The America Play
at the Hasty Pudding Theatre
through April 10
History is at the heart of The America Play, currently at the Hasty Pudding Theatre as part of the American Repertory theatre's NewStages series. Suzan-Lori Parks' intriguing new work considers the mythic legacy of Lincoln for Blacks. Lincoln's emancipation allowed the previously enslaved to participate actively, for the first time, in fashioning the national story, the life of the nation, Lincoln thus becomes the founding father of a truly free and democratic America: moving the founding of America to the advent of emancipation is the originary point for this play about "reconstructed historicities."
When the play opens, the identity of the founding father is assumed by a "foundling father," an Black man who plays Lincoln as sideshow entertainment. The Foundling Father, calling himself the lesser known, plays The Greater Man, the president Abraham Lincoln.
The Lesser known takes pains to be faithful to the common images of the presidents, for he tells us, "if you deviate too much, they won't get their pleasure." The Lesser Known boasts that he played Lincoln so well that people "pronounced the two men in virtual kinship."
Unusually structured Parks' play opens with a short half-hour "performance" by the Foundling Father of Abraham Lincoln, with various metatheatrical moments during which the Foundling Father slips out of his impersonation of Lincoln to tell us directly about the various beards and shoes and costumes he alternates between. This "performance" of Lincoln is both humorous and moving. The Foundling Father says confessionally, "some inaccuracies are good for business. The stovepipe hat was never really worn indoors, but people don't want their Lincoln hatless." The register changes completely when he plays Mary Todd: her first word after her husband's death, "Emergency, Oh, Emergency, please put the Great Man in the ground" resonate chillingly throughout the play.
In the second half of the play, both the Great Man and the Lesser known man are in the ground. Both have died, but it is the Lesser Known man whose death is foregrounded now. The Foundling Father's wife Lucy, and his son, Brazil, spend their time digging in the hole that the deceased husband had begun, intending to replicate the amusement park, The Great Hole of History. Brazil wants to know all about his father, and Lucy tells him about his father's great fascination with Lincoln especially his assassination. Lucy recounts sadly how the "Lesser Man forgets who he is and just crumbles the Greater Man continues on." Myth consumes actual individual alive, and Lucy warns her son against a similar fate, always remonstrating," Keep it to scale."
The A.R.T. has assembled a stunning cast for their production of The America Play, which follows on the heels of the original acclaimed production by the Yale Repertory Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival earlier this year. Terry Alexander gives a magnetic performance both as the Foundling Father and as the Foundling Father impersonating Abraham Lincoln. Kim Brockington gives us an emotionally complex Lucy, who speaks simultaneously with sarcasm, love and a quiet, reverent wonder. Royal Miller plays the son Brazil with both energy and style; he explores the broad reaches of expressive range of body, face, and voice.
Set designer Allison Koturbash has given the stage a spare, sleek look, with our attention concentrated on a raised platform that effectively tips the actors towards us, gestures towards their interaction with us, their staging of a show. The original music composed by the director Marcus Stern, enhances the striking mood changes suggested by the language to the play. The music itself enacts the idea of echoing discussed in the play, the idea of the resounding of words from sources beyond us in history.
The America Play, ultimately, succeeds in not only confronting history, but in doing it in a manner that feels historic: Parks is imaginative and wise in this play, and for a very young playwright, she demonstrates an amazing self-assurance in playing with language and genre. The America Play secures Park a place in the literary firmament of her generation.
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Once upon a time there was a theme park called the Great Hole of History. It was a popular spot for honeymooners who, in search of "post-nuptial excitement," would visit this hole and watch the daily historical parades. One of these visitors was a man who has now come to call himself The Foundling Father. He was a digger by trade a grave digger and he was struck by the sizOnce upon a time there was a theme park called the Great Hole of History. It was a popular spot for honeymooners who, in search of "post-nuptial excitement," would visit this hole and watch the daily historical parades. One of these visitors was a man who has now come to call himself The Foundling Father. He was a digger by trade a grave digger and he was struck by the size of the Hole and the pageantry of the place. He returns home with his wife, Lucy, a woman who keeps secrets for the dead, and together they start a mourning business. Unfortunately, our hero can't get the Great Hole pageantry out of his head; the echoes of history speak to him and call him to greatness. At rise we meet this Foundling Father. He has left his wife and child and gone out west to dig a huge replica of the Great Hole of History. In the hole sits our hero. He is dressed like Abraham Lincoln, complete with beard, wart, frock coat and stove pipe hat. He tells us the story of his own life (in the third person) and tells us that he has become a very successful Abraham Lincoln impersonator! He's so successful that people actually pay a penny to re-enact Lincoln's assassination, using our impostor-hero and a phony gun. Eventually the Father dies, and the second act sees his wife Lucy and thrity-five-year-old son, Brazil, a professional weeper, visit the hole to dig for his Father's remains. Listening to the past through her deaf-horn, Lucy hears echoes of gunshots and lurid stage-shows. When they dig up the Foundling Father's body (he's alive) they decide they have to lay him to rest for good. In the play's last image, his son is trying to climb a ladder out of the Hole of History while the Foundling Father sitsstarkly on his own coffin, refusing burial....more
Hardcover, 48 pages
Published March 28th 1995 by Dramatists Play Service (first published 1995)