The America Play

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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The America Play Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Suzan-Lori Parks

One of the most decorated living American playwrights, Suzan-Lori Parks was born in Kentucky but grew up in six different U.S. states—including her mother’s native Texas—and briefly in Germany, as the daughter of an Army officer. After graduating from high school in Maryland, she went to college at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she studied English and German Literature. At Mount Holyoke, Parks took a class with the illustrious writer James Baldwin, who called her “an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time,” and also convinced her to try writing plays. After graduating, Parks took Baldwin's advice and moved to London to study acting for a year, and then went to New York and started writing plays while working odd jobs. In 1987, she put on her first play, Betting on the Dust Commander, in a Lower East Side bar—her friend Laurie Carlos directed, and Parks recalls that her audience consisted of “my dad, my mom, and my sister, and one of the homeless guys from the neighborhood.” But her second work, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, was a hit and got Parks labeled as a rising star. Over the next decade, Parks found moderate success by collaborating with the New York Public Theater on a series of plays, including The America Play, that explored and unraveled historical, scientific, and stereotypical representations of blackness. She became a household name, however, only with the 2002 Broadway production of her play Topdog/Underdog, which won her a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur “genius” grant, and was also named the best American play written between 1993 and 2018 by the New York Times. Around this time, she moved to Los Angeles with her husband Paul Oscher (div. 2011), a blues musician who formerly played with the famous Muddy Water Blues Band, and began teaching at the California Institute for the Arts and expanding into other genres. She published her first novel, Getting Mother’s Body, in 2003, and she wrote a musical based on the life of musician Ray Charles in 2007. During this period, she also embarked on an ambitious project to write one play every day for a year, no matter where she was or what she was doing. She succeeded, and in 2006 and 2007, her 365 Plays/365 Days were performed in hundreds of theaters around the world. She has since returned to New York and begun teaching at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She continues to write in a variety of genres but remains best known for her plays, which have begun to take more traditional narrative forms over time. Recent hits include the 2014 Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), inspired by her father’s career in the military, and the 2019 White Noise, which explores the interracial relationships and police brutality in the United States. She has written multiple screenplays, including Girl 6 for director Spike Lee, and adaptations of novels by Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. Parks is also a musician, which helps explain the deep influence of jazz on her style, and an avid practitioner of yoga. As of 2020, she performs occasionally, singing with her current husband, guitarist Christian Konopka.
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Historical Context of The America Play

It would not be an overstatement to say that The America Play revolves around history, which Parks both relegates to a “Great Hole” and mythologizes as a determining force in the life and work of her first protagonist, the Foundling Father. Specifically, the Foundling Father is obsessed with his lookalike, Abraham Lincoln, and the extraordinary scene of Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, just a few days after the end of the Civil War. For the theater, this assassination is deeply symbolic because it occurred in a theater—Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.—while Lincoln was watching the play Our American Cousin. Moreover, Lincoln’s assassin was the famous actor and white supremacist John Wilkes Booth, who hoped to avenge the South and possibly restart the Civil War. In fact, Lincoln had seen Booth act onstage before and even invited him to the White House multiple times, not realizing that Booth secretly yearned to bring down the antislavery Union government. With two co-conspirators who planned to assassinate or kidnap other prominent government officials and cripple the Union, Booth developed a series of plans to do the same to Lincoln, but he ultimately decided to kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theater the same day of the performance. It is unclear whether Booth cited his fame to get access to the Presidential Box, or the President’s security simply never returned after the intermission. As noted in The America Play, Booth waited just behind the door until one of the most laughter-inducing lines in Our American Cousin, which he knew by heart: “you sockdologizing old man-trap!” Booth shot Lincoln in the head and then jumped onto the stage, yelled something at the audience—the disagreement over what he said is also an important plot point in The America Play—and then escaped from the theater and rode away on a horse. Doctors tended to Lincoln and decided to move him to a house across the street, where they realized he could not possibly survive the wound. He died the next morning, and millions of people attended his funeral and followed his funeral train to his burial site back in his native Illinois. Booth was caught and shot to death roughly two weeks later in Virginia, and many of his co-conspirators and accomplices were hanged and sentenced to life in prison during the following years. However, throughout the play, Parks also gestures to the way certain features of Lincoln’s mythology come to define him in the popular imagination and overshadow the full extent of his life and legacy. She cites the assassination, of course, as well as his famous hat and the Gettysburg Address, the most famous and widely cited political speech in American history, in which Lincoln rallied Union soldiers by declaring the equality of all people to be the founding principle of American democracy.

Other Books Related to The America Play

Parks has written more than 20 plays, of which the most famous remains Topdog/Underdog (1999), whose central character is an adaptation of the Lincoln impersonator the Foundling Father, from The America Play. Her other most prominent works include the conceptual The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World A.K.A. The Negro Book Of The Dead (1992), in which black men from history and racist stereotypes convene to die in the same “exact replica of the Great Hole of History” where The America Play is set; Venus (1996), an adaptation of the story of the South African woman Saartjie Baartman, who was trafficked to Britain, forced to exhibit her sizable rear end in freak shows, and then enslaved and studied in France; In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000), two plays inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850); the monumental project 365 Days/365 Plays (written 2002-2003, performed around the world 2006-2007); and the recent hits Father Comes Home from the War, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (2014) and White Noise (2019). She has also notably written Unchain My Heart (The Ray Charles Musical) (2007) and the screenplays for Spike Lee’s Girl 6 (1996) as well as film adaptations of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (original 1937, film 2005) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (original 1939, film 2019). Parks is deeply indebted to the influence of her mentor James Baldwin, whose numerous essays and novels—as well as two plays, The Amen Corner (1954) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964)—offer influential meditations on the African American condition. But she has also cited Tennessee Williams and musicals like The Sound of Music and Oklahoma as inspirations. Parks’s work is often compared to that of black feminist writers Adrienne Kennedy, whose 1964 play Funnyhouse of a Negro played an important role in the otherwise male-dominated Black Arts Movement, and Ntozake Shange, who is best known for her 1976 play or conceptual “choreopoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enough. Parks is arguably the most famous African American woman playwright in history, along with the groundbreaking mid-20th-century writer Lorraine Hansberry, who is still celebrated for A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Parks’s barren settings are often compared to those of absurdist playwrights like the Irish Samuel Beckett, who actually has one of the characters in his 1962 play Happy Days stuck in a hole in the ground. Finally, of course, Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin (1858)—which Lincoln was attending when he was assassinated—makes a prominent appearance in The America Play.
Key Facts about The America Play
  • Full Title: The America Play
  • When Written: 1990-1993
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 1994 (first performance at the Yale Repertory Theater)
  • Literary Period: Contemporary/Postmodern American Theater
  • Genre: Contemporary American theater, experimental theater, historical theater, metatheatre, African American theater
  • Setting: An exact replica of The Great Hole of History
  • Climax: The Foundling Father returns from beyond the grave, and then dies in a reenactment of the Lincoln assassination.
  • Antagonist: The Foundling Father, the John Wilkes Booth impersonators, historical amnesia, American racism, death and burial
  • Point of View: Dramatic

Extra Credit for The America Play

72 Hours to Fame. Parks wrote her most famous play, Topdog/Underdog—which borrows heavily from The America Play and revolves around two black brothers named Lincoln and Booth—in the course of just three days, during an artist’s residency in a theater she soon realized had little interest in performing her work.

A Typo for the Ages. Parks’s name is legally spelled “Susan,” but after it was misspelled “Suzan” on an announcement for one of her first plays, she decided to let the new spelling stick.