Monday, January 2, 2023

The America Play

Currently, Suzan-Lori Parks’s play Topdog/Underdog is playing on Broadway, but that piece has roots in an earlier work by Parks called The America Play.
Originally commissioned and developed by Theatre for a New Audience, The America Play had workshops at Arena Stage and Dallas Theater Center in 1993 and premiered the next year at Yale Rep under the direction of Liz Diamond.
The play focuses on a character named The Foundling Father, who dresses as Abraham Lincoln and re-enacts scenes from the president's life at a theme park, which is itself an imitation of another theme park imitating history. Of course, the most popular part of Lincoln’s life for tourists to re-enact is his assassination, so The Foundling Father is repeatedly shot by the attraction’s visitors (a detail that comes back in Topdog/Underdog.)
Another parallel with Topdog/Underdog is the play’s examination of family. The Foundling Father has a son named Brazil in The America Play. Just as we, as children of history, struggle to remember a past we might never have truly known, Brazil struggles to remember his father, who died when he was a small child. He knows his father’s history, but only through the stories of his mother, which might or might not be true anyway.
For those who study the history of theatre, The America Play offers another treat. Parks imagines scenes from Tom Taylor’s comedy Our American Cousin as they might have played out on the night Lincoln was assassinated. John Wilkes Booth, the brute who murdered Lincoln, was an actor himself, so he knew just which moment would have the audience in uproarious laughter. As spectators broke into guffaws, Booth shot, and the crowd’s noise covered up the sound of the gun. He then leapt from the President’s box onto the stage below, and the rest—as they say—is history.
Parks reminds us that the play that night starred Miss Laura Keene, a celebrity in her own day, but virtually forgotten today. Keene and her fellow actors were in the midst of a play, an imitation of life, when life overtook that play. Similarly, the entertainments of the historical re-enactments in The America Play get overshadowed by the human drama of Brazil seeking to connect with his dead father, a stand-in for our own efforts to connect with history.
Many American dramatists have been fascinated by history, including Eugene O’Neill, whose late play A Touch of the Poet sought to understand the country’s past. Parks remains a part of that tradition, even if her post-realist style seems very different from that of O’Neill.