The America Play

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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The “Gnash” Symbol Analysis

The “Gnash” Symbol Icon

As a professional mourner, Brazil knows how to rile up a funeral crowd and help people process loved ones’ deaths through techniques like “the Weep,” “the Sob,” and “the Moan.” In fact, the Foundling Father taught him these, along with the mysterious “Gnash.” Throughout Act Two, Brazil remembers “gnash[ing]” at funerals—once so hard that he “chipped uh tooth.” And at the end of the play, he resolves to “gnash” for the Foundling Father—although, when it comes time, his mother Lucy tells him to “save it for thuh guests” (who never arrive).

Although clearly the most powerful of Brazil’s mourning techniques, “the Gnash” is also likely unintelligible to most audiences. As elsewhere in this play, here Parks calls attention to the way certain private meanings can never be fully communicated, least of all onstage, by intentionally making her characters opaque. Family secrets are an example of such private knowledge, so while “the Gnash” shows how Brazil inherits his sense of identity and purpose from his father, his uncertainty about whether to “gnash” for his father also reveals their relationship’s underlying ambivalence.

The “gnash” is also a specific reference to a definite source: the Bible (specifically the Gospel of Matthew) repeatedly mentions people—specifically, those who are not chosen during the Second Coming—mourning through “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” By subtly putting The America Play in conversation with the New Testament, Parks both shows how her characters inherit the Christian tradition, as much as white people do, and draws a parallel between God’s abandonment of the unworthy and history’s abandonment of black families like Brazil’s. In fact, some scholars believe that this phrase was added later to Matthew, which makes “gnashing” a fitting addition to a play that emphasizes how history is constructed by those who remember and narrate it.

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The “Gnash” Symbol Timeline in The America Play

The timeline below shows where the symbol The “Gnash” appears in The America Play. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 2, Part A: Big Bang
Theater and Reality Theme Icon
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
Death, Mourning, and Resurrection Theme Icon
...and “lost her mind” after her husband and son died. She died, too, and Brazil “gnashed for her” (rather than “weepin sobbin or moanin”). He “gnashed” so hard that he “chipped... (full context)
History, Narrative, and Multiplicity Theme Icon
Race and American Identity Theme Icon
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
Death, Mourning, and Resurrection Theme Icon
...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.” (full context)
Act 2, Part G: The Great Beyond
History, Narrative, and Multiplicity Theme Icon
Theater and Reality Theme Icon
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
...“get in [his] coffin,” but he says he wants “tuh wait uhwhile.” Brazil promises to “gnash for [his Pa],” and the Foundling Father asks about his casket, which Lucy says will... (full context)
History, Narrative, and Multiplicity Theme Icon
Theater and Reality Theme Icon
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Theme Icon
Death, Mourning, and Resurrection Theme Icon
...“uh Confidence. At the age of 8. Sworn tuh secrecy.” Brazil asks if he should “gnash now,” but Lucy says to “save it for thuh guests,” and just “dust and polish”... (full context)