There are a lot of expectant faces at JoAnna's Soul Cafe on 23rd Avenue and East Cherry Street. They've come to see a five-minute and 39-second play performed by a fledgling company called the Mahogany Project. "How many of you are here for 365 Days/365 Plays?" the emcee asks. The room erupts in applause. "Okay then," she says. "I'll keep this short."
She doesn't, but nobody seems to mind. There are introductions, a spoken-word interlude, an improvised song by Felicia Loud. Then the play, We Start Here, which begins with a man in white clothes and a woman in combat fatigues. She enters, sobbing. He asks why she's crying. "We had no idea it could end up like this," she says. "It didn't end up like this," he corrects her gently. "It is like this. This isn't the end." He is an angel, she is a newly deceased soldier. A couple minutes of dialogue later, he takes her by the hand and leads her into the afterlife. The crowd cheers. Somebody shouts: "We did it!"
365 Days/365 Plays has begun.
The ambitious 365 project was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2001 drama Topdog/Underdog (produced at the Seattle Rep in 2003). For one year, Parks wrote a short play a day. Now 13 cities, including Chicago, New York, L.A., and Seattle, are going to produce them, one day at a time.
The participants are enthusiastic and all over the place. There are the venerable (Intiman), the new (Washington Ensemble Theatre), and the untested (the Mahogany Project). Producers are talking about staging the plays in ice rinks, libraries, and the water tower in Volunteer Park. The Seattle Rep might do Impala, which features a Chevy Impala, in its parking lot. The plays are between three lines and three pages long and must be performed for free. Parks is charging each city a dollar a day to perform her work.
365 Days is structurally intriguing—little artistic bombs that will pop off in unexpected places in cities across America. But, according to local 365 Days organizer (and Seattle Rep producing director) Nick Schwartz-Hall, the project transcends the level of gimmick by being a serious piece of work, one that Parks originally wrote thinking it would be impossible to produce. It is also a parry against the condescending habit theaters have of producing one Token Black Play per season. Hosting a play a day by a great playwright (who happens to be a black woman), performed by all kinds of companies (which happen to be self-consciously black, de facto white, and ethnically mixed) rises above our atavistic habit of racial bean counting.
The sheer volume of work means the quality will vary, but the accumulated weight of 365 tiny plays, synchronized and repeated throughout the country, gives the project a mythic quality. Then there's the work itself, with recurring themes (race, war) and characters (President Lincoln) and Parks's incantatory language. It seems like a discipline, a ritual—a new American legend in the process of being born.
See www.365seattle.com for schedules and venues.