If Barack Obama had not won the presidential election last month, the experience of watching Thick Description's revival of Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play would not have been quite as interesting as it turned out to be. I walked out of the theater thinking I'd seen a smartly staged production of a brainy, postmodern work about the absence of black history in a culture largely concocted by and for a coterie of wealthy whites. But because black history — at least as far as presidential politics is concerned — has turned a corner since 1993 when the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright penned her play, darker and more cryptic thoughts inspired by the work began to simmer inside me regarding what it means in this country for a black person to "make history."
Set in "an exact replica of the Great Hole of History" — a Beckettian nowhere land — The America Play centers on the legacy of a black gravedigger ("The Foundling Father") who considers himself to be a dead ringer for Abraham Lincoln. When we first meet the Foundling Father (played with comedic gravitas by Rhonnie Washington, reprising his role from Thick Description's original 1994 production at Theatre Artaud) he's stopped digging graves and, somewhat improbably, forged a career for himself as a professional impersonator of America's 16th president. Donning a fake beard, frock coat, and stovepipe hat, the man sits in a chair telling his life story. Every now and again, passersby interrupt his narrative. In exchange for pennies, the visitors pick up phony guns and, re-creating Lincoln's assassination scene at Ford's Theatre, enthusiastically pretend to shoot the fake Lincoln in the head.
In the second act, which takes place sometime after the Foundling Father has passed away, his widow, Lucy (an empathetic Cathleen Riddley), and 35-year-old son, Brazil (played with simpleton gusto by Brian Freeman, who also appeared in the 1994 cast), go in search of the deceased. While Brazil digs for his father's remains, Lucy hears echoes of gunshots through her ear trumpet. When Brazil finds the corpse, it turns out to be very much alive.
In the sense that Parks' work explores a black man's groping for authenticity and status against the backdrop of white history, The America Play is kind of about Obama. Just as Lincoln presides like a two-faced God over Parks' play, so the spirit of the 16th president looms over Obama's rise to power. Political historians have repeatedly pointed out the similarities between Obama and Lincoln, from the fact that both men received criticism for their relative political inexperience during their campaigns, to their shared gift for oration. The artist Ron English has painted an Obama-Lincoln fusion portrait, merging the two men's likenesses into one. And pundits like the great documentarian Ken Burns, maker of the landmark 1990 PBS documentary series The Civil War, have couched their comparison of Obama and Lincoln in terms of the men's shared authenticity. "We need someone who is authentic," Burns was quoted as saying in The Washington Post during his Obama endorsement speech. "Someone who is able to dream, someone who is able to suggest a future that isn't so completely tied to the past."
When viewed through the prism of Parks' play, Burns' line about authenticity seems troubling. Feigned "performance" versus "genuineness" is one of the major themes of The America Play, and Lincoln, that monumental figurehead of American greatness, is found wanting in the authenticity department throughout Parks' drama. Alternately represented on stage by a black man in a series of fake beards, a pasteboard cutout, and a small plaster bust, there's little that seems real about the Civil War president. The playwright even kidnaps the melodramatic circumstances of his murder from the hallowed annals of history, transforming the scene at Ford's Theatre into a comical farce through its endless re-enactment onstage. Even more telling are the reactions of the various characters to shooting the counterfeit president. The experience of playing John Wilkes Booth to the make-believe Lincoln apparently has a cathartic effect on anyone who puts a penny in the Foundling Father's tin. "Thus to the tyrants!" declaims one man when the faux–commander-in-chief lies slumped in his chair, echoing Booth's purported words upon slaying the president. "Strike the tent!" says a woman after firing her gun, quoting the reported final words of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee.
Like the Foundling Father parroting "The Great Man" in his fake beard and stovepipe hat, so Obama frequently invokes Lincoln in his speeches. "As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, 'We are not enemies but friends. ... Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,'" Obama said during his presidential victory speech. But as the play suggests, Lincoln may not be such a positive role model for neither our new president nor the country as a whole after all. In the play, the Foundling Father, trying so hard to forge his identity by imitating Lincoln, finds himself pushed further and further down the Great Hole of History. The character starts out speaking in the third person, as if unable to take ownership of his story as a black man in a white man's world. Eventually he becomes as much of a museum artifact as the pasteboard Lincoln.
It's not for nothing that Rick Martin's arresting set design is reminiscent of a Victorian-era daguerreotype, complete with a proscenium-sized wooden picture frame: As much as we have the power to make history, it remains, at least to a degree, as fixed as an old photograph.
The cover of the November 7 issue of People depicts a euphoric picture of the president-elect and the headline "Barack Obama Makes History!" If Parks' surreal, multilayered carnival sideshow of a comedy tells us anything about the United States' first black leader, it's that he isn't likely to "make history" by mimicking his dead white forebears. That's a sure path to digging an early grave. Then again, failing to show proper deference to the figureheads of white mainstream history could also be detrimental to Obama's future. Let's hope he doesn't get shot.