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365 Days/365 Plays

MIT Dramashop

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks

Kresge Auditorium

Oct. 1–7, 2007

When I first heard about 365 days/365 plays, Suzan-Lori Parks’ project to spend a year writing one play a day, I remember thinking it was a little, um, ambitious. But I also remember reading her play, Topdog/Underdog, which brought fresh ideas on racial identity, history’s everyday presence, masculinity as a weapon, and masculinity as a weakness. I suppose few people would be better equipped than Parks for such an undertaking.

Parks wrote the plays from November 2002 to November 2003. Appropriately, the plays are being performed from November 2006 to November 2007 in a nationwide “grassroots premiere” that the production’s Web site (365days365plays.com) refers to as the “365 International Festival.” In the festival, “plays can be produced in traditional theater spaces or site-specific locations, opera halls or ice rinks.”

From Oct. 1–7 in Little Kresge, MIT Dramashop performed seven of the plays as well of as one of the “Constants,” which “exist outside of the 365 play cycle.” I saw a compilation performance on Oct. 5 in which all of the week’s plays were performed in a manner that was, in almost every sense, unconventional.

On the publisher’s Web site (tcg.org) is a quote from Parks describing 365 as “about being present and being committed to the artistic process every day.” It’s an idea that resonated throughout the performances. The plays disregarded any concern for plot and characters because, after all, that wasn’t the point. It was a night of images and ideas, a running log of an artist’s thoughts, obsessions, and considerations. The plays were presented continuously, without indication of when one began and one ended. At one point, after a brief conversation between two characters, one tells the other that the exchange can be “[her] play for the day.” The moment offered possible insight into Parks’ process when she herself was writing the plays; it suggested a direct and continuous flow between life and art.

In what may have been an act of inspiration or necessity, the Dramashop decided to seat the audience on the stage itself. This arrangement, which resulted in the close proximity of the audience and the actors, was a simple and effective way to more fully immerse the audience. Our heightened involvement with the performance prompted an examination of the separation between audience and performers, observers and art. In one of the plays, the actors sat in the back of the auditorium, leaving the audience on the stage as they recited their lines. This performance was a clever reversal and an indication of the unabashed confrontation of ideas that the plays represent.

The plays deal abstractly with art, relationships, race, and purpose. Sometimes the characters are artists, sometimes they are prisoners, and sometimes it is hard to tell between the two. Nothing is ever stated explicitly but thoughts constantly swirl and crackle through the plays.

Part of the appeal of the “grassroots premiere” is that the actors can, obviously, be anyone. The meditations that exist in the plays belong to all of us. It seemed appropriate that the performances from the actors were largely informal and communal, lacking much individualistic flourish. It wasn’t the most polished performance, but that was hardly a concern. The Dramashop’s perfomance was right at home in Parks’ tremendous mess of ideas, big and small, that exist with us every day.