Plays of the year

Pub date November 21, 2006
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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You may not have noticed, but an unprecedented theatrical experiment was launched nationwide last week. Its San Francisco segment unfolded the night of Nov. 23 before an audience of 80 to 100 people in a modest wood-shingled community center atop Potrero Hill, with the playwright who started it all in attendance.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays project — a national yearlong grassroots theatrical festival premiering a unique and audacious play-a-day cycle by one of the country’s foremost dramatic voices — took off at a benefit performance put on by the Z Space Studio as a group of 11 performers, directed by Lisa Steindler and director-actor Marc Bamuthi Joseph, unveiled the first seven playlets in the cycle.
The pieces (each no longer than 10 minutes) percolate with a mixture of mischievous invention, absurdist humor, pointed irony, and somber reflection on a variety of themes. In the first, for example, the aptly titled Start Here, an African American man gets vague encouragement and direction as he prepares, with some trepidation and confusion, to head out on a path as obscure, ambiguous, and mysterious as the history behind him. (The names of the characters, Arjuna and Krishna, invoke the tale of the Bhagavad Gita and overlay it on this seemingly American allegory.) In another piece, a young woman from a long line of “good-for-nothings” fails miserably to make nothing of herself — rejected by a crowd as inadequately worthless, she is forced to reinvent herself as something instead.
In Veuve Clicquot, which deftly reframes a comic situation into one of pathos and acute ambivalence, a seeming gourmand is in the process of ordering a sumptuous meal until his waiter balks at his pretension, and a chorus of women haunts him with the ethereal voice of his departed victim — whose own last meal, as it turned out, was nothing all that special.
Well acted and smartly blocked on and around a nearly bare stage (with some choice choreography added by six female dancers), the evening’s performances coincided with similar premieres around the country involving a wide range of local theater companies (more than 800 and counting) that have each signed on to produce a week’s worth of Parks’s yearlong cycle (which she composed daily for one full year, beginning in November 2002). Locally, the project is spearheaded by the Z Space Studio, Playwrights Foundation, and Cutting Ball Theater (the last of which recently staged a very fine production of Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World). The Bay Area manifestation of the 365 Days/365 Plays festival (which runs daily to Nov. 12, 2007) will ultimately involve more than 40 companies and 300 theater artists. This week’s shows are by the all-female Shakespeare company Women’s Will.
Parks — the Pulitzer Prize–winning creator of Topdog/Underdog, In the Blood, and The America Play, among other works (including screenplays and a novel) — was in a jocular and expansive mood during the Q&A. She explained her commitment to the idea of writing a play a day for one year as the product of an inclination to entertain any idea that comes into her head — “through the window of opportunity,” she laughed, nodding to the suspended prop window stage left that had featured as the thematic and titular center of one of that evening’s seven playlets.
Plays in the cycle beyond these first seven run a varied and quirky gamut of inspirational matter, with themes of war, family, and spiritual life among the leitmotifs. There are pieces that revisit some of the playwright’s favorite themes (Abe Lincoln comes around again), some that pay homage to people who happened to have passed on during the course of the year (Johnny Cash, for instance), others that take off from real-life encounters (one piece incorporates Parks’s meeting with Brad Pitt, for whom she was developing a screenplay). At the same time, the festival aims to do much more than showcase Parks’s enviable talents. Each company is free to stage the plays as it sees fit, giving the festival a panoramic scope that takes in the diversity of the whole theatrical scene. This kind of coordinated national grassroots effort — something Parks described as an extension of a process of “radical inclusion” — has probably not been seen since the days of the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s.
According to Parks, many of her best ideas for the stage have come from entertaining spontaneous ideas others would prudently dismiss after a gratifying chuckle. (Two African American brothers named Lincoln and Booth? Why not?) In her telling, it was her husband, blues musician Paul Oscher, who first responded affirmatively from the couch to her spontaneous idea to write a play a day for a year. “Yeah?” she asked. “You really think it’s a good idea?” That, apparently, was enough. The rest is theater history. SFBG
365 PLAYS/365 DAYS
Through Nov. 12, 2007
This week: Fri/24–Sun/26
Oakland Public Conservatory of Music
1616 Franklin, Oakl.
Pay what you can, $15–$25 suggested
(510) 420-1813