Suzan-Lori Parks’s challenging, experimental two-act work The America Play takes place in “an exact replica of the Great Hole of History,” a setting meant metaphorically as well as literally: Act One of the play, “Lincoln Act,” opens in this hole in the ground, which has been dug by its protagonist: an African American gravedigger-turned-Abraham Lincoln imitator known only as the Foundling Father. The Foundling Father’s lengthy monologue, broken up by stage directions to “(Rest),” comprises this entire act; like virtually all the dialogue in Parks’s plays, this monologue is punctuated and spelled unconventionally in order to evoke vernacular African American speech. In addition, many parts of the play’s dialogue are enclosed in square brackets, which indicates that they are optional.
Dressed as Lincoln, the Foundling Father opens by repeating a number of cryptic, self-referential phrases, like “I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed,” most of which are quoted from other sources. He talks about his past in the third person: everyone always told him he looked like “the Great Man” (Lincoln), so even though he (“the Lesser Known”) started out digging graves like the other men in his family, he eventually convinced his barber to make him some beards, put them in a box, and came out here to dig the replica of the Great Hole of History and impersonate Lincoln in it. He is fascinated by Lincoln’s assassination, which happened in a Washington theater while the audience was laughing at a bad joke in the second-rate play My American Cousin. He fantasizes about Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, yelling out, “Emergency, please put the Great Man in the ground,” and he speculates about what it would have been like to dig Lincoln’s grave. At seemingly random intervals throughout his monologue, he nods at a bust of Abraham Lincoln and winks at a pasteboard cutout of him.
The Foundling Father shows the audience his different Lincoln beards and recalls the original “Great Hole of History”—a theme park he visited on his honeymoon with his wife, Lucy—that inspired him to give up the gravedigging-and-mourning business he started with her, move “out West,” and dig “his own Big Hole” to start impersonating Lincoln. Eventually, someone told him that “he played Lincoln so well that he ought to be shot,” and this inspired his current business, which he demonstrates to the audience: suddenly, the Foundling Father starts laughing as a man dressed as Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, walks onstage and shoots him in the head with a toy gun. The Foundling Father plays dead, and the other man declares, “thus to the tyrants!” The reenactment repeats once again, but this time the shooter yells, “the South is avenged!” The Foundling Father thanks the man, who is one of his regular customers.
The Foundling Father continues explaining his business and fascination with Lincoln’s life and death, but is interrupted at regular intervals by men, women, and even a couple, all dressed as Booth, who make him play out the assassination scene over and over again. Luckily, the Foundling Father notes, the only “side effect” from his work is the “slight deafness,” and it is worth the opportunity to follow in “the Great Mans footsteps.” He repeats these comments between other reenactments of the assassination and wonders if he will ever catch up with Lincoln’s greatness—or perhaps vice versa—before the echo of a gunshot marks the end of Act One.
Act Two, “The Hall of Wonders,” opens its first scene, “Big Bang,” with the same echoing gunshot that ends Act One, but different characters: Lucy and Brazil, who are the Foundling Father’s wife and son, respectively. While they debate if this echo is “him,” Lucy circles with an ear trumpet to try and tell “thuh difference” between the original gunshot and its echo, and Brazil digs holes around the stage, like his “Daddy.” Like the Foundling Father’s monologue, Lucy and Brazil’s dialogue is punctuated with the direction, “(Rest),” indicating a pause. In addition, they also frequently trade empty lines: the script simply reads “LUCY” and “BRAZIL,”
Lucy reveals that the Foundling Father has died but never got the “proper burial” he deserves, and she and Brazil reminisce about the death of a family friend, Bram Price. Price revealed a secret to Lucy on his deathbed, and she kept this secret for so long that she became known as a trustworthy confidant (or “Confidence”) for the dying. (Now that it’s been more than 12 years, “nobody cares,” so she call tell Brazil about Bram Price’s secret—which is that “he wore lifts in his shoes” to “seem taller than he was.”) While Lucy was the “Confidence,” Brazil was in charge of the “weepin sobbin [and] moanin,” and at times he even “gnashed.”
Now that the Foundling Father has died, Brazil is digging for “his bones” and “thuh Wonders” that filled his Hall of Wonders, and they’re both listening for “his Whispers.” They don’t hear these “Whispers,” but they don’t understand why—maybe they “travel different out West.” The Foundling Father came out here when Brazil “was only 5,” because even though he was a good digger, “fakin was his callin.” Lucy recalls watching historical figures parade around at the Great Hole of History during her honeymoon and admires the “lookuhlike” that the Foundling Father has built. As the gunshot echo keeps sounding, Lucy keeps searching for the “whispers” and Brazil keeps digging and reminiscing about his Pa. Finally, Brazil pulls one of the “Wonders” out of the dirt: the Abraham Lincoln bust.
After a brief scene labeled “Echo,” in which the Foundling Father returns to the stage and cheers as he watches actors play out a short scene from Our American Cousin, the play returns to Lucy and Brazil in the third scene, “Archaeology.” Lucy tells Brazil about all the different kinds of echoes and whispers, and Brazil muses about what his ancestors—his “foe-father” or “faux-father” (forefather) and the others “who comed before us”—have done for him, like leaving him “this Hole” as “inheritance.”
Brazil welcomes the audience to the “hall. of. wonnndersss” and begins describing the things he has collected there, including a jewel box engraved “A.L.” and George Washington’s “nibblers” (wooden teeth), documents like “peace pacts” and “declarations like war,” and medals for a variety of feats, from “bravery and honesty” to “knowledge of sewin” and, of course, “fakin.” Remembering his Pa, he breaks down in tears, but Lucy comforts him before starting to reminisce about how she “couldnt never deny [the Foundling Father] nothin.” Grimly, she notes that there were “stories too horrible tuh mention,” and then the scene with Lucy and Brazil gives way to another “Echo,” in which actors play out the scene from Our American Cousin that immediately preceded Lincoln’s shooting. After this, the Foundling Father thanks the audience for coming to see him and begins reciting Lincoln quotes and state capitals. He then narrates—but does not act out—every stage in Lincoln’s shooting, and he declares that the bullet made a “great black hole” that killed Lincoln later that day.
In the next scene, “Spadework,” Lucy and Brazil start by quizzing each other on state capitals. After they get to Lincoln, Nebraska, Lucy starts talking about the Foundling Father’s fixation on Lincoln and resemblance to Brazil, who alternatingly weeps and celebrates having “so much tuh live for!” Lucy imagines what Pa might have told Brazil, if he were still alive—she quotes Lincoln and praises her son, then leans in to tell him something that “ssfor our ears and our ears uhlone,” which the audience never hears. Brazil returns to digging (and finds a trumpet and “uh bag of pennies”), and Lucy again starts lamenting how she “gived intuh him [the Foundling Father] on everything.” She hears something and screams, but won’t tell Brazil what it is, and then starts listing all the things the Foundling Father took from her.
Suddenly, Brazil digs up “uh Tee-Vee,” and it turns on just before it is interrupted by another short section labeled “Echo,” which consists only of the familiar stage direction: “A gunshot echoes. Loudly. And echoes.” In the final section, “The Great Beyond,” the television starts playing a scene from the play’s first act, before the Foundling Father appears onstage, along with his coffin, and starts talking. Lucy and Brazil debate whether he is alive or dead and then discuss funeral arrangements. Next, the Foundling Father asks for a hug, but his family refuses. Lucy talks about “thuh Original Great Hole” of History and asks the Foundling Father to get in his coffin. He tries it out, but then he gives his own eulogy, telling the audience how he “quit the [Lincoln impersonation] business. And buried all [his] things.” He quotes Lincoln and then abruptly starts reenacting the assassination: the gunshot sounds, and he appears to die (although Lucy and Brazil are still not sure). Lucy and Brazil debate what they should do, and decide to prepare and wait for their guests.
Brazil announces, “Welcome Welcome Welcome to thuh hall. Of. Wonders.” He describes these wonders as he had before, from the jewel box to the Lincoln bust and medals. And finally, Brazil shows the audience “our newest Wonder: One of the greats Hisself!” Like Lincoln, the Foundling Father has a “great black hole in [his] great head,” and Brazil asks the audience to “Note: thuh last words.—And thuh last breaths.—And how thuh nation mourns—” before he walks offstage and the curtain falls, ending the play.