Suzan-Lori Parks’s challenging, experimental two-act work The America Play takes place in “an exact replica of the Great Hole of History,” a setting meant metaphorically as well as literally: Act One of the play, “Lincoln Act,” opens in this hole in the ground, which has been dug by its protagonist: an African American gravedigger-turned-Abraham Lincoln imitator known only as the Foundling Father. The Foundling Father’s lengthy monologue, broken up by stage directions to “(Rest),” comprises this entire act; like virtually all the dialogue in Parks’s plays, this monologue is punctuated and spelled unconventionally in order to evoke vernacular African American speech. In addition, many parts of the play’s dialogue are enclosed in square brackets, which indicates that they are optional.
Dressed as Lincoln, the Foundling Father opens by repeating a number of cryptic, self-referential phrases, like “I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed,” most of which are quoted from other sources. He talks about his past in the third person: everyone always told him he looked like “the Great Man” (Lincoln), so even though he (“the Lesser Known”) started out digging graves like the other men in his family, he eventually convinced his barber to make him some beards, put them in a box, and came out here to dig the replica of the Great Hole of History and impersonate Lincoln in it. He is fascinated by Lincoln’s assassination, which happened in a Washington theater while the audience was laughing at a bad joke in the second-rate play My American Cousin. He fantasizes about Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, yelling out, “Emergency, please put the Great Man in the ground,” and he speculates about what it would have been like to dig Lincoln’s grave. At seemingly random intervals throughout his monologue, he nods at a bust of Abraham Lincoln and winks at a pasteboard cutout of him.
The Foundling Father shows the audience his different Lincoln beards and recalls the original “Great Hole of History”—a theme park he visited on his honeymoon with his wife, Lucy—that inspired him to give up the gravedigging-and-mourning business he started with her, move “out West,” and dig “his own Big Hole” to start impersonating Lincoln. Eventually, someone told him that “he played Lincoln so well that he ought to be shot,” and this inspired his current business, which he demonstrates to the audience: suddenly, the Foundling Father starts laughing as a man dressed as Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, walks onstage and shoots him in the head with a toy gun. The Foundling Father plays dead, and the other man declares, “thus to the tyrants!” The reenactment repeats once again, but this time the shooter yells, “the South is avenged!” The Foundling Father thanks the man, who is one of his regular customers.
The Foundling Father continues explaining his business and fascination with Lincoln’s life and death, but is interrupted at regular intervals by men, women, and even a couple, all dressed as Booth, who make him play out the assassination scene over and over again. Luckily, the Foundling Father notes, the only “side effect” from his work is the “slight deafness,” and it is worth the opportunity to follow in “the Great Mans footsteps.” He repeats these comments between other reenactments of the assassination and wonders if he will ever catch up with Lincoln’s greatness—or perhaps vice versa—before the echo of a gunshot marks the end of Act One.
Act Two, “The Hall of Wonders,” opens its first scene, “Big Bang,” with the same echoing gunshot that ends Act One, but different characters: Lucy and Brazil, who are the Foundling Father’s wife and son, respectively. While they debate if this echo is “him,” Lucy circles with an ear trumpet to try and tell “thuh difference” between the original gunshot and its echo, and Brazil digs holes around the stage, like his “Daddy.” Like the Foundling Father’s monologue, Lucy and Brazil’s dialogue is punctuated with the direction, “(Rest),” indicating a pause. In addition, they also frequently trade empty lines: the script simply reads “LUCY” and “BRAZIL,”
Lucy reveals that the Foundling Father has died but never got the “proper burial” he deserves, and she and Brazil reminisce about the death of a family friend, Bram Price. Price revealed a secret to Lucy on his deathbed, and she kept this secret for so long that she became known as a trustworthy confidant (or “Confidence”) for the dying. (Now that it’s been more than 12 years, “nobody cares,” so she call tell Brazil about Bram Price’s secret—which is that “he wore lifts in his shoes” to “seem taller than he was.”) While Lucy was the “Confidence,” Brazil was in charge of the “weepin sobbin [and] moanin,” and at times he even “gnashed.”
Now that the Foundling Father has died, Brazil is digging for “his bones” and “thuh Wonders” that filled his Hall of Wonders, and they’re both listening for “his Whispers.” They don’t hear these “Whispers,” but they don’t understand why—maybe they “travel different out West.” The Foundling Father came out here when Brazil “was only 5,” because even though he was a good digger, “fakin was his callin.” Lucy recalls watching historical figures parade around at the Great Hole of History during her honeymoon and admires the “lookuhlike” that the Foundling Father has built. As the gunshot echo keeps sounding, Lucy keeps searching for the “whispers” and Brazil keeps digging and reminiscing about his Pa. Finally, Brazil pulls one of the “Wonders” out of the dirt: the Abraham Lincoln bust.
After a brief scene labeled “Echo,” in which the Foundling Father returns to the stage and cheers as he watches actors play out a short scene from Our American Cousin, the play returns to Lucy and Brazil in the third scene, “Archaeology.” Lucy tells Brazil about all the different kinds of echoes and whispers, and Brazil muses about what his ancestors—his “foe-father” or “faux-father” (forefather) and the others “who comed before us”—have done for him, like leaving him “this Hole” as “inheritance.”
Brazil welcomes the audience to the “hall. of. wonnndersss” and begins describing the things he has collected there, including a jewel box engraved “A.L.” and George Washington’s “nibblers” (wooden teeth), documents like “peace pacts” and “declarations like war,” and medals for a variety of feats, from “bravery and honesty” to “knowledge of sewin” and, of course, “fakin.” Remembering his Pa, he breaks down in tears, but Lucy comforts him before starting to reminisce about how she “couldnt never deny [the Foundling Father] nothin.” Grimly, she notes that there were “stories too horrible tuh mention,” and then the scene with Lucy and Brazil gives way to another “Echo,” in which actors play out the scene from Our American Cousin that immediately preceded Lincoln’s shooting. After this, the Foundling Father thanks the audience for coming to see him and begins reciting Lincoln quotes and state capitals. He then narrates—but does not act out—every stage in Lincoln’s shooting, and he declares that the bullet made a “great black hole” that killed Lincoln later that day.
In the next scene, “Spadework,” Lucy and Brazil start by quizzing each other on state capitals. After they get to Lincoln, Nebraska, Lucy starts talking about the Foundling Father’s fixation on Lincoln and resemblance to Brazil, who alternatingly weeps and celebrates having “so much tuh live for!” Lucy imagines what Pa might have told Brazil, if he were still alive—she quotes Lincoln and praises her son, then leans in to tell him something that “ssfor our ears and our ears uhlone,” which the audience never hears. Brazil returns to digging (and finds a trumpet and “uh bag of pennies”), and Lucy again starts lamenting how she “gived intuh him [the Foundling Father] on everything.” She hears something and screams, but won’t tell Brazil what it is, and then starts listing all the things the Foundling Father took from her.
Suddenly, Brazil digs up “uh Tee-Vee,” and it turns on just before it is interrupted by another short section labeled “Echo,” which consists only of the familiar stage direction: “A gunshot echoes. Loudly. And echoes.” In the final section, “The Great Beyond,” the television starts playing a scene from the play’s first act, before the Foundling Father appears onstage, along with his coffin, and starts talking. Lucy and Brazil debate whether he is alive or dead and then discuss funeral arrangements. Next, the Foundling Father asks for a hug, but his family refuses. Lucy talks about “thuh Original Great Hole” of History and asks the Foundling Father to get in his coffin. He tries it out, but then he gives his own eulogy, telling the audience how he “quit the [Lincoln impersonation] business. And buried all [his] things.” He quotes Lincoln and then abruptly starts reenacting the assassination: the gunshot sounds, and he appears to die (although Lucy and Brazil are still not sure). Lucy and Brazil debate what they should do, and decide to prepare and wait for their guests.
Brazil announces, “Welcome Welcome Welcome to thuh hall. Of. Wonders.” He describes these wonders as he had before, from the jewel box to the Lincoln bust and medals. And finally, Brazil shows the audience “our newest Wonder: One of the greats Hisself!” Like Lincoln, the Foundling Father has a “great black hole in [his] great head,” and Brazil asks the audience to “Note: thuh last words.—And thuh last breaths.—And how thuh nation mourns—” before he walks offstage and the curtain falls, ending the play.
Suzan-Lori Parks, originally spelled Susan-Lori Parks, (born May 10, 1963, Fort Knox, Kentucky, U.S.), American playwright who was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama (for Topdog/Underdog).
Parks, who was writing stories at age five, had a peripatetic childhood as the daughter of a military officer. She attended Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts (B.A. [cum laude], 1985), where James Baldwin, who taught a writing class there, encouraged her to try playwriting. She wrote her first play, The Sinner’s Place (produced 1984), while still in school. She won Obie Awards for her third play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (produced 1989), and for her eighth, Venus (produced 1996), about a South African Khoisan woman taken to England as a sideshow attraction. With Topdog/Underdog (produced 2001), Parks evoked the complexities of the African American experience through the fraught relationship between two brothers. In 2002 the play became her first to be staged on Broadway, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Parks’s other plays included The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (produced 1990); The America Play (produced 1994), about a man obsessed with Abraham Lincoln; In the Blood (produced 1999), which updates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; and The Book of Grace (produced 2010), a biblically inflected examination of the familial relations of a racist patriarch. In 2006–07 Parks oversaw a project that coordinated performances across the United States of the plays she had written one per day over the course of a year, in 2002–03 (collected as 365 Days/365 Plays ).
Parks later adapted the book of George and Ira Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess for a musical theatre production that premiered on Broadway in 2012. Another critically acclaimed play, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (produced 2014), was based on Homer’s Odyssey and set during the American Civil War. It contained the first three segments of a projected nine-part epic drama. Race and friendship are explored in White Noise (produced 2019), in which a struggling African American artist and victim of police brutality asks his white friend to buy him as his personal slave, for 40 days.
Parks wrote radio plays (Pickling ), screenplays (Girl 6  and Native Son , based on Richard Wright’s novel), and teleplays (Their Eyes Were Watching God , an adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel). Parks’s first novel, Getting Mother’s Body, was published in 2003.
Her writing has been praised for its wild poetry, its irreverence, its humour, and its concurrent profundity. She received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2001 and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2015. Three years later she won the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.
Named among Time magazine’s “100 Innovators for the Next Wave,” Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the most acclaimed playwrights in American drama today. She is the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, is a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, and in 2015 was awarded the prestigious Gish Prize for Excellence in the Arts. Other grants and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts and New York Foundation for the Arts. She is also a recipient of a Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, a CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts, and a Guggenheim Foundation Grant. She is an alum of New Dramatists and of Mount Holyoke College.
Parks’ project 365 Days/365 Plays (where she wrote a play a day for an entire year) was produced in over 700 theaters worldwide, creating one of the largest grassroots collaborations in theater history.
Her other plays include: Topdog/Underdog (2002 Pulitzer Prize winner); The Book of Grace; Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical; In the Blood (2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist); Venus (1996 OBIE Award); The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World; Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990 OBIE Award, Best New American Play) ; The America Play and Fucking A. Her adaptation of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Her newest plays, Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)—set during the Civil War—was awarded the Horton Foote Prize, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama as well as being a 2015 Pulitzer Prize Finalist.
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Tiffany Gilly (she/her) is doing what she can to be an advocate and ally to Black Artists and People of Color through her art. She is an actor who seeks to support theatre and stories by BIPOC Playwrights. She started this play-reading group in the summer of 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter Movement to increase the knowledge of plays by non-White Playwrights as a starting point or a stepping stone for other artists.