“I am obsessed with resurrecting,” Suzan-Lori Parks explained in a 1996 interview, “with bringing up the dead . . . and hearing their stories as they come into my head.” Parks has often described the characters she creates as independent beings, as voices that relate their stories to her. Rather than writing them into existence, Parks allows the characters to speak themselves into being. Drawing on history, myth, and fantasy, she populates her plays with conventional and unconventional characters whose stories excavate the past in order to expose the truths and misconceptions about African American and American history. “Every play I write is about love and distance. And time,” she explained in 1994. “And from that we can get things like history.” She elaborates further in her essay “Possession,” collected in The America Play and Other Works. “Through each line of text, I’m rewriting the Time Line—creating history where it is and always was but has not yet been divined.”
Language plays a vital role in this creation of history. Using what she calls “rep and rev” (repetition and revision), Parks often employs language as a musical refrain, with characters repeating phrases throughout her plays, the repetition of which adds different shades of meaning. In Topdog/Underdog, Booth rehearses his three-card monte street routine, addressing his imaginary audience: “Watch me close watch me close now: who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-the-red-card?” As the words recur at various points in the play, they take on the quality of a chant, or a chorus that signifies the building tension between the brothers.
The question of identity in Parks’s drama, as self-awareness and the identification of an individual within a group, is of central importance. As characters attempt to identify themselves, they must destroy the false identities and histories that have been attributed to them. In Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, the characters Mona, Chona, and Verona, whose names have been changed to Molly, Charlene, and Veronica, meditate on the apparent mutability of their characters. “Once there was uh me named Mona who wondered what she’d be like if no one was watchin,” Mona/Molly says. The Foundling Father of Parks’s The America Play, whose setting is the Great Pit of History, is obsessed by Abraham Lincoln and decides to reenact his assassination in a traveling show. Like the character of Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog, who earns his living by reenacting Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in a local arcade, the Foundling Father is a captive of history.
Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom
Rather than separating her first major play into traditional acts, Parks creates four separate stories that provide a nonlinear and sometimes surreal look at aspects of the African American experience in her Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.
“Snails,” the first section of the play, looks at a contemporary group of women who possess two names, one they have chosen and another that has been imposed on them. The second section, “Third Kingdom,” re-creates the tragic Middle Passage, through which enslaved Africans journeyed on their way to America, and the details of which are narrated by characters like Kin-Seer, Us-Seer, and Over-Seer. “Open House,” the third section, depicts the life of Aretha Saxon, a black servant/slave in the household of the white Saxon family. Aretha’s departure from the family is occasioned by the removal with pliers of all of her teeth. The play’s final section, “Greeks,” is a modern interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), with Mr. Seargant Smith in the role of Odysseus. Hoping to earn “his Distinction” in the army, Seargant Smith spends most of his life away from his family, who await his return and the honor he...
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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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