Posted: January 25, 2007
Updated: March 7, 2007, Suzan-Lori Parks '85 Comes Home to MHC
Suzan-Lori Parks '85, whose newest work, 365 Days/365 Plays, will come to Mount Holyoke in early March, had never heard of Mount Holyoke when she received a mailing from the College during her senior year of high school. "My mom thought Mount Holyoke was a cool school. She knew it was one of the Seven Sisters," Parks said. After requesting more information, Parks received a handwritten letter from Rochelle Calhoun '83, who was then a student at Mount Holyoke. (Calhoun has worked for the College in many capacities, most recently as executive director of the Alumnae Association.) "What a great letter! It said, 'Hey, howya doin'? It's cool up here,' " recalled Parks. "So I came to visit. I fell in love with the trees. I thought, 'It's pretty here. I'd like to live here.' I didn't think about the academics or anything like that. Just those trees between Clapp and the library. Later I found out about the great people, Mountain Day, M & Cs, and all that great stuff."
The genesis of 365 Days/365 Plays was not unlike Parks's decision to come to Mount Holyoke. One day she got the idea to write a play every day for a year, and so she did it. Starting that same day, November 13, 2002, for 365 consecutive days, no matter where she was or what else she did, she wrote a play. While the plays vary widely in format and theme, Parks said, "I had a sense that they made up a whole. I was pleased that I did it. When I finished the last one, I knew I could put the pen down and do something else. You know the Zen saying, 'Chop wood, carry water'?" (a reference to the Zen saying, "Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water").
Parks compares the effort of writing the 365 plays to long-distance running. "Sure I got tired, all the time, like those women from Kenya running the marathon. But they keep running. That's what people have to remember about writers. Writers keep at it when other people sit around and make excuses. I'm a disciplined professional. I keep going. I know those Kenyans get tired!"
The plays are short, ranging from three lines to three pages. Some, such as New York Taxi, involve brief but intense encounters between two characters. Others return to a repeated storyline, such as a man returning home from war. The final three are simply a series of stage directions ("A very slow light cue, as slow as possible, from deep black to white-hot zoom. The light reveals the stage, which is completely blank….").
365 Days/365 Plays has become the largest theatre collaboration in United States history. It has involved more than 600 theatre companies, colleges, universities, and other organizations, including Mount Holyoke and UMass. Anyone can perform the plays. Her only requirements are that they be free and open to the public, and that they be done in the correct order. "Some theatre can exclude," she said. "But this is totally open. Anybody who wants to play can play. We call it 'radical inclusion.' " A 365 network has recently opened in the UK, and she has been talking with people about opening productions in Latin America. "You can come on board anytime," she said.
Describing the plays as "a project to encourage enthusiasm," Parks emphasized that she doe not mean enthusiasm about anything in particular, but rather, enthusiasm as "positive life spirit." For example, at a Watts Village Theater Company production that took place at Watts Tower in Los Angeles, the director asked how many people in the audience had been to Watts before. Only a few people raised their hands. "Part of their mission in doing 365 was getting people to Watts," Parks said. "People step up to the opportunity. It's very exciting, what Barbara Metzgar (Parks's coproducer) and I had hoped for. It's cool and fun. Even if it doesn't get people interested in theatre, if it gets people to go to Watts, or just cross the street and take a look, or smile, or say, 'Gee, wow,' it doesn't matter. It's about what that enthusiasm will build into."
365 Days/365 Plays is the most recent work in what has already been a prolific career. In 2002, Parks became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play Top Dog/Underdog. She has written 12 other plays, including Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, which won a 1990 Obie for the Best New American Play, 1996 Obie Award winner Venus, and Pulitzer Prize finalist In the Blood. She has also written novels and screenplays and has taught writing at several universities including the Yale School of Drama. She runs the Dramatic Writing Program at Cal Arts in Los Angeles and is working on Ray Charles Live!, the book for the Ray Charles musical.
Parks, who began at Mount Holyoke as a chemistry major but later switched to English and German literature, got her start in playwriting in a creative writing course with the late writer James Baldwin at Hampshire College. "What a wonderful opportunity," she recalled. One day in class, after listening to her read her fiction aloud, Baldwin asked her whether she had ever considered writing plays. She took his suggestion to heart and set her sights on being a playwright.
In her graduation address to the Mount Holyoke class of 2001, Parks talked about this pivotal moment with Baldwin. "That was some good advice," she said, "But it wasn't the best advice I ever got. The BEST advice I ever got was also the WORST advice any one ever gave me." She explained how a "very stern English teacher" in high school had told her not to study English because she didn't have the talent for it. "What a horrible thing to say. What an excellent suggestion because it forced me to think for myself."
Parks will be on campus Sunday, March 4, at 7 pm for "An Evening with Suzan-Lori Parks" in the Rooke Theatre. The Mount Holyoke College Department of Theatre Arts and the UMass New World Theater will present Weeks 15 and 16 of Suzan-Lori Park's 365 Days/365 Plays, February 22-24 and March 2-4 at Mount Holyoke's Rooke Theatre. All events are free and open to the public but reservations (413-538-2406) are strongly advised.