Parks Plays

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two things you should know about playwright Suzan-Lori Parks: One, she's mildly obsessed with Abraham Lincoln and two, she's good at getting people's attention. If you've already heard of Suzan-Lori Parks, it's probably because of her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog--a fast, boisterous drama about two brothers, one of whom dresses up in white-face for his job impersonating Abraham Lincoln at carnivals. Topdog/Underdog won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but Topdog was also a sort of remix of Parks' 1994 work: The America Play, a more somber, but still playful work about a black man who (surprise!) dresses up as Abe Lincoln. The America Play is a bizarre pastiche of historical footnotes, speeches and Parks' own brand of theatrical poetry.

At its Los Angeles premiere at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena a few months back, The America Play could be seen as workshop of sorts, where Suzan-Lori Parks developed ideas and techniques that she would use to better effect years later. This is not to say that Topdog is a masterpiece or that the earlier America Play is mere juvenilia; but Nancy Keystone's handsome production wasn't able to make the The America Play stand on its own two feet.

Actor Harold Surratt was an assured presence as the "dead ringer" for Lincoln--he showed the right mix of gravitas and deadpan with lines like "some said he played Lincoln so well, he ought to be shot." But too many of Parks' monologues in The America Play, no matter how well delivered by Surratt, felt disconnected from the other characters (who barely register) and the play as a whole. Whether or not the playwright's fragmented text makes this inevitable, is difficult to tell. Keystone's set of coffee can footlights and dunes of black sand was striking; but her actors seemed stuck in this mud, like historical cutouts yearning to break free and become flesh-and blood characters.

Abraham Lincoln also plays a small part in Suzan-Lori Parks' latest creation. Even more attention grabbing than her 2003 play which featured an expletive in the title (F***ing A, which has yet to be performed in Southern California) is this new opus that opened recently in New York and Los Angeles. The Birth of Abraham Lincoln is one of the short dramas Parks wrote as part of her 365 Days/365 Plays project. In November of 2002, Parks began writing one short play every day and continued this for a whole year. Now over 600 theater companies big and small will be performing her 21 score and 5 plays in cities all over the country.

On a crisp Wednesday night, a few weeks back, seven of these plays were put on by the Center Theatre Group to kick off the year-long festival. Bart DeLorenzo staged the plays outside and over 400 people--including Suzan-Lori Parks herself--gathered to migrate around the Music Center and watch the short vignettes. To be honest, most of the plays felt more like sketches, but one piece did stand out: Veuve Clicquot, a brief, hyperbolized vision of a death row inmate's last meal, was genuinely haunting.

The worst thing you could say about the plays--and the whole event itself--was that it felt like an undergraduate dare; but even the seemingly slightest works flickered with the spirit on invention. Watching them called to mind the carefree sense of excitement with which early silent films were made. Like those silent shorts, DeLorenzo and his cast of seven actors put together these seven plays in a short period of time--but clearly relished every moment of it

The thrill of the event came from watching people discover--or rediscover--the novelty of live theater: a few individuals coming together and collaborating to tell a story or convey a single idea or emotion, using a simple mix of lighting, movement, and costume. That this was taking place on the grounds of LA's most institutionalized theater complex made for an interesting contrast. For one night at least, Suzan-Lori Parks managed to emancipate theater at the Music Center from its staid conventions and create a sense of wonder.

365 Days/365 Plays continues at theaters around Los Angeles and around the country through November 2007.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.