THE AMERICA PLAY
written by Suzan-Lori Parks
directed by Nia O. Witherspoon
assistant directed by Erica Ocegueda
Arizona State University, MainStage
co-commissioned by Performance in the Borderlands
and Theatre and Performance in the Americas
In 1911, in Livermore Kentucky, a black man named Will Porter was tied to an opera house stage while he was murdered by an audience that paid to shoot him between one and six times, as entertainment. The America Play, like this deeply troubling moment in U.S. history, illuminates the connection between theatrical entertainment and both literal and symbolic violence against the black body. We watch as spectators pay to symbolically murder the Foundling Father, the play’s protagonist, a black man who performs as Abraham Lincoln, the very symbol of emancipation (and the potential of equality for black subjects in this country.) At the same time, by performing his own death, over and over again, the Foundling Father must contend with his limited means to thrive as a black actor faced with decisions that go against personal or cultural codes of ethics. Parks’ important play challenges spectators to examine their own stakes of pleasure in witnessing and spectacularizing black death, particularly in our current national climate of rampant extra-judicial killings of black folks.
Set in a gargantuan hole that speaks simultaneously to the enormity of loss for African diaspora subjects in the Americas, not only stripped of name, family, tribal identity, language, and property—but who became property in the symbolic (w)hole of the Middle Passage, The America Play asks tough questions about the implicit violence of living while black in this hemisphere. When the clink of a customer’s penny drops into the jar, activating the carnivalesque machine wherein the Foundling Father once again performs Lincoln’s death, we must wonder, what is really being exchanged here? Are the spectators, in purchasing this “shot” that could have “saved the South” also re-inscribing the purchase of the Foundling Father’s body? Does not the Foundling Father’s blackness make the assassination of Lincoln that much more tantalizing? Especially given the well-articulated threat of the “educated Negro” who whites feared would fundamentally alter the social order by proving their equality after Emancipation, how can we de-link this frightful moment being replayed from contemporary revenge for black liveness? This apocoplyptic fantasy in Park’s play is not far from us. It is played out by vigilantes on the streets, punishing black bodies for stepping out of line. In Black English, we say, “Can I live?” and it is not a rhetorical question.
We must also ask where, if anywhere, the possibilities are for black agency. The Foundling Father’s abandoned wife and child’s search for his posthumous remains in Act II, through a mysterious landscape of echoes and traces, beckoning us to consider what it means to be remembered in a context where one is always already disinherited, foundling, orphan, and unwanted. If disavowal is ones origin, what, if any, road is there for reparation—physical, psychic, familial, social, spiritual, political—for the sake of generations to come?
Perhaps the answer is jazz. Taking what we have—even if it is only the flesh on our bones—and making something that didn’t exist before—something magical—something that can sustain us. Something that wouldn’t exist without our saying, claiming, that this (and we) matter. Telling our stories in our ways. Singing the unsung. Mourning the unmourned. Dancing when the master is asleep. Revolting. It’s all jazz. The jazz aesthetic, the quirky sister movement to Black Arts that continues to focus on improvisation, process, presence, and multidisciplinary African-based storytelling, is the perfect home for Park’s brilliant play, which mixes and re-mixes American history like a DJ scratching at a booth. ‘It could have been me,’ the Foundling Father reminds us about Lincoln’s heroic legacy, save the effects of racism that, themselves, go unnamed in the play, but instead, make an “impression,” an unmapped hole of their own.
His son, Brazil digs and digs for remains, readying himself to honor the Foundling Father’s legacy where the world, the (w)hole referenced in the opening of the play, has fallen short. This time, he will not be forgotten.