ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the dominating figures of American theater today. In 2002, she won a Pulitzer for her play "Topdog/Underdog," about two brothers trying to make ends meet, and she hasn't stopped working since, writing plays, TV shows, movies and more plays. Now a revival of "Topdog/Underdog" is up on Broadway, while her latest show is called "Plays For The Plague Year." It's made up of the plays she wrote in the early days of COVID, when she wrote one a day for over a year. Parks spoke with NPR's Andrew Limbong about how her work is more than just rehashing history.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: When you visit play rehearsals, you usually try to stay out of the way, keep quiet, pretend like you're not even there. But of course, you are there, so why bother pretending?
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: I have a funny question I'm about to ask right now. Are we performative rehearsing for the recording, or are we actually rehearsing?
NIEGEL SMITH: I have the same question.
LIMBONG: That's Suzan-Lori Parks talking to director Niegel Smith. I'm at the rehearsal space at the Public Theater in New York City, where the cast is running through a few scenes and songs for Parks' "Plays For The Plague Year" - or they were a second ago.
PARKS: As people, like, how aware are we that someone's right here?
SMITH: Oh, I - we need to be totally aware. I'll tell you...
LIMBONG: And then they get on with it. This is actually Parks' first time acting, and she and the rest of the cast don't seem to do anything different. But the room does feel lighter, more relaxed now that the previously unsaid thing has been said.
SMITH: We are the beautiful.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You got it. One, two, three, four.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We are the beautiful. We are...
LIMBONG: When COVID hit, Parks was working on a TV show. That obviously got put on hiatus, so she started writing.
PARKS: My intention was to write something, to document, to witness and to help us celebrate when we got back together. And I thought it was only going to be three weeks. So I thought, I'll go home. I'll just write a little thing. It's like...
LIMBONG: Many of the plays touch on the routine pains of everyday pandemic life with her husband and son in New York. But at their core, each one is a reminder to really feel the stuff down deep in your gut, even as the world endures these massive changes.
PARKS: I'm encouraging people to reflect. Because people say, gosh, I was thinking about what I was going through on that date, that day and what happened to me when I saw that news item. I'm like, yeah, that's the idea. That's the idea. So we can clean out our own cobwebs and cleanse our own selves, you know?
LIMBONG: Well then what would you say to someone who is like, listen, I was there the first time. I didn't like it much.
LIMBONG: And so, like, you're asking me to come again to revisit...
LIMBONG: Like, a lot of that sucked, you know what I mean?
PARKS: Yeah, yeah. A lot of it sucked, and a lot of it was beautiful.
(As The Writer) How's your COVID-19 doing?
GREG KELLER: (As Hubby) Oh, my COVID is doing great, but I'm feeling like [expletive].
PARKS: (As The Writer) Yeah, me too.
LIMBONG: Parks plays The Writer in this scene, running through symptoms with her husband, or Hubby, as he's known in the play.
KELLER: (As Hubby) Coffee, water retention...
PARKS: (As The Writer) My throat is, like, really...
KELLER: (As Hubby) I can't breathe lying down.
PARKS: (As The Writer) You can't breathe lying down, so you're going to sit up all night at the kitchen table? At least put your head on this yoga block.
LIMBONG: Quickly, death and grief become a major concern of the show. There are plays memorializing names you'll likely recognize - George Floyd, Breonna Taylor - and names you might not, like Dr. Li Wenliang or Parks' ex-husband, the blues musician Paul Oscher, who died in April 2021.
PARKS: We're not just rehashing some trauma. I mean, you know, I'm a better writer than that, God willing. God save me from, you know, that. But what we're actually demonstrating is the power of community and how we can just keep on keeping on even when things are very, very difficult.
LIMBONG: Things would continue to keep being difficult. Almost as if it was written into the show itself, "Plague Year" had to go on a brief hiatus after several of the cast members got COVID, fitting for a play dedicated to the preservation of these past few years. But the thing about preservation is that you can look at a thing again and again and keep learning new things about it, which brings us to the revival of "Topdog/Underdog." When the show first premiered in 2001, it was hailed as a masterpiece. The Times review from back then called it the most exciting new homegrown 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 dilapidated apartment.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "TOPDOG/UNDERDOG")
COREY HAWKINS: (As Lincoln) I'm getting too old to be sleeping in that chair, man.
YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: (As Booth) It's my place. You don't got no place. Cookie, she threw you out, and you can't seem to get another woman. You lucky I let you stay.
HAWKINS: (As Lincoln) Every Friday, you say mi casa es su casa.
ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Booth) Every Friday, you come home with your paycheck. Today is Thursday. And I tell you, brother, it's a long way from Friday to Friday. All kind of things can happen. All kinds of bad feelings can surface and erupt while your little brother waits for you to bring in your share.
LIMBONG: One brother is named Lincoln. Coincidentally, he works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade where customers can pretend to shoot him day after day. His little brother's name is Booth. I should say the two brothers are Black, so the Lincoln impersonator spends a lot of the play in whiteface. It's a move that forces the audience to ask, what is Parks saying about race? - which is a great question to ask. Parks just hopes you don't stop there.
PARKS: So a lot of people say the play's about race relations and brotherly - I mean, they're all - everybody's opinion is valid and right. And as I watched it last night, I thought, oh, and I'm also writing about the way reality is constructed, how the world is made.
LIMBONG: Parks hits on this a lot - the idea of theater constructing reality like she's just learning this about herself. But it makes perfect sense to view "Topdog/Underdog" this way as the characters keep lying to themselves, each other and us.
RASHID JOHNSON: It gives agency and space to the existential journey of those characters in a way that is romantic, beautiful, challenging and disturbing.
LIMBONG: Rashid Johnson is a visual artist and filmmaker who got to work with Parks co-writing the 2019 screen adaptation of Richard Wright's "Native Son." It was a tough project, which is why Johnson was thankful to have Suzan-Lori Parks' guidance.
JOHNSON: SLP is just such an incredible and thoughtful storyteller in the way that she was able to help us navigate some of the potential pitfalls and our willingness to challenge Wright's vision.
LIMBONG: This business of constructing reality, as she calls it, has led to a varied array of recent work. On top of everything, she just premiered a musical about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in Minneapolis. She's also adapting the 1972 movie "The Harder They Come" for off-Broadway next year. With all of this, Parks hopes to cut towards honesty over entertainment and judgment.
PARKS: Drop the personality, you know what I mean? Drop down into what I like to call the river of song. Drop into that thrum that we all have going through us.
LIMBONG: And you can tell she means it, the way she talks to you and sees you and catches you when your instinct is to get out of that thrum.
PARKS: And I have this belief - oh, aren't we the same person? I know. Don't look away. Aren't we the same person? We're just, you know, different manifestations of the same person because the one that we all are wants to keep it interesting.
LIMBONG: There's a spiritualness Parks has found to acting, a loop where you go up there, construct a reality, curtains close and you're back in the real world. But it's not as if the two are separate realities. And her work asks, why bother pretending?
Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
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