The first act of The America Play follows a black man named the Foundling Father, who leaves his gravedigging career to instead make a living reenacting his idol Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Throughout this first act, the Foundling Father only mentions his family in passing. But in Act Two, his wife Lucy and son Brazil move from the shadows to the center of the narrative: they reveal that he abandoned them three decades prior to pursue his Lincoln fantasy and has recently died. Believing that his “lack of proper burial is [their] embarrassment,” Lucy and Brazil seek out whatever is left of him. At first, it seems that they are trying to symbolically reverse the fragmentation of their family, but it eventually becomes clear that they cannot heal the wounds of the past. While the Foundling Father copes with his own wounds by running away and forming an imaginary bond with Abraham Lincoln, Lucy and Brazil deal with the ones he inflicts on them by trying to “dig up somethin” that can explain their family ties. None of them escapes family’s influence on identity, even though family also often traumatizes them. Ultimately, Parks argues that people must find the bravery to confront this trauma and recognize family’s imprint on them, without idolizing it (and especially paternity) at the expense of their own identities and lives.
The Foundling Father constructs his life and identity entirely through his reverence for Abraham Lincoln, whom he treats as a paternal figure. His name reveals this: a “foundling” is an abandoned, often illegitimate child, so the name “Foundling Father” points both to black people’s abandonment by a nation built on their oppression and to the Foundling Father’s specific relationship to Abraham Lincoln, a man whom he idolizes and resembles like a son in all ways but color. Therefore, his name indicates both a lack of origin and the creation of a lineage—which he achieves despite abandoning his own son. In other words, the Foundling Father ironically gives up on fatherhood because he focuses so much on his own imagined parent-child relationship with Lincoln. While this reveals how Parks is skeptical of people defining their identities through their paternity, it also suggests that she fully understands the real and profound consequences of family relationships. The Foundling Father’s name is also a play on the “Founding Fathers,” the white men (not including Lincoln) who led the American War of Independence. This metaphor of fatherhood confers a kind of mystical respect and authority onto these men, just as the Foundling Father gives this respect to Lincoln. But again, these “fathers” are far from perfect, and idolizing Lincoln ultimately does little to empower the Foundling Father, who—like many African Americans—remains orphaned by history.
The Foundling Father’s quest for identity through Lincoln parallels Brazil’s search for identity through him. Lucy frequently compares Brazil to his Pa by noting their physical similarities and proudly citing Brazil’s abilities as a “digger.” While Pa dug graves, Brazil is trying to learn about his Pa by digging up artifacts of his existence, making digging both an inherited trait and a metaphor for his pursuit of hidden truths about his own identity. However, Brazil is ultimately unable to relate to Pa except through the Lincoln myth. At the end of the play, the Foundling Father returns and reenacts the Lincoln assassination for Brazil, actually dying in the process. All he leaves behind for his son is the giant hole in the ground where he used to do his “Lincoln Act.” Brazil muses that this hole must be his “inheritance of sorts”—like many families pass trauma down through generations, Brazil literally inherits a void, which is the only thing that connects him to his father (although it is really nothing at all). Brazil recognizes the emptiness of this inheritance by calling Pa his “faux-father” and “foe-father” (instead of “forefather”). His father is a fake (faux) and an enemy (foe), but still unavoidably his. Accordingly, Brazil recognizes that he will inevitably “follow in [his father’s] footsteps,” just as his father was “trying somehow to follow in the Great Mans [Lincoln’s] footsteps.” At the end of the play, Brazil invites the audience into the “Hall of Wonders,” which now includes his father’s corpse. Despite his ambivalence about and alienation from his father, then, Brazil inevitably inherits his role as a narrator of history, seeking meaning and identity through the past, even after he’s seen that pursuit to be empty.
While she sees identity as inextricably tied to family, then, Parks also emphasizes how family can also create lasting trauma. Lucy frequently talks about how the Foundling Father exploited and mistreated her: she admits that she “gived intuh him on everything” and lists the things he took from her, which range from “thuh letter R” to “the way [she] walked.” This shows that even though she feels powerless to reject the Foundling Father, their relationship brought her suffering more than anything else. Brazil feels a similar lingering pain and resentment towards his father, even though he sees the inalienable connection between them. The lasting impact of their family trauma becomes abundantly clear near the end of Act Two, when the Foundling Father twice asks his family for a hug—but Lucy and Brazil twice reject him. Their search for him was not, it seems, driven by love—which, curiously, is word the play never uses except in terms of the Foundling Father’s love for Lincoln and the Great Hole. Rather, they are driven by a sense of unavoidable obligation.
Ultimately, the nuclear family at the heart of The America Play is broken, and it never gets fixed. Lucy and Brazil seek not to reunite with Pa or make amends, but merely to “dig up somethin” that can explain the past. In this sense, Parks examines the consequences of conventional nuclear families even as she recognizes their power over most people. Still, she suggests that idolizing them may be a useless and even destructive pursuit.
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity ThemeTracker
Family, Trauma, and Personal Identity Quotes in The America Play
Dig on, son. —. Cant stop diggin till you dig up somethin. You dig that something up you brush that something off you give that something uh designated place. Its own place. Along with thuh other discoveries. In thuh Hall of Wonders. Uh place in the Hall of Wonders right uhlong with thuh rest of thuh Wonders hear?
BRAZIL: [We’re from out East. We’re not from these parts.
Mv foe-father, her husband, my Daddy, her mate, her man, my Pa come out here. Out West.
Come out here all uhlone. Cleared thuh path tamed thuh wilderness dug this whole Hole with his own 2 hands and et cetera.
Left his family behind. Back Last. His Lucy and his child. He waved “Goodbye.” Left us tuh carry on. I was only 5.
My Daddy was uh Digger. Shes whatcha call uh Confidence. I did thuh weepin and thuh moanin.
His lonely death and lack of proper burial is our embarrassment.
BRAZIL: You hear im?
LUCY: Echo of thuh first sort: thuh sound. (E.g. thuh gunplay.)
Echo of thuh 2nd sort: thuh words. Type A: thuh words from thuh dead. Category: Unrelated.
Echo of thuh 2nd sort, Type B: words less fortunate: thuh Disembodied Voice. Also known as “Thuh Whispers.” Category: Related. Like our Fathuhs.
Echo of thuh 3rd sort: thuh body itself.
BRAZIL: You hear im.
LUCY: Cant say. Cant say, son.
BRAZIL: My faux-father.
BRAZIL: We could say I just may follow in thuh footsteps of my foe-father.
LUCY: We could say that.
BRAZIL: Look on thuh bright side!
LUCY: Look on thuh bright side!
BRAZIL: So much tuh live for!
LUCY: So much tuh live for! Sweet land of—! Sweet land of—?
BRAZIL: Of liberty!
BRAZIL: Mail the in-vites?
LUCY: I did.
BRAZIL: Think theyll come?
LUCY: I do. There arc hundreds upon thousands who knew of your Daddy, glorified his reputation, and would like to pay their respects.
THE FOUNDLING FATHER: Howuhboutthat.
To my right: our newest Wonder: One of thuh greats Hisself! Note: thuh body sitting propped upright in our great Hole. Note the large mouth opened wide. Note the top hat and frock coat, just like the greats. Note the death wound: thuh great black hole — thuh great black hole in thuh great head. —And how this great head is bleedin. —Note: thuh last words. —And thuh last breaths. —And how thuh nation mourns —
(Takes his leave)