In 2002, acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) decided to write a play every day for a year. That sounds ambitious — and it is — but bear in mind that these are extremely short plays, averaging just a couple of minutes long.
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The result, 365 Days/365 Plays, has been widely staged in various configurations. Full Circle Theater Company has now selected 46 of those plays to present as “a 2017 remix” at Penumbra Theatre.
Full Circle is a new company led by married couple Rick Shiomi (Mu Performing Arts artistic director emeritus) and Martha B. Johnson (a recently retired member of the theater faculty at Augsburg College). The organization plans to focus on themes of diversity and social justice, and 365 Plays certainly gives them a running start at it.
Many of the plays selected address issues of race and power, but with such short running times they make their points quickly: a simple scenario, a few lines of dialogue, a facial expression. One play, I Can’t Help the Mood I’m In, But Right Now I’m Thinking That the Narcissism of White America Knows No Bounds, almost gets the job done with its title alone.
An exercise like this challenges both audience and actors, and the Full Circle team have recruited 11 flexible and energetic performers, with five different directors leading various plays. (James A. Williams was in the cast for the show’s first weekend, with Daniel Coleman stepping in for the remainder of the run.)
Though a brief introduction, newly written by the Full Circle company, and other touches set this production in the Trump era, the plays are still redolent of the tumultuous first term of George W. Bush. Presidents appear often, never coming off all that well, as do armed soldiers. In The Presidential Race, Circa 1972, a speaker (Ashawnti Sakina Ford) muses, “When I was a kid, I thought the presidential race was like a race in the Olympics — so I couldn’t understand why there weren’t any black presidents.”
Inevitably, the plays also comment on theater itself. In one of the most devastating, Beginning, Middle, End, an artist (Shana Eisenberg) representing traditional narrative form seems to admire an unconventional “Fresh One” (Ford) — then throws her under the bus.
Dan Keyser’s set incorporates a door with curtains underneath a raised platform that becomes everything from a fishing dock to a perch for a dove (Elizabeth Cates, somberly beatific in The Red Blanket and The Art of Peace). Props are perforce kept simple, but nonetheless, with 46 different scenarios to enact in rapid-fire succession, stage managers Quinci Bachman and Malick Ceesay might be the unseen VIPs of this production.
In all, this selection of short plays proves an engaging and instructive encounter with one of this century’s essential dramatists. The Full Circle company give full voice to Parks’ mordant wit, in plays like Window of Opportunity. When a man comes running up to find the window suddenly closed, the look on actor Ricardo Beaird’s face says it all. Giving the stony guards a deadpan gaze, he just says, “Chuh.”