It’s a “banquet of the unbearable,” one character calls the show he’s in — a chronological account of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as captured in the short plays and songs that Suzan-Lori Parks wrote each day for a year starting on March 13, 2020. It might feel jarring initially that “Plays for the Plague Year” is being presented at a cabaret, Joe’s Pub, with singing and dancing and a literal banquet: an optional $45 three-course meal. The waitresses in masks snake around the candlelit tables to deliver your Poached Gulf Shrimp and Miso Glazed Eggplant while cast members periodically carry makeshift signs across the tiny stage marking a new gruesome landmark: 100,000 dead from COVID-19 on June 1, 2020; 500,000 on September 30; 1 million on December 27.
But presenting this year-in-review as a revue proves surprisingly effective – entertaining, evocative, provocative. The informality and intimacy make the production feel at times like a gathering where together we are reliving the memories. At its best, “Plays for the Plague year” offers the opportunity for a sense of community and, for some, of catharsis.
Parks herself leads the cast of seven other performers and (guitar in hand) three other musicians in presenting her twenty lively original songs, and innumerable “plays.” Although each play gets its own title, it might be more accurate to call them moments; each is also assigned a specific date. Few last longer than a minute or so. One, April 16, 2020, entitled “The City at 7 p.m.” is just people applauding. (Remember when health workers were applauded every evening at 7 p.m.?)
I can divide the moments into roughly four categories (with some overlap), threaded more or less evenly over the course of the play.
Some are moment that, in one way or another, most in the audience are likely to have experienced themselves during the pandemic shutdown: Calling the shutdown a “hiatus” and expecting it to last three weeks (which becomes a running joke in the show); learning to wash our hands while singing Happy Birthday twice, seeking out hand sanitizer, if necessary by making it ourself from an online recipe; wearing makeshift masks (red bandannas!), and face shields; celebrating the day the vaccine was announced; getting the first shot. Before the show, we were handed index cards with two questions: Who or what do you want to remember? Who or what do you want to forget? Some of the anonymous answers were read on stage.
The second category is more concrete history involving COVID-19. In “A Play for Dr. Li Wenliang,” Orville Mendoza portrays an eye-doctor from Wuhan, China who tells us that he reported the rise of a peculiar illness among his patients, and was denounced by the Chinese government for doing so. Then he got sick with the coronavirus. “I died on the 7th of February.” The doctor is the first of some half dozen people who died from the virus to get their own play (monologue, dialogue or song), all identified by name, including singer-songwriter John Prine, the businessman and politician Herman Cain, a high school principal, and an immigrant cabdriver. There is a play where protesters in Michigan demand that the governor opens up the barbershops,, chanting “we want a haircut, we want a haircut.” (Parks leaves out the follow-up, “Operation Haircut,” in which barbers defiantly gave haircuts on the Michigan Capitol lawn.)
But then there are plays about historical figures and events that were not connected to the pandemic. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Little Richard, Larry Kramer, Congressman John Lewis – all of whom died during that year, but not from COVID-19 – each get a play, as do Ahmaud Arbery and two who were infamously killed by police, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, both of which get follow-up plays: “September 15, 2020. Breonna Taylor’s Family Settles,” and “March 31, 2021. The Trial in Minneapolis.” Other historical events get a mention, such as the legalization of marijuana in New York, and the presidential election. The play for January 6th 2021 is entitled “Happy Topdog Day,” because it’s the day that Parks starting writing her Pulitzer Prize winning play “Topdog/Underdog,” which she’s explaining to “Fanboy” and “Fangirl” when they suddenly get an alert on their phone: “Shit the Trump supporters are storming the Capitol!”
Much of the play is threaded with the personal experiences of Suzan-Lori Parks (who plays herself, although her character is referred to only as The Writer), and those of her family, Greg Keller as her unnamed husband, and Leland Fowler, who completely steals the show as their bright and hilariously relentless eight-year-old son. We see The Writer living through the most common experiences of that year, but also some experiences specific to her life – her husband coming down with COVID-19 on April 19, 2020 and the subsequent complications; several scenes with her first husband Paul Oscher, and also a conversation with the writer James Baldwin, who died in 1987. Baldwin was her teacher in college and her mentor, who convinced her to start writing plays, and he, as always, has something insightful to say. But Parks’s decision to go far afield from matters that could reasonably be categorized as “Plague”-related – sometimes beyond even “Plague Year-related” — explains why “Plays for the Plague Year” has a running time of three hours. The show could be, and should be, shorter.
But that urge to give us too much is arguably part of the same gift of generosity and creative fervor that motivated her to create theater, as she puts it in a program note, “meant to give us some tools we need to process both what we’ve been through and what we’re still going through now.”
“Plays for The Plague Year” was originally scheduled to run late last year, but was ironically cut short because of several cases of COVID in the company, including herself. She responded by creating yet another song, “Sacred Agents,” which has a telling refrain:
I had a fever when I wrote this song
I would love if you could sing along
Plays for the Plague Year
Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater through April 30, 2023
Running time: Three hours including an intermission
Tickets: $30 (partial view) – $60. Rush: $30+ fees.
Directed and choreographed by Niegel Smith
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Scenic and projection design by Peter Nigrini, costume design by Rodrigo Muñoz, lighting design by Ania Washington, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, and prop management by Alexander Wylie, music direction and arrangements by Ric Molina
Cast: Edward Astor Chin, Leland Fowler, Danyel Fulton, Greg Keller, Orville Mendoza, Lauren Molina, Suzan-Lori Parks and Martín Solá
Photos by Joan Marcus