Commentary by Artists or Critics: “The America Play”
Authored by Denzel Belin
Commentary surrounding The America Play often focuses on the style and mannerisms that Parks plays with in the piece. From her use of repetition to the stylized language of Ebonics that Lucy and Brazil speak in, Parks does not make it easy for her audience to comprehend some meaning in the piece. However, that struggle for meaning and striving to figure it out may be exactly what she is after, for the history that she is writing in – an African-American history – is something that she feels is missing. Non-existent. Wiped out. It is through the images she sets up, from the performances that surround the ideas of death that all three main characters play a part in to the significance of the Great Hole of History, scholars point toward the idea that she brings a unique sense of consciousness to our modern day understanding of race and racism. I will distill multiple scholars’ arguments into a comprehensive understanding of how this consciousness is achieved.
Something important is happening when the imaginary of our fictions is filled with improvisational rituals of death [. . .]. Something important is happening when some of the most memorable moments in our fictions and some of the most characteristic stories of our cuture have been mourning stories (Halloway via Dawkins).
The performances that surround ideas of death within the show express conflicting ideas. They simultaneously push toward and pull from an understanding of African American ancestral past, and rather than exploring their own, each dons a way to interact with the past and the consequential suffering from a distance. Foundling Father dresses and becomes Abraham Lincoln, a man who is pinnacle to slavery and our current understanding of African Americans as they are today. Lucy immerses herself in rituals of death and experiences the event of death at a professional remove with her occupation as a Confidence (one who hears and protects deathbed secrets). Brazil is a professor weeper who mourns over every life except his own. Parks has each character implement their job again and again, and the repetition of this is a cycle of trauma that does not seem to end. In the development of an African American identity, there is a cyclical nature to the progression that always has a step of black suffering. American history shows this clearly. Slavery. Progress. Jim Crow. Progress. Racial profiling that can get you killed (i.e. Trayvon Martin). Progress? Dramatizing her characters’ “rituals of death, Parks puts on stage black Americans engaging imaginatively with death as way of invoking a violent and terrifying history. This is made visceral in Brazil’s pained screams as he uncovers items such as “freein’ papers” that are frank associations with both Brazil’s personal past and the historical past of the African American and the undeniable connection with his slave ancestors.
By demonstrating history’s performativity, Parks not only denaturalizes history but also reveals the process by which certain individuals, events, and conflicts are imbued with value as facts, the real-items that become known. History determines what is to be known, and to be known means to have a place in the social world. What Parks’s play demonstrates is that in this process history creates a dominant class of those who are known, those who belong in history (Lee).
The idea of the Great Hole of History is one that many critics have felt represent the absence of African Americans from American history. However, it can be argued that the hole is actually where the memory is burial, and Brazil’s continuous digging is in an effort to make the collective unconsciousness of black America visible. This hole, with either perspective, is still a painful one, full of struggle and hardships, and is described in a similar fashion to the hole that resulted in Lincoln’s assassination, “thuh great black hole that thuh fatal bullet bored”.
Ilka Saal asserts that “to read the play as a nostalgic longing for an authentic past and unadulterated black identity means to miss its pun: while The America Play is a play about America, it also brazenly plays with ideas of America.” Parks, according to Saal, presents history as a “simulacrum, an eternal replay of our ideas of and desire for history” (63). Jeanette Malkin, by contrast, suggests that an “authentic” black history is not “irretrievable,” but that it is “buried by a historical narrative” (182). Verna Foster also counters critics such as Lee and Saal, claiming that Parks, through the character of Lucy? who “digs for the truth” in the “Great Hole of History”?”contradicts the conflation of history and its representations” (32). Following Steven Drukman, who sees Lucy as Parks’s “mouthpiece,” Foster argues that, if there is no “real” history, “then there is no point in [her] digging for ‘the truth'” (32) (Dawkins).
And yet, she and Brazil dig. In The America Play, the characters’ willingness to explore the “Great Hole of History” – delving “underground” and tapping into the collective unconscious – enables them to discard masks and partially resolve their grief. And while they are able to find some solace within their digging, they bring to light just how real the struggle is to be at peace with yourself as a product of the loose world that is African American history. This struggle, scholars have said, is the reason that Brazil mourns, Lucy is intimate with the secrets of death, and Foundling Father subjects himself to being shot. Death and the task of understanding your historical place in an American world as an African American are on the same level of severity.
Hence, the idea of America is also revisited: our nation isn’t simply a haven of equality and justice, but a place where inequality, prejudice, and injustice also lie at its core. (Lee).
Dawkins, Laura. “Family Acts: History, Memory, and Performance in Suzan-Lori Parks’s the America Play and Topdog/Underdog.” South Atlantic Review. South Atlantic Modern Language Association. 2009.HighBeam Research. 14 Apr. 2014 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
Frank, Haike. “The instability of meaning in Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play” The Free Library 22 June 2002. 15 April 2014 <http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The instability of meaning in Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play.-a095198794>.
Lee, Sun Hee Teresa. “Unnatural Conception: (Per)Forming History and Historical Subjectivity in Suzan-Lori Parks’s “the America Play” and “Venus”.” The Journal of American Drama and Theatre 19.1 (2007): 5-31. ProQuest. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.