The America Play

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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The America Play: Act 2, Part E: Spadework Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Brazil and Lucy quiz each other on about a dozen state capitals, until they get to “Nebraska. Lincoln.” Lucy pauses and then starts explaining how Pa “couldnt get that story out of his head”—the story is “Mr. Lincolns great head” and the bullet shot through it that killed him. This part, she tells Brazil, “changed your Fathuhs life.” But she preferred the story of Lincoln getting “married to Mary Todd and she begins to lose her mind.”
Brazil and Lucy’s state capitals game is a clear echo of the Foundling Father’s act from the previous scene, but it still remains unclear whether they are consciously or unconsciously copying him. It is fitting that they stop with Lincoln, Nebraska, which reminds audiences of yet another way that “Great Men” from history are mythologized and memorialized in everyday life—in fact, the Foundling Father’s model of history as a parade of “Greats” is also America’s standard model for thinking about the past. Lucy again offers a different perspective on the Foundling Father’s life and work, suggesting that his obsession with Lincoln may have been a form of pathology or madness (just like Mary Todd Lincoln’s). At the same time, to some audiences her own search for “Whispers” and “echoes” might make her look like a mirror for Mary Todd, and indeed her interest in Mary Todd’s side of the Lincoln story gives credence to this comparison (and further emphasizes that there are multiple valid perspectives on any historical event).
Themes
History, Narrative, and Multiplicity Theme Icon
Race and American Identity Theme Icon
Theater and Reality Theme Icon
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
Brazil weeps, but Lucy gives him “daddys digging spade” to cheer him up and tells him he “look[s] more and more and more and more like him ever-y day” Brazil has his father’s “chin,” “lips,” “teeths,” and “frock coat.” (The only thing he doesn’t have is Pa’s “stovepipe hat.”) Brazil decides he might be “follow[ing] in thuh footsteps of [his] foe-father,” and exclaims that they should “look on thuh bright side!” because they have “so much tuh live for!” Lucy echoes him and then begins, “Sweet land of—?” but forgets the end, which Brazil supplies: “Of liberty!”
Brazil’s identity starts to break apart through this emotional outburst: although he is 35, he suddenly starts to act like a child—and Lucy certainly talks to him like one, assuring him that he has inherited physical features from his father. Now, “forefather” gets twisted not into “faux,” or false, but into “foe,” or enemy: “daddy” is at once an unavoidable part of Brazil’s identity and DNA, and also a source of pain and struggle, against whom Brazil seeks to define himself. Lucy and Brazil’s exclamations at the end of this passage may or may not be sarcastic—it is hard to tell based on the written text, and different performers can interpret these lines differently. But their lines about “liberty!” are clearly a form of irony: Lucy forgets about “liberty,” which has probably not played a significant role in her life as a black woman. This irony draws out the contradiction between American narratives of greatness, liberty, and freedom, on the one hand, and the reality that the United States has systematically deprived liberty to large segments of its population throughout its entire history, on the other. This narrative of exceptionalism is far too easy to accept, and it shows the dangers in taking the victors’ version of history for granted, rather than challenging it and exploring what it leaves out.
Themes
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Race and American Identity Theme Icon
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Lucy and Brazil ask what Pa would say, if Lucy could “hear his words.” She decides that he would tell Brazil he “like[s his] spade” and exclaim, “my how youve grown!” He’d ask about Brazil’s “weepin” and praise him for “running through his states and capitals! Licketysplit!” And perhaps, Lucy continues, he'd repeat his favorite Lincoln quotes, like “uh house divided cannot stand!” and “4score and 7 years uhgoh.” And finally, Lucy says she has one more thing for Brazil, but he has to “lean in” to hear it, because “ssfor our ears and our ears uhlone.” She tells him, but the audience does not hear.
Lucy continues talking to Brazil as though he were a child, and the dialogue she invents on Pa’s behalf is not at all emotional, loving, or personal, but rather full of feigned interest and bad acting. Lucy does not pretend that Pa would be capable of having any real feeling toward his son after abandoning him for so long. Indeed, she seems to suggest that she and Brazil only remain Pa’s family out of obligation, and in this sense, she calls into question the legitimacy of family as an organizing principle for people’s lives. The secret line that she whispers in Brazil’s ear is another example of how Parks uses opacity, unintelligibility, and strategic silences in order to remind the audience that no single version of events is ever the whole story and encourage them to think critically and interpret the work for themselves.
Themes
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Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
Lucy tells Brazil that his Pa might as well be “striding on in” to see them, “nod[ding]” to them for finding “his Wonders” and talking about his life, and finally doing his Lincoln impersonation. This will make them “smile” from knowing “exactly where he is.” Brazil asks where, and Lucy tells him to keep digging. He does, and after a time, Lucy reminds him that he’s “uh Digger” like his Pa.
Curiously, Lucy never imagines Pa as able to relate to his son on Brazil’s own terms: rather, even in family life, he would remain a Lincoln impersonator and be unable to define his identity except through reference to the “Great Man.” Tellingly, Lucy and Brazil’s imagined “smile” would come from knowledge, not feeling—from having their expectations about the Foundling Father fulfilled, in other words, and not from any semblance of feeling toward him. These empty gestures to resemblance and inheritance continue to make the family at the center of this play look progressively more hollow and feigned: obligation and inheritance, not love, tie Lucy and Brazil to the Foundling Father.
Themes
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Lucy remarks that she “couldnt never deny him [Pa] nothin” and “gived intuh him on everything,” just as Brazil finds a trumpet. Lucy tells Brazil to “try it out”—but instead, they just move on. Lucy starts repeating her lines about everything she “gived intuh” for Pa, and Brazil finds “uh bag of pennies,” and then the yellow Lincoln beard.
The “Wonders” Brazil digs up now offer evidence that the Foundling Father truly gave up on his “Lincoln Act” before he died: the “bag of pennies” reveals, cryptically, that he actually buried the money he made from his reenactments, and the yellow beard was his favorite. The pennies are also significant because, like Lincoln, Nebraska, they point to the way that Abraham Lincoln is memorialized and incorporated into everyday life in America, but only through superficial forms—his image and his name rather than his story.
Themes
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Death, Mourning, and Resurrection Theme Icon
Lucy exclaims “WOAH!” and Brazil asks her “Whatchaheard?” After a long time, she says, “You dont wanna know.” There is silence, and then Brazil digs up something else: “uh Tee-Vee.” Lucy keeps reminding herself of the things Pa took from her, like “thuh apron from uhround my waist” and even her “re-memberies—you know—thuh stuff out of my head.” Then, the television suddenly switches on and shows the Foundling Father’s face on it. Brazil is surprised and repeats, “(ho! Ho! Wonder: ho!),” while Lucy keeps listing the things Pa took: her “spare buttons” and “leftovers,” even “thuh letter R” and “thuh key of G,” her “good jokes” and “the way [she] walked,” even her “smile.” She admits that “its him” on the television.
As the dead send her secrets too powerful to retell, Lucy again falls back into her role as a “Confidence,” reaffirming both the fact that the dead have messages for the living and the idea that not everything will be available to the audience, who have to fill in the gaps in the narrative on their own. Tellingly, however, she follows this by again listing some of the seemingly countless and deeply personal things that the Foundling Father took away from her—beyond suggesting that their relationship was somehow abusive, she also shows that it deprived her of her very own identity, instead turning her into a derivative of him (just as he became a derivative of Lincoln). In addition to disrupting the medium of theater and comically juxtaposing the old-timey figure of Abraham Lincoln with modern technology, the “Tee-Vee” makes a clear comment on the tenuous relationship between representation and reality: the Foundling Father somehow feels less “real” on the television than he was on the stage, which may be unsettling for an audience that just saw him in the flesh.
Themes
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Theater and Reality Theme Icon
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
Death, Mourning, and Resurrection Theme Icon