Review: Suzan-Lori Parks Compiles Her Plays for the Plague Year as a Healing Offering

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and an ensemble of actors theatrically and musically chronicle the first year of the pandemic.

Suzan-Lori Parks (center) and the cast of Plays for the Plague Year at Joe’s Pub.
(© Joan Marcus)

It feels wrong to critique something that was clearly meant as a gift. Suzan-Lori Parks’s Plays for the Plague Year (whose originally intended November 2022 run was curtailed due to the ongoing rampage of its titular plague) gathers New York City’s wounded and weary souls at Joe’s Pub and holds them in a warm embrace that Parks has been aching to confer since March 2020.

It clocks in at a whopping three hours, which I suppose is the result of aggregating 13 months’ worth of daily plays and songs chronicling the height of the pandemic in real time. Not every single day makes the final cut (projection designer Peter Nigrini displays the date attached to each play above the stage), but the amount of content — and rife content at that — shocks the system into remembering just how many horrific events were packed into a year’s time. But don’t fret— Parks draws these memories to the surface not to swim in a sea of tragedy porn, but to proffer a validating: Yes, this really did happen. And we’re all a little scarred.

A good portion of the plays (which are more like short vignettes) follow Parks’s family life: Parks (as herself, “The Writer”) muddling through a television project while shepherding her young son (played by Leland Fowler) through remote school, mothering him through daily tragedies, and nursing her husband (Greg Keller) through long Covid. An assortment of other plays, performed by a multitasking ensemble, are eulogies for the dead: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Herman Cain are a few of the individuals that Parks singles out— which should give you a good sense of the show’s manic mosaic of solemn and satirical tones (Rodrigo Muñoz’s alternatingly understated and exaggerated costumes follow suit).

Plays for the Plague Year is Suzan-Lori Parks at her rawest, with her chimerical fancies untamed and unedited. If you’re looking for the dramaturgical perfection of a Topdog/Underdog, this may not be the version of Parks you’re in the market for. But there is something special about this unpolished presentation (directed and choreographed by Niegel Smith) that Parks describes as her attempt to “bear witness.”

As a collection of in-the-moment reactions to experiences, there is little meta-analysis or even thematic dot-connecting — which can certainly make you feel unmoored as you float through the production’s three hours of loosely joined content. But as you move through the collection of seemingly heavy-handed scenes that are buttoned with sweet family hugs or feature on-the-nose monologues by imagined versions of public figures, you begin to appreciate the unselfconsciousness of the experience Parks has created and feel intimately connected with her witnessing mind.

Watching Parks perform her own music also feels like a rare privilege not to be taken for granted. Like a revival leader without the toxic religious overtones, she sings meditations on everything from anger to love to Blackness in her open-hearted soul-folk-country style (ensemble member Danyel Fulton’s vocal performances are a noteworthy treat as well). In this disjointed world of songs and scenes, the pandemic is a collection of individual moments and experiences that unfold without analysis or interpretation. If you plan to bear witness to Plays for the Plague Year, I advise a similar approach.