'Plays for the Plague Year' review — a compassionate chronicle of the pandemic

Read our four-star review of Plays for the Plague Year, the theatrical concert by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks at The Public Theater through April 30.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The band came on stage first, setting up their instruments amid a chair and bookshelf and coffee table that turned the Joe's Pub stage into a cozy living room. They warmed up. They chatted with each other. They waved at their friends in the audience. At Suzan-Lori Parks's Plays for the Plague Year, a theatrical concert chronicling the early days of the pandemic, these ordinary actions were celebrations of community.

Pulitzer Prize winner Parks assembled this three-hour production from a year-plus's worth of short plays she wrote, one per day, from March 13, 2020 to April 13, 2021. In 2023, that seminal year simultaneously feels long ago and recent enough that we might not want to relive it.

Plays for the Plague Year has moments that elicit both responses. The phrase "Keep your six," shouted repeatedly by a frazzled TV producer in an early scene, now feels like a blast from a distant past. And scenes portraying Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor still feel like they could have been in yesterday's news — as similar stories were.

But Parks isn't here to make us relive traumatic times for their own sake. The pandemic's impact, of course, lingers — ironically, a spate of Covid cases in the company derailed this show's premiere run this past fall. So it's no surprise that Plays for the Plague Year is written compassionately, for both its subjects and its audience, wrapping difficult experiences and feelings in earnest dialogue, wry humor, and gorgeous folk music. The language of the mini-plays and songs is simple and stream-of-consciousness, reflective of the fact that we were figuring out what to make of our changed world as we went — and acknowledges that perhaps we still are.

Some of the strongest scenes are her plays "for" various figures who died that year (and one, her former teacher James Baldwin, that died in 1987). She doesn't just animate them; Parks — who also stars in her own show as The Writer — converses with them and lets them express their frustration at having died.

Seven actors play these figures and more, including notable living people as well as Parks's loved ones. The story of her immediate family's daily life threads throughout the show's vignettes, tying them all together as the story of how one person, Parks, perceived and reacted to that year's happenings.

And yet, Plays for the Plague Year is a show about all of us, as evidenced by the casting of each performer as many people. Parks invites us to bear collective witness to her experience and open our minds to others' experience of the events of 2020 — and beyond. Even beyond gathering in person or singing in unison or taking a collective breath, that's the way, the show reminds us, to really be a community.

Plays for the Plague Year is at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater through April 30. Get Plays for the Plague Year tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Suzan-Lori Parks (center with guitar) and the company of Plays for the Plague Year. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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