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The instability of meaning in Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play.
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"Theatre," Suzan-Lori Parks explains, "is the place which best allows me to figure out how the world works. What's going on here" ("Possession" 4). Considering three domains--literary tradition, the increasing recognition of the African American literary contribution, and the entry of this literature into the "canon"-- she concludes that the (white) "history of Literature" and, consequently, the (white) "history of History" are in question ("Possession" 4). She defines her plays as literary mediations, as rewritings or makings of the fairly unrecorded and partly forgotten African American history.
... one of my tasks as playwright is to--through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life--locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.
The bones tell us what was, is, will be; and because their song is a play--something that through a production actually happens--I'm working theatre like an incubator to create "new" historical events. I'm remembering and staging historical events which, through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history. ("Possession" 4, original emphasis)
The fact that Parks focuses on the staging of new and alternative interpretations of historical situations emphasizes her awareness of the subjectivity and bias of traditionally white historiography. By reworking events that have only received a thorough documentation from the white perspective, she not only calls into question the validity of this traditional historiography, but also destabilizes and deconstructs the content of this documentation. By claiming that the staging of an historical event makes it "actually happen," she thus creates a way to challenge our perception of reality and history. In accordance to postmodernism's claim that history equals our narrative of past events, she seems to suggest that reality is based on subjective representation and that an objective version of reality, including historical reality, can only be achieved by a multiplicity of perspectives. (2) Thus, by offering a re-reading of history, she automatically redefines our, both black and white, ideas of the world, filli ng them with new signification. In The America Play, Parks does this by staging a black Abraham Lincoln look-alike who disturbs and challenges the white-defined Lincoln myth that plays an essential part in American history and modern American identity construction. (3)
Parks's writing is influenced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s work on the African American literary tradition. His seminal study, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, examines the relation of the black vernacular tradition to the African American literary tradition in the presence and under the influence of white language and writing. His thoughts regarding the concept of signification are central to one possible understanding of Parks's approach to history, literature, and reality in her drama. Originally defined by Ferdinand de Saussure as the relation of signifier (concept) and signified (meaning), signification, in Gates's opinion, is more complex than meets the (white) eye; Signification in the black vernacular differs from signification in white English. This results from the fact that one signifier can be made to carry more than one meaning as is the case when a speaker of the black vernacular consciously empties the white signifier of its original white signified, substitut ing it with a different signified that expresses the black experience. Gates emphasizes that the power of this strategy lies in its critique of the relation signifier/signified at the denotative level. The nature of white meaning itself is at stake. The critique of the sign thus challenges the meaning of meaning. Gates highlights the active role of the language user in the process of Signification:
By an act of will, some historically nameless community of remarkably self-conscious speakers of English defined their ontological status as one of profound difference vis-a-vis the rest of society. What's more, they undertook this act of self-definition, implicit in a (re)naming ritual, within the process of signification that the English language had inscribed for itself. (47)
This African American Signification, namely the (re)doubling of the original(ly white) meaning that a term conveys, is a form of semantic appropriation which Gates also calls Signifyin(g). The double-voiced word retains its orientation while a new semantic orientation is inserted into the word. Thus, the arbitrary nature of the sign is foregrounded as the signifier is intentionally disrupted by the displacement of the signified (Gates 47-51). This process emphasizes the variation that is possible on the level of meaning, i.e. content.
Furthermore, Gates also describes Signifyin(g) as "black double-voicedness" that "always entails formal revision and an intertextual relation" (51). Comparing black language use to jazz performances, he concludes that Signifyin(g) is a mode of formal revision that is used in these two domains. The repetition of a form accompanied by its inversion through a process of variation is a central element of jazz. This method is then used in the black literary tradition to parody the original (white) structure by dissemblance (Gates 52, 60-64).
Parks describes the concept behind her work as "Rep & Rev" ("Style" 9), or repetition and revision, the elements that Gates also highlights as integral to jazz. Like a jazz composer and performer playing riffs, Parks likes to use a certain phrase or element again and again, each time slightly revised. Her characters refigure their words and actions and hence show that they are experiencing their situation anew while narrating past events. They are Signifyin(g). Parks comments on the importance of creating new meaning by challenging traditional forms, a process that she defines as organic and natural ("Alien Nation" 26). Formal repetitions and revisions also include alteration and variation on the semantic level. This is where "Rep & Rev" of form and content meet. (4)
With regard to Suzan-Lori Parks's dramatic writing, the question arises as to how Signifyin(g) and "Rep & Rev" work in the domain of theater. Reflecting on the relationship between language and theater, Parks reveals her consciousness of the fact that her dramatic use of language is always mediated. The staging of language which comes from the written word, which itself reflects the world, is always a two-step representation of language. Nonetheless, taking into account the traditional exclusion of African Americans from forms of discourse such as literature and historiography, she emphasizes the need for a discursive representation of African Americans. Thus, as has been widely commented on, her main approach to dramatic language is to employ the black vernacular and Signifyin(g) as authentically as possible so that black speech on stage comes across as a representation of African Americans from the inside. Alice Rayner and Harry J. Elam, Jr. assert that Parks "uses culturally specific language that celebrat es the elasticity, power, and poetry of black dialect in a formalized and original structure--one which offers repetition but does not repeat" (449). (5) Drawing on Gates, Parks voices her awareness of this complexity:
... how do I adequately represent not merely the speech patterns of a people oppressed by language (which is the simple question) but the patterns of a people whose language use is so complex and varied and ephemeral that its daily use not only Signifies on the non-vernacular language forms, but on the construct of writing as well. If language is a construct and writing is a construct and Signifyin(g) on the double construct is the daily use, then I have chosen to Signify on the Signifyin(g). (Solomon 75-76)
In the margins of her essay "Elements of Style," she explains, "Rep & Rev are key in examining something larger than one moment. Rep & Rev create space for metaphor..." ("Style" 9). Her aim is to depart from linear narrative structure or what she calls "the text we are told to write," claiming that form is not a "docile passive vessel but an active participant in the sort of play which ultimately inhabits it" ("Style" 8-9). Parks concludes about her playwriting in general:
I write plays that are theatrical, performative, language based and formally challenging while also being interested in human emotions and the human condition. . . . History--the destruction and creation of it through theatre pieces and how Black people fit into all of this--is my primary artistic concern. As an artist I have to go where the writing takes me. ("Suzan-Lori Parks, Playwright")
In the early 1990s, her writing takes her to the Abraham Lincoln myth which leads to the production of The America Play, which is filled with repetitions and revisions that operate on a variety of levels. Not only does Parks as dramatist rely on the effectiveness of "Rep & Rev" on the formal and semantic level from the productive point of view, but the constant repetition of slightly altered actions and speech also influences the understanding of the play from the receptive perspective. It is not an exaggeration to state that the instability of meaning and the disruption of linear logic that her altered repetitions create presents a challenge to her spectators and readers, but also makes room for a variety of possible interpretations.
The multiplicity of meaning and the inability to fix meaning in The America Play make it difficult, or even impossible, to think about this play in traditional literary and dramatic terms. Parks's strategy of "Rep & Rev" and her use of doubled Signifyin(g) account for the unconventionality of this work.
One can use the play's first moments to demonstrate the instability and the multilayered-ness of meaning conveyed by language. They also question the notion of identity and identity construction (Mead). A black man appears on stage, dressed as Abraham Lincoln and flanked by a cardboard cutout and white plaster bust of the President. After voicing several enigmatic phrases of sententious quality that, as we realize later, all refer to events in the play, he introduces himself: "There was once a man who was told that he bore a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln." (6) What is interesting about the language of this character, who calls himself both the Foundling Father and the Lesser Known, is the fact that he tells his own story in the third person whereas the spectator or reader would most likely expect him to relate his life in the first person. He becomes an observer of his own fate or the narrator of his self-mediated biography.
In contrast to the abundance of literature on Abraham Lincoln, there is clearly no written documentation or biography of the Lesser Known's life. Thus, the black man's self-representation from an external point of view (the third person) represents the only form of autobiography available to him, oral accounts that are presented in the form of biographies. When he speaks about himself, he maintains the power of self-representation and articulates only what he wishes to reveal as is the case in autobiographical literary representation. (White) autobiographies are traditionally written in the first person, but he speaks in the third person about himself; this can be seen as intentional Signifying(g). His act becomes a revision of a (white) canonical literary form, challenging both the value attributed to written documentation and revealing the fact that autobiographies and biographies are always stylized representations that take into account the perspective of the author and thus portray only one possible vers ion of reality. Furthermore, seen in terms of race, Parks challenges the preconceived notion of the African American population as minors who depend on whites for representation. She also shows that it is possible to overcome the state of mind that W. E. B. DuBois describes in The Souls of Black Folk as the unreconcilability of being black and American, or "this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" in favor of attaining "self-conscious [wo/]manhood" by reconciling the racial and national identities (364f.).
The Lesser Known goes on to tell us that he has the same stature, leg length, and hand and foot size as the Great Man Lincoln. This resemblance is based on physical appearance, yet there is, of course, a significant difference between the two men that the audience remarks as soon as the character appears on stage: he is black. Nonetheless, the fact that the Lesser Known "was told" (AP 159) that he looked like Lincoln is revealing. This is a passive construction and, since the grammatical subject is missing, points to the anonymity of this statement's source. Thus, it seems that the Lesser Known did not advertise and maybe did not even notice this resemblance but that a general public voice is responsible for generating this opinion. This comparison gives rise to several speculations and interpretations, each reading suggesting further possible meanings.
First, the resemblance indicates that bodies are not always racialized and that skin color is not always, first and foremost, a signifier of race. This could be read as a criticism of the dominance of post/colonialism in the last years of the twentieth-century that has led to a prominent focus on race at the cost of other equally important issues. (7) Second, the fact that a public voice tells the Lesser Known who he is shows that identity is not something that an individual creates for her- or himself, but that identity can only emerge and grow in a social environment. As George Herbert Mead claims, identity construction requires the ability to see oneself with the eyes of one's environment or, in his words, the "generalized other" (156). Third, since the Lesser Known only seems to exist for society as an Abraham Lincoln look-alike but not as an individual outside of her or his role, this suggests that a person is always victim of a public opinion informed by stereotype. This also emphasizes society's need t o categorize and thus control identities. Fourth, one could speculate whether the man really looks like Lincoln or if his identity is not merely a construction by society to satisfy a demand. As Katy Ryan convincingly suggests, The America Play "parodies the legacy and commodification of Lincoln, exhuming national, cultural, and individual memories" (82). And, if this is the case, does this then not tell us more about modern consumer society than about the Lesser Known?
A further aspect that plays an important part in the play is the Foundling Father's profession. Once a grave digger, he now capitalizes on his resemblance to the American president, pursuing the following occupation: "...instead of speeching, his act would now consist of a single chair, a rocker, in a dark box" (AP 164). Inviting the public to take on the role of John Wilkes Booth and shoot "Abraham Lincoln" at the "Ford Theater" for a penny (the very coin that commemorates President Lincoln), he becomes famous instantly. The fact that the public shows greater interest in Lincoln's murder than in his political speeches and, by implication, his political deeds, points to the dominance of fragmentation and the power of sensationalism in society. Additionally, this implicitly criticizes television's instant replay which allows and also forces us to view, for example, a NASCAR crash, the explosion of the Challenger, or the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City, over and over again. Thus, the image with its brutal and tragic moment, is engraved into our consciousness, yet it is also reduced by repetition into absurdity.
The newlywed couple that come to take their shot at the president represents the entertainment quality that this industry generates. The Lesser Man remarks that "[t]heyll [sic] (8) have children and theyll bring their children here" (AP 170), which suggests that the next generation will only know Lincoln as an activity, as an element in an amusement park and thus, the life story of Lincoln risks being reduced completely to his death scene. This could be seen as a critique of the power of entertainment in modern American society. It could also be interpreted as the public's need to reduce historical figures to one dramatic item or movement, for instance, Julius Caesar saying "Et tu Brute," Adolf Hitler declaiming and mustached or John F. Kennedy being shot in the motorcade.
Furthermore, as the multiple staging or the "Rep & Rev" of the murder reveals, the various clients accompany the lethal shot with different exclamations. "Thus to the tyrants," the English version of Booth's supposed words in 1865, is replaced by "The South is avenged!" (both 165) or General Robert Lee's last words "Strike the tent" (9) (AP 167). The last variation especially links Lincoln to the Civil War and deemphasizes his murder in the theater while foregrounding political and military achievement. It is interesting to note that "famous last words" can be doubled and become interchangeable. Even though this repetition undoes the logic of last words and deconstructs the contexts in which they are uttered, their sum nonetheless becomes a version of historical representation. These various exclamations show how history can be reduced to several utterances or slogans that only highlight carefully chosen aspects of the many interwoven events that come to be known as a historical period. Historical events and their effects as such are unimportant; instead, events are turned into cliches that are only relevant in their symbolic meaning. Una Chaudhuri maintains that "the ludicrous script they [the Lesser Known and his clients] follow is gradually transformed through repetition into a ritual" (264).
Parks claims that in The America Play "I am simply asking, 'Where is history?', because I don't see it. I don't see any history out there, so I've made some up" ("Alien Nation" 26). This view of history asserts that there is no essentialist element in history, but that history is always created and formed. History is representation. Chaudhuri comments on the fact that history as such can only be presented in linguistic terms and hence cannot resist its alteration or interpretation:
Parks's denial of history occurs at the level of language, or rather of the recognition that history, because it exists as language, is always subject to revision.... Every fresh repetition of one of history's privileged textual fragments rewrites the meaning, the substance and affect, of that fragment. This is the performative principle that undermines the lesser Known's historical project (and makes the second act, with its different intervention into the past, necessary): instead of recuperating the greatness of the past, the performance of history unravels that greatness, textualizing its performers as inauthentic and belated 'bit-players' in the drama of American greatness.(265)
One of the Lesser Known's clients supports this view. Parks offers a further revised repetition of the famous last words. A woman cries out "LIES!" (AP 167) before shooting the presidential impersonator, thus challenging the accuracy of the presentation and reenactment of history. This woman refuses to be textualized and questions the notion that history can be represented.
The dominance of cliches or ritual in our society is again fore-grounded at the end of the play. In the second act, we learn from the conversation between the Lesser Known's son and wife that the man has died. Yet, he reappears on stage, acting a female role in the production of The American Cousin, the melodrama that Lincoln attended when he was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth. After the play, the black man entertains both the play-within-the-play's audience as well as the "live" theatre audience with the Gettysburg Address, a "crowd pleaser" (AP 188), as he calls it. Then, he announces the "centerpiece of the evening!! (Rest) Uh Hehm. The Death of Lincoln" (AP 188f.). He does not enact the murder, but narrates it in a fashion that makes it seem as if he were describing the individual pictures of a comic strip:
The watching of the play, the laughter, the smiles of Lincoln and Mary Todd, the slipping of Booth into the presidential box unseen, the freeing of the slaves, the pulling of the trigger, the bullets piercing above the left ear, the bullets entrance into the great head, the bullets lodging behind the great right eye, the slumping of Lincoln, the leaping onto the stage of Booth, the screaming of Todd, the screaming of Todd, the screaming of Keene, the leaping onto the stage of Booth; the screaming of Todd, the screaming of Keene, the shouting of Booth "Thus to the Tyrants!," the death of Lincoln!--And the silence of the nation. (AP 189)
Again, history is reduced to its easily marketable sensational snapshots. It is interesting to note that Lincoln's political achievement--"the freeing of the slaves"--is reduced to a very minor aspect in this speech, while the action-loaded "leaping" and "screaming" are foregrounded. This is "Rep & Rev" at its best, the constant repetition of short phrases making them seem comic and unreal. Historical events become stylized and take on comic strip-like quality. History also seems to be reduced to the addition of individual aspects; it is not conceived of as a process or a development. This alludes to the fact that the complexity of historical developments can never be more than misrepresented by textualization which is inherently linear.
Quite a different interpretation of the multiple stagings of Lincoln's murder is also possible. The black man must be present in order to allow his clients to "shoot" the president. Consequently, his blackness and thus his difference is highlighted in every reenactment of the death scene. African Americans are repeatedly linked to American history; their common historical invisibility is here redefined as historical visibility. Marc Robinson points out, "Every time the Foundling Father sits in 'Lincoln's Chair' at 'Ford's Theater' and 'dies,' he is doing more than merely returning to a legendary moment. He is also forcing the past back into the present, and thus enabling himself to revise history" (Qtd. in Drukman 57). Jeanette Malkin refers to this as a retroactive remaking of history (177). And, as Steven Winn reminds us, the Lesser Known's "fleet little glances at the pasteboard-and-plaster Lincolns are half respectful and half irreverent, signals of the black man's paradoxical importance and invisibility in American history."
In a similar vein, Alisa Solomon makes a claim with regard to Parks's play Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990) that also applies to The America Play: "... whoever writes the history, controls the history" (77). Hence, it is not surprising that the black man asks himself if, instead of him following Lincoln's footsteps, it is not really the president who must pursue his impersonator: "The Lesser Known trying somehow to catch up to the Great Man all this while and maybe running too fast in the wrong direction. Which is to say that maybe the Great Man had to catch him" (AP 171). Solomon's statement foregrounds the power of the word and traditional white belief in the monologic quality of historiography. Thus, the "wrong direction" is "wrong" because the group in power defines it as such and represses other meanings. Yet, the man's musings show that white historiography can be challenged and subverted by the "Rep & Rev" of words. Signifyin(g) resembles the concept of mimicry as defined by Homi Bhabha. Yet, the Foundling Father also learns that Signifyin(g) has its limitations: "If you deviate too much they wont get their pleasure. Thats my experience. Some inconsistencies are perpetuatable because theyre good for business. But not the yellow beard." (AP 163)
The Lesser Man's performance not only challenges Lincoln's being singled out as an important figure in history, showing that the image that exists of him today is subjective and mere representation; it also invites us to think of black individuals, who, like Lincoln, can be considered great achievers of American history. The America Play strongly implies that the construction of modern America relies on myths. The author asserts that the play attempts to "encourage people to think about the idea of America in addition to the actual day-to-day reality of America" ("Alien Nation" 26, original emphasis). Parks suggests that our image of America is only representation. We influence and distort our perception of reality with premade concepts that are handed down from generation to generation without being reflected upon. Consequently, it is easy to understand how Abraham Lincoln is reduced to the tall man with the beard and stovepipe hat who was murdered in the theater.
Parks alludes to a further myth that has played an important role in the making of America: the frontier myth. The Found(l)ing Father, who stands for both progeny and orphanage (Drukman 57), follows a summoning and leaves the more developed and industrial East in order to explore the West. He thus takes part in pushing the frontier westward as both the father and the outcast of the young nation. Participating in the run for land possession, "... he got his plot he staked his claim he tried his hand at his own Big Hole" (AP 163). Seen in terms of race, this act again foregrounds the role of the black man in the creation of America and pulls him out of his historical invisibility. However, at the same time, this step includes him in the construction of the America we know today, both spatially and ideologically as a society based on the white conception of possession, thereby again emphasizing the complexity and interconnectedness of historical, social, cultural, and economic issues.
The John Locke quotation that precedes The America Play states that "[i]n the beginning, all the world was America" (AP 159, original emphasis), namely empty space. Mankind, however, cannot resist appropriating space and inscribing the world. Parks suggests that, in order to control the world and its development once the scramble for land is over, man reduces history to a theme park with characters that pass by and wave according to their script. This theme park is located in the Great Hole of History which the Lesser Known dug out to satisfy an existing demand. This is again a form of Signfyin(g) because Parks once more completely challenges conceived notions of history. History becomes a hole--a theme park located in a void.
As Jeanette Malkin remarks, history has not constructed a black historical presence in America, but only a hole or a negative presence (177). History could be mere imagination. By extension, the existence of man is also challenged. The Lesser Known's wife Lucy tells their son Brazil:
You could look intuh that Hole and see your entire life pass before you. Not your own life but someones life from history, you know, [someone who'd done some-thin of note, got theirselves known somehow, uh President or] (10) somebody who killed somebody important, uh face on uh postal stamp, you know, someone from History. Like you, but not you. You know: Known. (AP 197, original emphasis)
Here, identity is clearly defined as inauthentic. To give this a further spin: If history exists only in a void and our life is represented by the people in that void, do we then exist ourselves? All of history amalgamates in this theme park; difference is erased by the all-comprising myth of greatness. Lucy's wish to appear in the Great Hole suggests, as Chaudhuri observes, that "the simulacral logic of America's self-representation has now burst its confines and moved out from the enclosure of specific discourses to take over the culture at large" (263).
This scene also implies that the accuracy and validity of the scientific fields of historiography and archaeology should be questioned. Lucy and Brazil represent these two domains. Lucy is straining to hear the echo of history, using a trumpet as an amplifier; Brazil is a grave digger like his father. In the attempt to excavate his father's life, he is also digging another Great Hole of History, a reconstruction of his father's reconstruction. Not only does the forefather become, in a powerful linguistic pun, the "faux-father" (AP 184), but we must also ask ourselves if the father can ever be un-dug? This is, of course, a rhetorical question and a case of doubled Signifyin(g).
According to one critic's summary of The America Play, the father is "simultaneously everywhere and of course nowhere to be found" (Son). Similarly to his father, Brazil is digging another Great Hole of History that resists the excavation of black history because there is none to be found. Instead, we come to realize that, like the Lesser Known, he is merely preparing his own grave. We are left stranded in the Great Hole(s) of History with the Foundling Father and later his son where we are made to witness that the historical narrative of America has excluded black presence. (11) Parks's representation of historical representation is an abstract concept, yet she uses it, as Winn asserts, "like a keenly sharpened spade to dig down below the stories in the history books."
Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play digs, uses "Rep & Rev", and Signifyin(g) on various levels, text-internally from the perspective of the Lesser Known, as a strategy of production from Parks's point of view, and as a method of understanding the play from the spectators' and readers' perspective. The America Play is difficult to decipher--in fact, it consciously strains to resist linear logic. The more one is aware of the power of Signifyin(g) to evoke multiple meanings and destabilize meaning, the easier it is to understand that this drama is exactly about the instability of meaning and that it challenges not only its own meaning but also the meaning of America today as it has been created by "history."
(1.) Jeanette Malkin offers a postmodern reading of Parks's use of history in her work (155-82).
(2.) Anna Deavere Smith also follows this approach of historical representation in her dramatic work Fires in the Mirror.
(3.) Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World can also be read as a play about history. See, for example, Louise Bernard.
(4.) Gates explains that Signifyin(g) can occur on three different levels in African American literature: as explicit theme, as implicit rhetorical strategy, and as a principle of literary history (89).
(5.) The authors make this claim with regard to Parks's play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, but it applies equally well to The America Play.
(6.) All quotations from The America Play are taken from Susan-Lori Parks, The America Play and Other Works. Further references are indicated by AP and page number directly in the text, here AP 159.
(7.) For examples of how the body is racialized in (post)colonial drama, see, for example, Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins's seminal study on postcolonial drama, especially Chapter 5 on "Body Politics."
(8.) Further nonconvenrional spelling in The America Play is not highlighted as correct.
(9.) Kurt Bullock provides a detailed analysis of the use of last words in The America Play in his essay.
(10.) Brackets indicate optional cuts for production (stage direction, AP 158).
(11.) Also see Malkin's comments and quotations on this aspect (181f.) as well as Savran's observations (142).
Bernard, Louise. "The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World." African American Review 31.4 (1997): 687-96.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London & New York: Routledge, 1994.
Bullock, Kurt. "Famous/Last Words: The Disruptive Rhetoric of Historico-Narrative 'Finality' in Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play." American Drama 10.2 (2001): 69-87
Chaudhuri, Una. Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995.
Drukman, Steven. "Suzan-Lori Parks and Liz Diamond: Doo-a-Diddly-Dit-Dit." TDR: The Drama Review 39.3 (1995): 56-75.
DuBois, W. E. B. Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1986.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York and Oxford: OUP, 1988.
Gilbert, Helen, and Tompkins Joanne. Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Malkin, Jeanette R. Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999.
Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Ed. Charles W. Morris. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1967.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. "Alien Nation: An Interview with the Playwright by Michele Pearce." American Theatre 13 (March 1994): 26.
-----. The America Play and Other Works. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
-----. The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. The America Play and Other Works. 99-132
-----. "Possession." The America Play and Other Works. 3-5.
-----. "from 'Elements of Style"' The America Play and Other Works. 6-22.
-----. "Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks." Interview with Shelby Jiggetts. Callaloo 19.2 (1996): 309-17.
Rayner, Alice, and Harry J. Elam, Jr. "Unfinished Business: Reconfiguring History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World." Theatre Journal 46(1994): 447-61.
Ryan, Katy. "'No Less Human': Making History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play." Journal of Dramatic Theory & Criticism 13.2 (1999):81-94.
Savran, David. The Playwright's Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing and the Politics of Culture. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999.
Smith, Anna Deavere. Fires in the Mirror. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1993.
Solomon, Alisa. "Signifying on the Signifyin': The Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks." Theater 21.3 (1990): 73-80.
Son, Diana, and Mike Cosaboom. "Suzan-Lori Parks." 11 Sep. 1998. Online posting. New Dramatists. http://fargo.itp.tsoa.nyu.edu/~diana/parks.html. 23 Apr. 2001
Winn, Steven. "'America' Gives History a Re-Do. Premiere of Parks' Provocative Play." 20 Nov. 2000. Online posting. San Francisco Chronicle. http://ww.brava.org/Pages/Reviews/AmPl_america.html. 23 Apr. 2001.
HAIKE FRANK is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Freiburg University, Germany, where she does research on South African theatre.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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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