After three years of Zoom calls with blurred backgrounds or bare walls, Suzan-Lori Parks’ sunny corner of the world is an inviting space. Plants spring to life on the windowsill. An heirloom quilt lays neatly in the lap of an armchair, offering a cozy spot to settle while guitars beckon you to stay. She asks as many questions as she answers. She is as interested as she is interesting. No wonder she's so prolific.
This season, Parks' Pulitzer-winning play Topdog/Underdog was revived on Broadway, starring Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, under the direction of Tony-winner Kenny Leon. Then Parks' Plays for the Plague Year premiered at the Public in November of 2022. It was sidelined by COVID cases in the company, leading to an encore presentation at The Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub through April 30. And in-between those two runs, she premiered the musical adaptation of the 1972 Jamaican film The Harder They Come, in February, also at the Public. Not only that, but she's recently been listed on TIME100: The Most Influential People of 2023 list. "This is my version of Everything Everywhere All at Once," Parks says of her very busy year, drawing a comparison to the Oscar-winning film. "Yeah. This is me."
Parks is currently opening up and displaying herself fully onstage in Plays for the Plague Year. Backed by a small band and surrounded by an ensemble cast of seven, the Pulitzer-winning playwright plays The Writer in her collection of moments chronicling the first 13 months of the COVID pandemic. Appearing onstage is not new for the playwright; she's also a singer-songwriter who fronts her own band playing modern soul, black-country, and psychedelic-afro-righteous sounds.
The series of short plays—some are scenes, some monologues, some songs—takes viewers through those first days of uncertainty with plays about handwashing, through a summer of social unrest with plays for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, to the attempts to return to work and normalcy in a world still mired with loss. At the beginning of the play, the audience is invited to write down "Something I want to remember" and "Something I want to forget" on yellow note cards which will may be randomly read by the cast at the end of the evening.
Parks began working on Plays for the Plague Year when production halted on Genius: Aretha, the 8-episode National Geographic bio-series about Aretha Franklin for which she served as writer and showrunner. “I’ll do my version of twiddling my thumbs,” she thought. “I’ll write a play a day."
She's done it before, the writing of a play a day. That collection, 365 Days / 365 Plays was an idea she had in 2002 as an artistic challenge to herself, an experiment. This time around, she gave herself a little more a role in the assignment. "I'll keep watch," she remembers.
She, like many, thought it would just be a couple of weeks. Of course, it stretched on, and Parks kept watch, writing a play every single day for over a year. The Writer notes early in Plays for the Plague Year that she doesn’t know how long she’ll continue, but she’ll know when to stop. It is the death of someone very close to her that brings the project to an end, her former husband, blues musician Paul Oscher.
Seeing the work is a strange thing. It is one part a peek into Parks’ pandemic days with her husband and son, and one part reflection in the shared days that we all experienced while isolated. It felt like we were once again in community, recalling moments from just three years ago that now seem so far away and even almost forgotten. The audience laughs together, remembering how we had to learn to wash our hands. While the show is reminder of traumas, it is also a reminder of resilience. “We forget how much beauty there was during that time,” says Parks. “The play really lifts up that beauty and that joy so that we can all delight in the fact that we made it!”
Not only did Parks made it through. She’s thrived in her return. While COVID did pause production on Genius: Aretha, the series resumed and completed (it aired March 2021). The United States vs. Billie Holiday, another music biopic for which Parks wrote the screenplay was also released in early 2021. Theatres, which had been shuttered for 15 months during the pandemic, reopened full force by the fall of 2021, and plans began for a 20th anniversary production of Parks’ Pulitzer-winning and Tony-nominated play Togdog/Underdog. Then came Plays for the Plague Years, then The Harder They Come.
Parks has been Writer-in-Residence at the Public since 2008, a position that allows her to be herself and flower in all her varieties, she says. “[Walt] Whitman said, ‘I contain multitudes.’ Well, I also contain multitudes.” She feels that oftentimes people find out that they are accepted in one corner, but not another, so they tend to stay where they know they are liked. They put themselves in a box. Her acceptance at The Public has allowed an opposite response from her. Not only is she not in the box, she’s nowhere near the box. "I'm over here being my authentic self, which means I can be a playwright and write a novel and write a song." It's something she wishes all artists can experience: “I would ask the arts community, the world, to accept me as my authentic self. I would ask that we should each be accepted as our authentic selves. We contain multitudes.”
Parks has been a prolific writer since her graduation in the mid-1980s from Mount Holyoke College, (where she studied with James Baldwin, who gets his own play in Plays for the Plague Year). But her biggest breakthrough came with Topdog/Underdog. It premiered at The Public in summer 2001. That fall she was awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and the following spring the play premiered on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination and the Pulitzer Prize.
The return to the work, now 20 years later and with Leon at the helm, has opened her eyes to how much love was in the script. The story is about two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, who tussle with each other, their past, and the con of the American dream. “Kenny took the play to the level of the times we are living now—the expression of the deep, deep love that those two men have for each other in the midst of their difficulty,” she says. “But we’re all 20 years older, and I, maybe, can appreciate it in a different way…like we were enjoying a fine wine.” She laughs as the comparison and continues it from an aged wine to whiskey oak barrels to moonshine. “Moonshine that’s been hiding under the porch for 20 years! That’s what I’m talking about!”
There’s a musicality to Topdog/Underdog in the rhythms of the lines. It is a rough discourse between the brothers, but the language feels heightened. “Everything I’ve written is a song,” says Parks. She refers to her 1990 play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World as an opera that she hasn’t written the music for yet. It's not something she does consciously, or with the music in mind, but the writing is rife with rhythm and the dialogue is lyrical in its slang and colloquial patter. “I try to create a series of awesome-sauce delivery systems,” she says. “I used to sit in rehearsals at the Golden [Theatre] next to Kenny and I would shout, ‘Sing the song, brother! Sing the song!’ I’m just writing songs and making theatre out of them.”
She also recently incorporated some literal songwriting into her adaption of the 1972 Jamaican film They Harder They Come. The musical recently wrapped up its world premiere run at The Public Theater, featuring a book and additional songs by Parks, alongside songs from the film’s soundtrack by reggae artist Jimmy Cliff, who also starred in the picture. Justine Henzell, daughter of the film’s director Perry Henzell, had seen the original Broadway production of Topdog/Underdog and sought Parks out for the adaptation.
“This is such a significant film for the Jamaican people. It was one of the first times they had seen themselves on screen, and there’s such a love for the film,” she says of the seminal work from the small island nation. And, of course, “it brought reggae music to the world."
The film centers on a young musician named Ivanhoe whose dreams of having a hit record are thwarted when he defies the people running the industry. He then resorts to crime and drug dealing when he can’t pay the bills or get a job. In a scuffle with the law, he shoots an aggressive officer and goes on the run. His refusal to bow to those in power make him a folk hero amongst the people and, after his death, his record is a hit.
“It’s the class struggle, right?” says Parks on the enduring power of the film. “It’s about the system, the oppressive system. I just wanted to tell that story, uplift his story. It’s a young man who has hopes and dreams. It’s a young man who has a lot of love for his mother. It’s a young man who falls in love and gets married. It’s a young man who becomes an activist in the community and rallies the people around his cause.” It’s a 50-year-old story that we still see daily in the news. It’s a story audiences can believe in.
That ability to write about and for the people has landed Parks a spot on Time Magazine’s annual Time 100 list of most influential people in the world in the Artists category. In his endorsement for her, actor Sterling K. Brown (who played the lead in Parks' Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) at The Public in 2014) said, "The theatre world knows Suzan-Lori exceptionally well, but the world at large should recognize the genius that she is. She should be a household name."
Her inclusion on a list of influencers is a fitting acknowledgement, and a role that she seems to come to instinctually. “Artists, in my understanding, have been called to lead,” she tells Playbill weeks before the Time 100 was announced. “I appreciate when people will follow you. Not follow you like on Instagram, but actually allow their minds and hearts to expand as our hearts and minds are expanding. We’re the vanguards. We’re going out there in an inclusive and loving way, allowing people to see connections with each other. It’s so expansive and so life affirming.”