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Dear 'Diaries': Where's the scoop?

October 31, 2002|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is a natural for the camera: wide-eyed, smiling, bright and lively yet down to earth.

Her sense of ease enlivens Oren Jacoby's "Stage on Screen: The Topdog Diaries," a documentary about Parks that focuses on the process of writing and rehearsing her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Topdog/Underdog."

But the film leaves a few questions unanswered and shows us a little too much of the play.

Jacoby and crew apparently didn't show up in Parks' life until the summer of 2000, when they caught up with her at her new digs in Venice. She had just moved to L.A. to take a teaching job at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. However, she recalls how she wrote "Topdog" quickly in 1999 while she was "having a difficult time at a regional theater." No juicy details follow.

We see shots of Parks meditating on her Venice lawn and bicycling through the streets, as well as her first day on the job at CalArts, addressing her class of only two students.

The camera catches a Parks telephone conversation with New York Public Theater artistic director George C. Wolfe, discussing who will direct her play, before Wolfe decided to do it. The film then follows Parks on a trip to New Orleans with her fiance, Paul Oscher, a blues musician who is credited with the music for the documentary. We see how Oscher taught her about three-card monte, which is an important ingredient in the play's narrative, and we later glimpse their wedding day.

The bulk of the film was shot in New York, where Jacoby was allowed into rehearsals at the Public. The play opened there in the summer of 2001 and moved to Broadway last spring. But all of the excerpts from the play and rehearsals are of the Public production. All we get from Broadway are snippets of the celebrities attending the opening. There is no discussion of how the play did or didn't change with the substitution of Mos Def in the Broadway cast for the original production's Don Cheadle.

Jacoby found some interesting archival material about the younger Parks and a clip from a 1991 appearance she made on PBS, but there isn't much here about the evolution of her themes and style.

Considering that the play has been seen only in New York, it's a mistake to show a national audience so much of it, especially key events near the end of the play. If you don't want to know too much before you see it, tune out before the show is over.


'Stage on Screen: The Topdog Diaries'

"The Topdog Diaries" airs tonight at 10 on KCET.

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