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.