About five years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks had kind of a wacky idea: Why not write a play every single day for a year? As she described it to The New Yorker, the moment she had the idea, "I started laughing, which is always a good sign that I'm possessed by an evil demon."
The day she had the thought -- Nov. 13, 2002 she started writing, and a year later, her simple idea spawned a movement that has since possessed theaters across the country. Parks published the fruits of her year-long labor as "365 Days/365 Plays" last November. Even before then, theater companies from New York to Los Angeles were signing on to produce a week's worth of Parks' short, snappy plays at a time. A cooperative network was formed using regional "hub" theaters to coordinate which theater would take each week of the cycle, the result being a sort of cultural relay race. The Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn will run its leg Monday, Oct. 22.
While you might think a week's worth of plays would be a huge commitment for both a theater company and an audience, the resulting show fits the seven plays into less than an hour. As written, each play is just a page or two long; the 365th play in the cycle consists solely of stage directions, no dialogue whatsoever. But don't be fooled by their length. As Billy Christopher Maupin, the Barksdale's program coordinator for the project, says: "Each play holds something completely different. Some are about art, some are about politics or the state of American society some are just very funny."
Indeed, the play for the day I'm writing this piece, titled "The Air Over Omaha," manages to mix sly political satire with telling interpersonal commentary in its scant two pages of dialogue. A woman newly arrived in the United States with her husband, who is kissing the beloved American soil, says, "He doesn't kiss me like that It's like now, in America, he believes in foreplay." (Each day's play is available in its entirety at www.tcg.org/publications/365/playoftheday.cfm.)
Parks is best known for her challenging drama "Topdog/Underdog," which earned rave reviews on Broadway in 2002 and has become a regional favorite. Still, most theatergoers are unfamiliar with the playwright, and attracting more fans to her work was one of Maupin's chief motivations.
"She has a unique voice that I think can reach people in a new way," Maupin says. He snatched up the "365 Days" book as soon as it came out and has been trying to generate interest in the project ever since. It's been difficult for companies to schedule the project, however, since most had already planned their seasons. (The Firehouse Theatre Project slipped in its stint in the cycle this past summer with little fanfare.) With the project wrapping up Nov. 12, Barksdale's Artistic Director Bruce Miller finally decided it was now or never.
Maupin says that theater professionals have been excited to take part in what has been called "possibly the largest art collaboration of any kind." Maupin will share directing duties with two others, Darius T. Epps and Kaye Weinstein Gary. The plays for the week ("Week 50") will be performed along with three "constants" that are included in each production in the cycle. Audiences will benefit from an affordable ticket price admission is officially "pay-what-you-wish" but Maupin believes the real benefit for theatergoers will be their introduction to the work of an exciting new playwright. "She uses very different tools, different from what we have come to expect," he says. "I think people are going to be astounded by what they thought was theater." S
"Week 50" of "365 Days/365 Plays" will be at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn Monday, Oct. 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets are general admission, pay-what-you-wish at the door. There will be a post-show talk-back session. Call 643-2477 for details.