Suzan-Lori Parks writes fast, and she writes a lot. Case in point: In 2002, she decided that she would write one play a day for a year. The finished product, 365 Days/365 Plays, was staged at a jaw-dropping 700-plus venues in 2006. This past winter and spring, Parks turned back to that familiar process to address a more immediate concern: the election of Donald Trump as president.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Parks admitted recently. So she wrote one play, every day, for Trump’s first 100 days in office (give or take). The finished product, 100 Plays for the First Hundred Days, has no planned productions slated as yet, but it will be published by TCG Books next year (exclusive selected excerpts are published at the end of this story).
We spoke recently in the lobby of Signature Theatre in New York City, after a talkback for her plays Fucking A and In the Blood, then in repertory in two different venues at the theatre complex. She was initially hesitant to talk politics, even if they were the pretext for her 100 Plays. But having a conversation with Parks can be like driving down a country road, full of unpredictable twists and turns, and ending at a destination neither anticipated.
Indeed, this didn’t even begin as an on-the-record interview. But as our conversation turned to the subject of how Trump is often held up as a figurehead for all that is wrong with America today, I asked her: “Can I record this?”
She paused and responded, “Sure.” And off we went.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: That’s what I’m saying, that we have work to do. We can point the finger at fill-in-the-blank forever, but if we don’t do the work, we’ll continue to be lost. And that’s where the work needs to happen. We can point the finger at him, it is not that interesting.
Right, Trump is not the cause of all of our problems; he only brought them up to the surface.
You know Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun, right? I have her book. She tells this wonderful story about how she’s in a meditation community, and there’s this horrible guy in the community. Everybody hates him, like, oh my God, when’s he gonna leave? And finally he gets into an argument with somebody and he leaves in a huff. And the head of the meditation community runs after him and brings him back. And all the other monks are like, “Why the fuck did you bring that guy back—we were all waiting for him to leave. We hate him so much!” And the meditation leader says, “Actually I pay him to stay here, because he helps you guys wake up to your own shit.” He’s a teacher, because he wakes us up to our own shit. So, I dunno, analogy…I read that in the cab coming up here. You see what I mean? Until we get woke to our own shit…
Is that what the 100 Plays are about? About waking up?
I think it’s just staying woke. I didn’t know what else to do. So I do what I always do, I wrote something. To bear witness. You can put your head in the sand. You can rant and rail and yell and scream. And I did a lot of other things—protest, march, all kinds of things. But I also wanted to write something.
I didn’t know what it was gonna be like until I had to type them up and corrected them and read them through. And it was very—I can’t explain it, but it was like reading a tragedy, and the cathartic effect that that has, and the healing effect that offers. It’s really interesting, you read this tragedy and somehow feel better having experienced it through literature.
And it was hard. It was maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. And I’ve written two full-length new plays this year: one’s White Noise, one’s Silent Times. And I perform with my band and have written a lot of songs. I’ve done tons of new stuff this year, but this was so hard to write. It was so hard to wake up every morning and look at the news, No. 1, and say, I have to digest it for this process—for this witnessing process. It’s hard. But that’s what we do all the time as artists. What are you doing? Now that you’re woke, what are you doing?
Trying to find a way to speak to people who disagree with me.
What about trying to find a way to speak to people who agree with you? ’Cause that’s where the problem is. How’s the Democratic Party doing these days? Have you seen them get together and have a wonderful consensus? We don’t all have to agree on everything, but has there been a great coming together? I’m interested in talking with people who agree with me about how we’re gonna go forward, who I think agree with me because underneath the surface of that agreement is not agreement. The microaggressions, what is that?
I know we’re talking about the 100 Plays for the First Hundred Days that I wrote, but that’s not interesting to me. It’s more like, why are these plays [Fucking A and In the Blood] suddenly relevant now? I’m like, fuck, why didn’t you wake up 20 years ago? And that’s interesting to me. I mean, not a word has changed, plotwise, structurally, they’re the same plays, they’re the same story.
Why do you think those plays are relevant to people now in a way they weren’t 20 years ago, when you first wrote them?
Because I think the idiot in the room is encouraging us to have these conversations. The idiot in the room helped us wake up, unfortunately. Obama didn’t wake enough of us up, wonderful person though he is. It took the idiot in the room. What do they say? Sometimes God will tap you with a feather and if the feather doesn’t work, he or she will hit you with a baseball bat.
So now we have a responsibility to the greater good, the angels of our better nature, and recognize the bullshit that we have inside us. Not to judge but to recognize that we’re part of the problem. We need to identify that, identify ways that we’re part of the problem, and identify the ways that we’re a part of the solution and go forward accordingly. And hope that the other side comes around. But don’t bank on that. I’m banking on us! I’m banking on progressives.
So back to 100 Plays. Why were they so hard to write?
It was a hard time. And I had to do it on the day, and it had to be about the news. With 365, it could be about anything—I could overhear conversations, I could be excited by the color blue, it could be about anything! But sometimes—like, there’s a play for Chuck Berry, who died this year. And the president makes an appearance, saying, “Hey, wait a minute, it’s not about me!”
It feels like a reprieve when the news isn’t about Trump.
Exactly. But it just was about being present. I had to show up. That’s what we can do: We show up for each other, in kind and loving ways. We show up for ourselves, in kind and loving ways, you know? And you don’t need to read the news. I don’t read the news. You don’t have to. What does it mean to be present? It doesn’t mean, here I am on my phone reading the news!
See your friends. Hold the door for somebody. You see a mom with a stroller, say “thank you,” say “please.” Say “thank you” to your cab driver. Your yoga teacher gives you an adjustment, say “thank you.” The barista at Starbucks or wherever you go, “How are you doing today?” Give some love to people! Be present. And to yourself too—take care of yourself, go the gym, start a meditation practice. With the idiot in the room, let us take advantage of his presence.
And the plays can be about anything, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be the finger-wagging kind of thing. We’ve got more going on than that. Just like every play by a black person doesn’t have to be about racism, every play that is written during these times doesn’t have to be about, “Oh, here’s the message!” That’s some boring-ass shit, in my opinion. It can be about anything you want.
Is It Over Yet?
A very bright room. SOMEONE sits, eyes closed tightly. Perhaps fingers in their ears too. SOMEONE ELSE joins them.
SOMEONE ELSE: It’s Inauguration Day.
SOMEONE: I know that.
SOMEONE ELSE: I voted for Her.
SOMEONE: Me too.
SOMEONE ELSE: She didn’t win.
SOMEONE: Are you’re rubbing it in.
SOMEONE ELSE: Nope. Just. Stating a fact.
SOMEONE: That’s refreshing these days. A fact. A fact that’s true.
SOMEONE ELSE: We totally blew it. Giving new meaning to “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”
SOMEONE: That’s funny.
SOMEONE ELSE: You can totally hear me.
SOMEONE ELSE: Then why are you plugging your ears.
SOMEONE: I’ll unplug them.
SOMEONE ELSE: And open your eyes.
SOMEONE: Nope. Can’t bear to look. Can’t bear to watch.
SOMEONE ELSE: Ok.
SOMEONE: Is it over yet?
SOMEONE ELSE: Nope.
SOMEONE: Are we “great again” yet?
SOMEONE ELSE: Nope.
SOMEONE: I want to cry.
SOMEONE ELSE: Let’s cry together.
(They cry together. Ugly tears.)
SOMEONE ELSE: Better? Even a little?
SOMEONE: Nope. I’m angry. Very.
SOMEONE ELSE: Me too.
(They yell and scream and gnash their teeth. Very real.)
SOMEONE ELSE: Better?
SOMEONE: Not really.
SOMEONE: Is it over yet?
SOMEONE ELSE: It’s Inauguration Day. 5 a.m. They’re—they’re just getting started.
SOMEONE ELSE: Just a question: Are you gonna keep your eyes shut for the next
SOMEONE: I’m planning on it.
Eerie ’Cause I Wanna
X: Now I’m worried.
Y: Because he’s threatening to send troops to Mexico to help them deal with their “bad hombres”?
Y: Because he’s alienating Japan, Germany, and Australia?
X: No. How do you alienate Australia?
Y: What’s got you worried?
X: I’m realizing that I have a gap in my armor. I’m recognizing my own Achilles heel. He had that Listening Breakfast meeting with those Black folks.
Y: They’re Uncle Toms every single one of them, and they’re assholes.
X: Still they’re black.
Y: Yr point?
X: I felt glad. I felt, well at least he’s meeting with them. At least he’s talking with us.
X: That’s why I’m worried. Cause I don’t like him. I don’t respect him, I feel he is a great shame and a disservice but—I want to like him. That’s what I feel. My shortcoming. My Achilles heel. I want to like our president. And I’m scared because I’m weak like that.
Y: Hold me.
JOE: How do you like this place?
JANET: It’s super fancy.
JOE: Happy almost Valentine’s Day.
JANET: Can we afford this? The entrees are so pricey.
JOE: I won dinner for two, as in you and me, at the raffle in the office—the holiday party. Surprise.
JANET: You’re the best.
JOE: It’s a little weird now ’cause—
JANET: ’Cause the 45th owns it—
JANET: We are going to enjoy ourselves.
JANET: Hon, isn’t that him? The 45th?
JANET: Right there, like at that center table next to that Japanese guy?
JOE: What are they doing eating here?
JANET: Well, I guess he can eat anywhere.
WAITER: He’s having a Top Secret meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister.
JOE: Out in the open? A Top Secret meeting out in the open?
WAITER: The 45th promised to shake things up.
JANET: On my phone. CNN. Says Korea just test fired some missiles or something.
JOE: And look—the 45th’s phone is ringing and everybody around him is scrambling.
JANET: I’m going to take his picture.
JOE: I recorded the substance of their meeting. I recorded their voices.
JANET: Because you’re a spy.
JANET: For Korea?
JANET: Shit, Joe.
Red State, Blue State, Deep State
REDNECK: A redneck is often from a red state and we’re like conservatives.
BLUENECK: Or racists.
REDNECK: Not always but sometimes. Yep.
BLUENECK: A Blueneck is from a blue state. And we are progressives.
REDNECK: Or liberal losers?
BLUENECK: Or liberals. But not exactly losers.
REDNECK: I’m packing. A gun.
BLUENECK: Thank you for the information.
DEEPNECK: A Deep Neck is from a deep state.
DEEPNECK: Deep States are those of us who are enmeshed deep in the government regardless of who is elected. We’re the CIA, FBI, NSI, the Spooks. The Spies. We run the shit. And make no mistake. We are in control.
REDNECK: I’m packing. A gun.
(DEEPNECK snaps his fingers and two hooded folks come in and kill REDNECK.)
BLUENECK: So, you’re on my side?
DEEPNECK: Not exactly.
A Man Taking His Kids to School Is Arrested by ICE
MAN: I’m just walking my kids to school.
ICE AGENTS: What are you doing?!
MAN: Walking my kids to school.
KIDS: This is our dad.
This is our school.
We are all walking there.
BOY KID: I just farted
ICE-AGENTS: Yr under arrest! Come with us!
Yr an undocumented person!
(They haul the MAN away.)
(His KIDS burst into tears.)
This really happened today.
JD: I’m from the Justice Department.
JACK: Great! The 45th alleges that Obama wiretapped him.
JILL: So either it’s true or the 45th has indicated that he’s being investigated, that he’s the subject of an investigation.
JACK: Is the 45th being investigated?
SEAN SPICER: I’m Sean Spicer. And, nope, the 45th isn’t being investigated.
JILL: Is the 45th being investigated?
JD: Uh—no comment.
JILL: No comment?!
SPICER: This isn’t much of a play.
JILL: He isn’t much of a president.
He Calls Losses Wins
JACK: Studies show that repeating a lie can make it seem more credible.
NEWS ANCHORS, CONSERVATIVE AND PROGRESSIVE ALIKE: Gush, gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush.
JACK: What’s the name of today’s play?
JILL: Today’s play is called GUSH.
NEWS ANCHORS: gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush gush.
JACK: What’s the subject of the play?
JILL: How shit rises. How mediocre behavior and lame efforts are rewarded. How fairly intelligent folks gush over fair-to-middlin’ shit.
NEWS ANCHORS: gush gush gush gush gush.
JACK: The 45th bombed Syria.
JILL: And now everybody’s gushing over him.
JACK: Got it.
NEWS ANCHORS: gush gush gush gush gush
(This action and these words will unfortunately continue for a long time.)
Yikes, but that’s the way it is.
Hate Leads to Depression
JACK: I’m exhausted.
JILL: Me too.
JACK: At least we are in this together.
JILL: Are we?
JACK: Pretty much.
JILL: If the shit hits the fan will you split?
JILL: I want to weep but I can’t. I feel like I am saving my tears for something. I don’t know what. The death of something closer to home, maybe. Some good news, news so good and touching that it will make me cry. Or I could cry now. Cry now and just get it over with. Or I could wait. I want to be able to fully cry when the really sad moment comes. And I don’t know when that will be. Soon, I’ll bet. And then all the tears, those of sadness and joy and anger will rush out of my body and flood the world and they will say it was all because of climate change, or it wasn’t.
What Will You Do When It’s Over?
JACK: What will you do when it’s over?
JILL: Will you look back and think of all the things you could’ve fixed?
JACK: Or will you just
Keep on keeping on
With your eyes shut.
JILL: Are we making a song out of this?
JILL: The first 100 days will be over soon. What will you do?
JACK: Stop appearing in these plays for one.
JILL: What else? Will you go on a news fast forever? That’s what I’ll do. I’ll never watch the news again.
JACK: I’m praying that aliens come and abduct me.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!