By Tulis McCall
Plays for the Plague Year now at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, has finally come home. What began as a solo invention and then became a series called “Watch Me Work” on the Internet has finally found a nest in which to settle. Suzan-Lori Parks (The Writer) has surrounded herself with a generous pool of talent.
One note here – on the afternoon I saw this piece, the talent was never identified except as Actors 1-7. Their photos are not in the Playbill or on display. And at the conclusion of the piece neither they nor the musicians were introduced by name. This is an enormous oversight that may have been rectified by the time of this writing.
That being said, the ensemble fills the tiny stage at Joes’ Pub with heart and soul large enough for the whole world to feel. It is rare that i set through an entire show (and this is a long one) without taking a single note. In this case it seemed more appropriate to let the writing and the performing wash over me. Taking notes while being immersed in the pandemic again felt off. And we were immersed.
The immersion was unhurried. Like a pot coming to a slow Parks slices life up one steady degree at a time. March 13, 2020 Broadway shows had been closed and everything else was going on Hiatus. No one knew what was safe and what was not. Staying home was safe. Also maddening. The world seemed to shrivel up around us – for those of us fortunate enough to have a home and stay in it.
Washing hands became the new to-do and coughing into the wing of your arm, and wearing masks and ordering everything online. What was just a few days shifts every single thing. Every single thing.
Parks makes it a point to mention people who died during the plague years, beginning with Dr. Li Wenliang who discovered the virus in China, reported it, was denounced and then died from it. She reminds us that not only were people dying, we were killing each other. Breonna Taylor explains to us that she is lost. She was safe at home and now she is lost. Ahmaud Arbery kisses his mother not knowing it is goodbye.
The weeks long Hiatus turns into months. People flee the city. Black Lives Matter. Juneteenth. The President holds an upside-down Bible for a photo Op.
All the things we lived through and forgot tumble out onto the stage, including thoughts about people who passed on before the pandemic, or from some other cause than the pandemic, but whose essence stays with us.
The tale is not an easy one not only because of the subject matter but because there are no built in transitions for the actors to navigate. There were none for us either. CDC changed their minds over and over. Trump recommended Lysol. DeBlasio did nothing at all. We were left to our own devices – and told to mask up (or not) and keep 6 feet apart.
Plays for the Plague Year is a living reminder of what we have almost forgotten in our haste to move on. The news cycles shrink more and more every day. Today’s catastrophe becomes yesterday’s property in an instant. We are bombarded with information that most of us neither need nor want with the result that what should be remembered and held dear gets pushed off our radar screen. With this production Parks, and this fantastic team of performers, gives us permission to remember. We would all do well to accept that invitation.
As we enter the play we are given two cards, each with a question regarding the pandemic: “What would you like to remember” and “What would you like to forget” – I wanted to remember my cats’ patience. I wanted to forget waking up and going into the living room to sleep tow two more hours. Because of this play I have a whole lot more memories in each category.
PLAYS FOR THE PLAGUE YEAR By Suzan-Lori Parks, Directed by Niegel Smith
WITH , Edward Astor Chin, Rona Figueroa, Leland Fowler, Danyel Fulton, Greg Keller, Orville Mendoza, Lauren Molina, Joe Osheroff, Danea Osseni, Suzan-Lori Parks, Nathan M. Ramsey, Martín Solá
WITH Suzan-Lori Parks Returns as “The Writer”Complete Cast Includes Returning Members Edward Astor Chin, Leland Fowler, Danyel Fulton, Greg Keller, Orville Mendoza, Lauren Molina, and Martín SoláNew Cast Members Include Rona Figueroa, Joe Osheroff, Danea Osseni, and Nathan M. Ramsey
Scenic and projection design by Peter Nigrini, costume design by Rodrigo Muñoz, lighting design by Ania Washingto; Musical Director 99990 Molina, Musicians:Graham Kozak, Ray Marchica and Suzan-Lori Parks
At the Public Theater through April 30th. Tickets HERE