The America Play

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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The America Play: Act 2, Part A: Big Bang Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lucy and Brazil debate if the sound they hear is “him,” as the gunshot keeps echoing. They decide that it isn’t, and Lucy comments on the way “uh little gunplay” has led to this echo: “KER-BANG! KERBANG-Kerbang-kerbang-(kerbang)- ((kerbang)).”
Although they do not say it explicitly, there is no doubt that Lucy and Brazil are looking for the Foundling Father. While they were only tangentially relevant to his story, he appears to be completely central to theirs, and this asymmetry suggests that there is a deep power imbalance among them as a family. Hearing the gunshot’s echo, Lucy literally echoes it in turn, emphasizing the way “little” events from the past have lasting effects on those who come after.
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Lucy notices that Brazil has stopped digging. She tells him to continue “till you dig up somethin” and reminds him that “Your Daddy was uh Digger.” The echo continues, and after a pause, Lucy tells Brazil how important it is for her “tuh know thuh difference” between the real gunshot and the echo. Meanwhile, Lucy continues, Brazil’s “Fathuh became confused,” died alone, and never got a “proper burial.”
Lucy cites “Daddy” as a way of making a claim about Brazil’s identity, which closely parallels the way the Foundling Father constructed his identity entirely by reference to someone else—Abraham Lincoln—throughout Act 1. In fact, now “Daddy” is dead, just like Lincoln, which means that Act 2 clearly does not immediately follow Act 1. In fact, it is deeply ironic that the Foundling Father dies invisibly, offstage, after acting out his own death as Lincoln so many times onstage. Lucy and Brazil have come to fulfill their obligation as a family—to give him a “proper burial”—even though they clearly did not live as a family for very long, which suggests that such family bonds are irrevocable and confer obligations on family members no matter what.
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Lucy remembers that everyone made up a story about the last words of someone named Bram Price, who actually uttered those last words to Lucy. He “told [her] something quite different,” although she will never repeat it. “Little Bram Price Junior,” who “burned [Lucy’s] eardrums,” died too. But “His Echo” came back “and [ate] up everybodys food just like he did when he was livin.” His mother, “Miz Penny Price,” also told Lucy secrets that will never be repeated, and “sold herself” and “lost her mind” after her husband and son died. She died, too, and Brazilgnashed for her” (rather than “weepin sobbin or moanin”). He “gnashed” so hard that he “chipped uh tooth,” but this was only his “job.” He’s stopped digging, and Lucy again tells him to restart.
By talking about “Little Bram Price Junior[’s] […] Echo,” Lucy suggests that the spirits of the dead literally live on and leave a mark on the world. The name “Penny Price” is clever wordplay, a riff on the Foundling Father’s act (for which he charged a penny—a coin that happens to have Abraham Lincoln's face on it). Curiously, Price’s downfall closely parallels Mary Todd Lincoln’s, and readers should ask if Lucy is pointing out an overall analogy in the way many or all families might function. While it seems confusing that Brazil’s “job” would be mourning, he means it literally: he gets paid to act out mourning at people’s funerals, which takes from both of his father’s professions: acting and putting the dead to rest.
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Brazil notes that he and Lucy “arent from these parts,” and “Daddy iduhnt either.” He’s stopped digging, and Lucy tells him to start again, “till you dig up somethin.” Then, he’ll “brush that something off” and give it “uh place in the Hall of Wonders right uhlong with thuh rest of thuh Wonders hear?” Lucy starts musing about Bram Price Senior again and remarks that she is “uh good Confidence,” and has never told his secret for 19 nears. But “after 12 years nobody cares,” so she reveals it: “he wore lifts in his shoes,” which made him look taller. His dying word was “Lifts,” but Lucy “put thuh puzzle pieces in place” (which she emphasizes by repeating it). Brazil’s “thuh first tuh know,” but has to keep digging! “Dig on. Dig on,” Lucy says, and Brazil echoes, “Dig on.” The gunshot echoes again.
Brazil and Lucy introduce the fact that they have migrated to find traces of “Daddy” and are building a “Hall of Wonders,” but they do not clarify either of these ideas until later in the text. While it is impossible to know precisely why Parks has chosen to include these details in passing to foreshadow later developments, one reasonable explanation would be that this forces readers and audiences to “put thuh puzzle pieces in place” themselves and analyze Lucy and Brazil’s story and motives in a way that would not be necessary if they simply said what they meant. Lucy’s job as a “Confidence”—her term for someone who keeps secrets for the dead—not only fits well with Brazil and the Foundling Father’s jobs mourning and digging, but also explains both the way that the deceased can sustain their messages through the living and the reason Lucy is particularly suited to gather whatever trace evidence the Foundling Father has left behind. Finally, Brazil’s digging is unlike his father’s: whereas the Foundling Father dug graves, creating empty spaces meant to be filled, Brazil is doing the opposite, digging in search of something (the “Wonders”), which also turns digging into a metaphor for his quest to understand his father more generally.
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Brazil comments that “Ff Pa was here weud find his bones,” along with “thuh Wonders” and “his Whispers,” but Lucy disagrees. Brazil says that “Confidence [would have] his last words and dying wishes,” but Lucy wonders if “they could pass different out here” in the West. Brazil insists that Daddy had the same “ways” as them, and that he would have “just dribble[d] thuh words out” if there were nobody to talk to, until “Confidencell gather up thuh whispers when she arrives.” Lucy calls Brazil “uh prize.”
Lucy and Brazil start to clarify what Lucy’s “Confidence” work looks like. Tellingly, it is similar to that of a historian: she is trying to “gather up” all the evidence of “Pa” that she can find, and then she is responsible for holding his secrets—as she did with Bram Price’s—in order to keep his words, wishes, and secrets around in the world of the living. While it is not yet clear what “thuh Wonders” are, at this stage readers and audiences can guess that the “Whispers” are like echoes of the voices of the dead.
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Since he doesn’t hear his Pa’s “whispers,” Brazil concludes that “he wuduhnt here,” but Lucy says that he must have been, and that “whispers don’t always come up right away,” because they “could travel different out West.” After all, it’s been 30 years since they’ve seen Pa. So it could be “some sort of interference. Or some sort of technical difficulty.”
Lucy’s comment about her and Brazil’s 30 years without seeing Pa confirms that the Foundling Father abandoned them quite a long time ago. Yet they both feel a sense of obligation to him nonetheless: they are unwilling to turn their backs on family, even though the Foundling Father did. Whereas Brazil expects to find some clear and definitive evidence of his Pa, Lucy is more patient and willing to cope with uncertainty. It is no coincidence that they have traveled West—this is a wink and nod to American history. Not only was Westward expansion an important force in the mid-19th century (around the time of Lincoln’s presidency), when it was essentially reserved for white people, but forced Westward migration across the Middle Passage is also the foundation of the black American experience. And, by citing “technical difficult[ies],” Lucy and Brazil self-consciously break the fourth wall, pointing out that they are on stage in a theater in order to remind the audience that theater and their fictional universe are extensions of reality, not separate from it.
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“So much to live for,” Lucy says and Brazil repeats, and then “Look on thuh bright side,” which Brazil extends into a yell or song. Lucy tells Brazil to “DIIIIIIIIIIIIG!” and he echoes, “Dig.” They trade empty lines, Lucy calls out “Helloooo!” twice, and there are two more empty lines.
This abrupt interlude is deliberately ambiguous: it is difficult to tell if Lucy and Brazil are talking literally or ironically about “thuh bright side,” and their riffs on one another’s lines and empty “spells” of unwritten dialogue (where Parks asks the actors to improvise) allow them to establish the closeness and interdependence of their mother-son relationship.
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Brazil recalls that his family is “from out East,” but his Pa (for whom he has many names) came “out hear all uhlone” to dig his “whole Hole,” when Brazil “was only 5,” responsible for “thuh weepin and thuh moanin” (while Pa dug and Lucy was “whatcha call uh Confidence”). But Pa’s “lonely death and lack of proper burial is our embarrassment,” Brazil continues, for while Pa was always great at digging, “fakin was his callin,” and he could “combine thuh 2” in the West with his “exact replica of thuh Great Hole of History!” “Thuh original,” he clarifies, “ssback East,” and was Pa and Lucy’s honeymoon spot, where they watched parades of historical figures, who “would rise up from thuh dead and walk uhround” and such. Lucy clarifies that actually, these figures were “lookuhlike[s]” and the Hole “was uh theme park.” Brazil lists all the various historical characters who showed up in the Great Hole of History, then recalls that his Pa did “Mr. Lincolns last show” and came West to “build uh like attraction.”
Parks strategically shifts between different kinds of dialogue to express different registers of ideas: most of Brazil's lines are in her usual vernacular, but the punchline that explains his and Lucy’s motives for seeking out the Foundling Father after 30 years—“His lonely death and lack of proper burial is our embarrassment”—is written with standard conventions. Curiously, while Brazil knows all about the Great Hole of History—and is the only character to actually list the historical figures that paraded around inside it—he also never went there. His knowledge of it is based entirely on secondhand knowledge, just like his analysis of his Pa (and everyone’s knowledge of anything that happened before they were around). Brazil therefore shows how hearsay can be authoritative—and has to be, when it comes to history. Until Lucy corrects him, Brazil actually thinks that the Great Hole is full of resurrected historical figures, which tellingly blurs the distinction between authenticity and acting. After all, if “fakin” is a legitimate “callin,” then perhaps watching a reenactor might be more interesting than meeting an original historical figure.
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The gunshot echoes again, and Brazil screams and “drops dead,” but Lucy knows he’s “fakin” just like his Father always did. His Pa was “one of thuh best” at faking—and at digging. Brazil “was only 5,” but his Pa used to “quote thuh Greats”—like a few different presidents. But “hearsay says” that Pa “digged this hole then he died.” Lucy reminds Brazil to keep digging and recalls how Pa used to yell “OHWAYOHWHYOHWAYOH!” from the side of the Great Hole. Brazil echoes this exclamation, and Lucy repeats it again and explains that this was how Pa got the attention of the people in the Hole.
While they have their suspicions, Lucy and Brazil can’t know anything for sure about Pa; they are working off of “hearsay,” and they clearly don’t know what the audience has learned from Act 1—which also does not resolve the question of the Foundling Father’s death. However, Brazil happens to unsuspectingly follow in his father’s footsteps by “fakin” his death when the gunshot echoes—of course, this is probably the same gunshot from the Foundling Father’s reenactment of the Lincoln assassination, and possibly from his death, too. Lucy provides a different perspective on the Great Hole of History: most importantly, she notes how the Foundling Father tried to interact directly with the impersonators, as though to break the barrier between the past and the present. Of course, this is the same desire that drove him to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps.
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So that’s why Pa came West, “digged this lookuhlike,” and then “died right here.” “Uh greaaaaat biiiiig faker,” Lucy repeats—just like Brazil, who “take[s] after him.” She tells Brazil to put his “paw” back on the shovel and dig where she draws him an “X.” After awhile, Lucy hears something but “cant say” what it is, so Brazil keeps digging while she “circulates” around.
The comparisons between Brazil and his father, both of whom are accomplished diggers and fakers, extend to a pun that seems subconscious (“Paw”/“Pa” on the shovel), and this continues to show how inheritance is irrevocable, no matter how unpleasant one’s family. Between the “X” and the sounds that she can’t interpret, Lucy suggests that doubt and uncertainty are a prerequisite to developing an adequate understanding of things: whereas Brazil continues waiting for a complete version of events to fall into his lap, Lucy is skeptical of anything that purports to be absolute truth, and these two approaches mark opposite orientations toward how the past should be narrated and understood.
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Brazil takes a rest and tells the story of “the 100th anniversary of the founding of our country,” when “the Father took the Son out into the yard” and started biting and crying into the dirt. This, he told the Son, “is the Wail.” The next year, he “showed the Son ‘the Weep’ ‘the Sob’ and ‘the Moan,’” and how to stand properly while mourning. The Father learned this all “at the History Hole,” and “the Son studied night and day,” until he was the best mourner around and “the money came pouring in.” The next year, “the Father taught him ‘the Gnash,’” but then disappeared during dinner, to go “out West.”
By connecting American history to his personal history with “the Father,” Brazil implies that they were mourning together for their country, which evokes the historical trauma of black life in the United States and suggests that truly grasping black history means mourning for America. The “100th anniversary” comment also curiously suggests that, from Brazil’s perspective, the nation’s “founding” may be the end of the Civil War, not the Revolution, which again recalls Lincoln’s peculiar role as a “founding father” for black (but not white) America. The exact nature of “the Gnash” remains opaque, but the quasi-religious language of “the Father” and “the Son” points to its origin in the Bible as a sign of grief and mourning. Accordingly, in this passage Brazil appeals at once to nation and religion, and in doing so he embeds his family history in two different layers of mythology rather than acknowledging its ambiguity like his mother. This again suggests that Brazil’s desire for overarching single narratives represents an unhealthy attitude toward explaining the world and the human past, whereas Lucy’s more uncertain one is exactly what leads people to understand history in a more nuanced and comprehensive way.
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After a long silence, Lucy yells “Hellooooo!” Later, Brazil yells “HO!” and pulls out “Uh Wonder!” It’s the bust of Abraham Lincoln. Lucy exclaims, “Howuhboutthat!” After a silence, she hears something, but “cant say” what. She tells Brazil to “SSShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhht!” and “dig!”
Finally, Brazil’s digging yields some treasure—the audience should immediately recognize that he digs up the same bust of Lincoln that the Foundling Father always nodded towards in Act 1. While he knew it was a cheap fake, Brazil and Lucy are excited to find it—whether because they consider it a real sign from history, or only because it gives them a definitive sign from the Foundling Father.
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