene, proves to have a pleasant stage persona and a winning smile. As her husband who gets long Covid early in the story and almost never recovers, Keller is sensitive and compassionate, knowing when to apologize at just the right time. Fowler is both convincing and amusing as the curious eight-year-old son who often asks questions that have difficult answers. He also demonstrates a terrific singing voice along with Danyel Fulton, who plays a moving Breonna Taylor and Brooklyn educator Dez-Ann Romain, one of the first notables to die of Covid.
While the other versatile and talented actors play multiple roles throughout the evening, switching from scene to scene, among the standout moments are Martín Solá as Parks’ ex-husband Paul who comes to visit from the west, Lauren Molina as a high-powered television producer and Justice Ginsberg, Orville Mendoza as a musician named Bob, and Rona Figueroa as The Writer’s Muse, drolly dressed by designer Rodrigo Muñoz in a skirt made of scraps of discarded writings. Director/ choreographer Niegel Smith (best known as executive artistic director of The Flea Theater) keeps the disparate parts of the show merrily together throughout the evening with a smooth touch.
While Suzan-Lori Parks ultimately concludes that although she had the mistaken belief that “theater would save us,” she has now learned that “it does preserve us, somehow.” Plays for the Plague Year is best at reminding us what a time we all had and codifying the experience. Parks, her theater family and company are fine companions for this reminiscent journey that we have all been part of to a great extent. While this three hour show never seems long, the chairs at Joe’s Pub leave something to be desired.
Plays for the Plague Year (through April 30, 2023)
The Public Theater
Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: three hours including one intermission