“People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.” -Parks, Topdog/Underdog
“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s historic ancestors.” – James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket”
The America Play is complex beast of a play. It forces us to question all of our assumptions about history and identity, removing us from the reality we are familiar with in order to highlight issues that we may be too close to see. Suzan-Lori Parks requires her audience to be an active participant in relationship with The America Play in order to even make sense of the piece; it is in this symbiotic process that an audience will be able to observe and analyze the themes and issues she presents. This relationship is introduced at the very beginning of the show, with the ambiguous setting (“A great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of the Great Hole of History.”) and the prosopopoeia of Lincoln by an African-American male. Parks makes intellectual investment essential to understanding The America Play.
The work also explores the effects of a national history that has consciously ignored the experiences of all minorities in order to propagate the beliefs, experiences, understandings, and achievements of the power elite in American society. Parks is a meticulous playwright, using a method akin to historical revisionism to rewrite a period of history fundamental to discourse regarding race. In doing so, she gives voice to those discarded characters of the outnumbered. Parks attempts to reconfigure history to include the neglected African American perspective while simultaneously acknowledging the effect previous exclusion has had on the African American experience: “The Lesser Man forgets who he is and just crumples. His bones cannot be found. The Greater Man continues on” (304-305).
The play is made for an American audience that still struggles with American problems. What are seen as modern cultural issues (racism, divorce, ect.) are filtered through an abstract dreamscape and reflected back to us. This piece is truly the America play, and depends on a rich and rooted sense of American culture and history not only to be understood by an audience, but to affect change in the contemporary theatrical milieu. Yet, as we know, the American audience is one of the most difficult groups to inspire, especially when it comes to plays that unpack deeply entrenched issues such as race. Parks doesn’t make achieving a comprehensive understanding of the play a simple task, perhaps a reflection on the labyrinthine nature of national discourse related to race in America. When presenting the work, how can we make the show comprehensible without relinquishing its necessary complexity? How do we attract an audience that is not already highly aware of such issues, and have them leave feeling like the piece left an indelible impression? Is there any way to make the piece universally relatable for all Americans? Is there a way to make the piece understandable to foreigners as well?
By investigating contemporary national discussions involving race and understanding the effects and efficiency of experimental theater on an American audience, we hope to stage and design the play in a manner that will provoke conversation about such a pivotal issue in modern American society.