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Theater Review: The America Play is a Strange Slice of Americana

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There's something presumptuous about entitling a piece The America Play with a definite article. Nonetheless, it seems to fit here, even though the story of Susan Parks' play is so particular: it's a case of the microcosm helping to define the whole.

In Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play (currently running at the Theatre@Boston Court in Pasadena) an average man (Harold Surratt) is defined by his likeness to a great man: Abraham Lincoln. Born after Lincoln's death, he resembles the great man. This leads to him leaving his natural calling as a grave digger for a morbid job portraying Lincoln's final moments.

The man's customers drop a penny into a container shaped like a bust of Lincoln, which lets them choose a weapon and approach the stage where he sits in a rocking chair, laughing (Lincoln, assassinated while watching a play, was reportedly laughing when he was shot) and waiting for the sound of the prop gun. When he hears the shot he slumps over and waits until the customer leaves. 

Some of his customers are interested in the historical aspects of the assassination, choosing the replica of the weapon John Wilkes Booth used; others just giggle at the novelty.

This act is where Harold Surratt's character, the Foundling Father, finds his niche in life. To "follow in the great man's footsteps" – to be like and yet unlike the great man – he's willing to leave his wife and child behind. In the age of cell phones and computer simulation games, the thought of a mere man re-enacting a moment in history seems rather quaint, but it is enough for him.

In the second act, we meet his wife Lucy (J. Nicole Brooks) and his son Brazil (Darius Truly). Brazil digs for artifacts left behind by his father, searching even in the charcoal-black gravel (Nancy Keystone, the scene design, used recycled auto tires to get the effect). We learn that the Foundling Father died a "lonely death" and was troubled by a "lack of proper burial." Meanwhile his son, Brazil, is troubled by the blank pages of his personal history.

Keystone directs with sensitivity, giving an emotional center to draw the audience into a world that is familiar yet alien. The play is about America, but not everyone's America. Perhaps this is why Parks' directions enigmatically set her American play in "a great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of The Great Hole of History."

There is, indeed, a "great hole" of history. It is in our comprehension. We have strange ideas of history because of the movies we watch and in the texts we have in schools. Comprehension of history is better today than before multiculturalism became a buzz word in education, yet what we learn of history is often biased when it's chosen who gets "a place in the hall of wonders."

Surrat's Lincoln impersonator emanates gravity and earnest pride, making his desertion of wife and family more acceptable. Brooks, playing his wife, embodies the strength and faith that bypasses bitterness and holds to the good in the present. Truly gives Brazil a sense of wonder as well as the curiosity of a boy attempting to discover his father, and in that his disjointed and hidden heritage.

Parks, whose recent play Topdog/Underdog won a 2002 Pultizer Prize for Drama and a Tony nomination, wrote The America Play early in her career. It treads in Brecht's abstract landscape, so it isn't for everyone. It isn't everyone's history, either. But it is real enough to be someone's American history. Only by thinking about the totality of such slices of Americana can we begin to see beyond mainstream versions of history to something like reality.

The America Play, Theatre@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor, Pasadena. Call (626) 683-6883 or visit the Web site.

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