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Theatre in Review: Plays for the Plague Year (Public Theater/Joe's Pub)

Suzan-Lori Parks. Photo: Joan Marcus

Full confession: I attended Plays for the Plague Year with a sinking heart, convinced that I needed to see a show about life under COVID lockdown like I needed a hole in my head. But never underestimate Suzan-Lori Parks, one of the America theatre's true originals. As it happens, she spent the first terrible year of COVID turning out a brief play each day -- even when the world is falling apart, writers must write -- and here she uses the material as the basis for a diaristic account of that incredible time. Plays for the Plague Year is its own unique entity, a cabaret crossed with a Living Newspaper, an account of daily life in a nation in upheaval -- and, counterintuitively, reliving those days proves to be surprisingly healing.

Part of the show focus is domestic: Parks, here known as Writer; her spouse, referred to as Hubby; and their eight-year-old, named Son, struggle to live peacefully in a one-bedroom apartment, the adults working, the boy bouncing off the walls. The chaos of those early days is vividly detailed -- the confusion of over masking, the handwashing instructions, the fear of being hugged or kissed, the halting attempts at attending school online. Hubby, returning from a foraging expedition, announces, disconsolately, "There are no more bagels in New York." Son is saddened to hear that some of his classmates are forming a "pod" without him. Writer, hosting a daily online creativity seminar via Zoom, watches the numbers increase daily, as people hunger for some kind of contact.

As time goes by, everything gets more complicated. When Writer's television series resumes production, she must head to Atlanta with Hubby, leaving Son with his maternal grandmother; because of quarantine restrictions and professional obligations, reuniting everyone for Christmas becomes a logistical challenge. When a family vacation can be arranged, it is taken at a "quarantine house" upstate. Meanwhile, Hubby comes down with COVID and his symptoms linger, worryingly. Months later, he is still easily tired and often frighteningly short of breath. He assiduously plays down his symptoms, but still she asks, "Am I going to be a COVID widow?"

Interspersed with these scenes are brief interludes with the dead, some of them lost to COVID, others felled by the furies unleashed in a country going mad under lockdown. You'll recognize many of the deceased, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Li Wenliang, the Chinese optometrist whose whistleblowing activities regarding COVID caused him to be censured by his government. Others will surprise: Little Richard shows up, saying, "Oh shit. Am I dead?" Larry Kramer, cantankerous even beyond the grave, complains about the title of his scene. The great designer and educator Ming Cho Lee, surveying the stage design, says, "I would have done it differently." And James Baldwin, Writer's cherished former teacher, irritated at being conjured up nearly four decades after his passing, says, "I didn't die this year. You don't want to give people the wrong idea. There are people out there thinking right now that I died this year. That's how American history works."

Adding to Writer's sadness is the loss of her first husband, a musician who, among other things, played with Muddy Waters. "Are you sure I'm not in one of those medically induced comas?" he asks hopefully. Alas, no. Meanwhile, the nation suffers from fierce psychological blowback: Crowds demonstrate for the right to get a haircut. Asian women are gunned down in Atlanta. The demonstrations in Washington's Lafayette Square climaxes in the farce of Donald Trump posing in front of St. John's Episcopal Church with an upside-down Bible. The presidential election yields denial and riots. Even good news often comes with a deflating asterisk. Sitting in the Javits Center, waiting for her shot, Writer frets, "My husband has been really sick, but he can't get a vax appointment. And me, I got one -- piece of cake." "There's not always a rhyme or a reason," says her patient, seen-it-all nurse. "But I thought it was organized. By the government." Writer protests. "Girl....," the nurse replies, and rarely has a single syllable hung so heavily, or hilariously, in the air.

Of course, every so often, somebody passes through the room, announcing the ever-mounting numbers of the dead.

Reliving those crazy, tumultuous, divisive months, Parks offers sweet reason as a balm, reminding us of all we lost and what we retain. Providing a series of lovely, contemplative interludes are the songs, words, and music by Parks, drawing on a folk/blues influence. "A Song for John Prine" eulogizes the great singer-songwriter lost to the plague. "I'm pretty much gonna be dead in a minute," sings a patient in "Who's Gonna Pay for This?" In another number, channeling all of us in the early days of lockdown, she sings, "I'm standing here failing to pieces/Pick it up, girl, pick it up/Feels like the whole world is ending/And hey, maybe, yeah, that's just our luck."

Parks is a surprisingly effective performer, especially when biting her tongue at a co-worker's insensitive comment or turning to Hubby, silently imploring him to provide a response to one of Son's unanswerable questions. She has a nice chemistry with the always genial Greg Keller as Hubby, who bravely soldiers on, even when clearly ailing. The rest of the fine cast includes Orville Mendoza as, among others, Li Wenliang and Ming Cho Lee; Lauren Molina as an oracular Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Martín Solá as Parks' first spouse, and Leland Fowler, who, in addition to persuasively embodying a third-grader, flips from Herman Cain to James Baldwin in the blink of an eye. Other roles are capably handled by Danyel Fulton and Rona Figueroa.

Plays for the Plague Year is being presented in Joe's Pub, so Peter Nigrini's scenic and projection design are, necessarily, basic, as is Ania Washington's lighting. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is ideally transparent. And Rodrigo Muñoz provides some strikingly original costume designs, including a living embodiment of the virus with a headdress of red spikes and the personification of Writer's muse, a kind of angel with wings fabricated from pages of scripts.

Sometimes, it seems, looking back is the best thing one can do. Parks' family survives but her faith in the future, and in her work, takes a beating. Using words we can all relate to, she says, "The myth of America, always, to my mind, in a precarious predicament, has been even further eroded. Used to be easier to pretend that some things were all good. Less and less now. And that is a good thing. Less pretending. And the world moves on." If you take a dip in the near-past with Parks and company, you may very well end up feeling thoroughly restored. David Barbour

(19 April 2023)

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