As it becomes increasingly impossible to find a seat on the subway, the memories and the trauma of quarantine slip to the bottom of people’s minds. Spending months inside, not knowing if someone in your life was going to die, is now an unpleasant memory we can all suppress ... unless you are Suzan-Lori Parks. Parks’ most recent play, “Plays for the Plague Year,” explores the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and focuses on what we remember and what we’ve chosen to forget.
When streets first emptied and there was no toilet paper in stores because it had all been purchased during that early panic buying stage, Parks sat down to write. Her goal was to write a play a day about the experiences during the pandemic. All her individual works come together to create “Plays for the Plague Year,” which operates as an anthology of our collected sadness and joy from 2020.
In her early years, Parks was interested in writing, but didn’t think about going into theater until 1982, when James Baldwin taught a seminar at her college. Seeing how animated Parks was in her storytelling, he encouraged her to write for the stage. She has since written several screenplays and plays. Her accolades for her 2001 play, “Topdog/Underdog,” made her both the first African-American woman to win a Tony for drama, and the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for theater. Along with her new play Parks also currently teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Along with writing several individual plays, Parks also created a musical score for her new show. She connects with her audience both through her written work, and by performing in portions of “Plays for the Plague Year.”
“Plays for the Plague Year” connects with its audience on a personal level. “That this is the point of Suzan Lori Parks’ piece,” says Lauren Molina, one of the actors in the show. “It is deeply personal to her, but also extremely personal to all of us and relatable.” Molina says that one of her favorite stories in the show is the one Parks wrote about her husband, Paul Oscher, who died of COVID in the spring of 2021. It makes the audience reflect on “how awful it is to have a loved one catch it and die, and just the uncertainty, once again, of wondering who could be next.”
“Truly an Inspiration”
Working with Parks over the past month and a half was a new experience for Molina. “She’s truly an inspiration in every way: she’s smart, and funny, and quirky, and weird, and silly,” says Molina. “[Parks] would offer insight to how things you know, were intended when she wrote them.”
Molina believes that “Plays for the Plague Year” will leave audiences filled with both grief and joy. “This piece has been unlocking memories from the pandemic, and causing me to reflect on my own trauma and grief, and process all of these things,” she says. “We haven’t really processed the grief that we all went through, even if we had a good lockdown experience. I think the takeaway will be realization that we haven’t processed all of this.”
Molina thinks that people have moved on too quickly from the pandemic, and wants the show to be a moment on which people can step back and work through what they’ve been through before they move on.
In trying to create a respectful environment to process the strong emotions the play elicits, the production team behind the show made sure there were always resources available for the cast. “Nigel Smith, the director, has created such a safe space for all of us to really open up and talk about our own experiences,” says Molina. “That’s what makes this show stand out compared to other productions that I’ve done.”
The Public Theater offers actors free empathy training, therapy and open conversation about what everyone is going through. “Recognizing that all of our backgrounds are so different,” says Molina, “and, taking that time to acknowledge it before you even start a creative process together is really something special, and something that I’ve never been a part of.”
Responses from the Audience
Along with the piece about Oscher, one of Molina’s favorite parts of the play is when the cast reads responses from people in the audience. “We pick up these baskets and read responses that have been written by audience members of what they want to forget and what they want to remember from the first year of the pandemic,” she says. “It’s always a surprise and I always get excited to hear what comes up.” Molina also mentions her love for some of the plays that were cut from the end production. “After all, Suzan Lori Parks wrote a play for a year and a half, we could only do so many of them.”
“Plays for the Plague Year” is playing through November 27. Though it may call up many tragedies for audience members, it will also offer a space to express that deep sense of loss we all went through. It is a reminder that even though we are two or three boosters in and eating indoors without masks, the COVID-19 pandemic will always be a part of us.