In Suzan-Lori Parks’s nonlinear, deeply allegorical The America Play, a black man named the Foundling Father impersonates Abraham Lincoln for a living and charges people a penny to play-assassinate him. After he dies, his wife Lucy and son Brazil go looking for traces of him. The Foundling Father organizes his life around the impulse to embody and retell history, and then his past becomes history worth uncovering for Lucy and Brazil. Yet, while he oversimplifies Abraham Lincoln’s complex life into a single assassination scene, Lucy and Brazil fail to form a coherent narrative about his life and death. Parks uses this contrast to show why history must accommodate multiple, fragmented, and ambiguous voices rather than insisting on a single authoritative narrative that inevitably leaves some tales untold.
Parks emphasizes the dangers in reducing history to a single narrative rather than exploring its complexity. In Act One, for instance, the Foundling Father visits the Great Hole of History, an amusement park in which actors parade around dressed as “Great Men.” Instead of including voices from the past, this Great Hole presents history as the sum of these Great Men’s images (and erases the context necessary to understand their “Greatness”). Similarly, despite his encyclopedic knowledge about Lincoln, the Foundling Father endlessly reenacts the single most popular story about him—his assassination. People dress up as the white supremacist John Wilkes Booth and shoot him with blanks, completely missing the historical context that makes their performances racist and disturbing. Although he calls Lincoln the “Great Man” and laments being “Lesser Known” in comparison, the Foundling Father ironically does not see that his own mistaken view of history as a parade of “greats” is the precise reason that “Lesser Known” people, groups, and voices are erased from history. Brazil makes a similar error, misinterpreting the past by assembling his father’s “faux-historical knickknacks” (such as a bust of Lincoln and a pair of wooden teeth modeled on George Washington’s) into a “Hall of Wonders.” But these “Wonders” say nothing about history: they are the junk that history left behind. Because the audience can see through Brazil’s error, his “Wonders” allow Parks to show how believing in heroic, fantastical, storybook versions of history leads people to erase the voices of those who actually lived in the past and to overlook the lessons history holds for the present.
Ultimately, Parks aims not to find the true version of history grand narratives distort, but rather to show that there is no such true narrative, both because the same facts can be narrated in many different ways and because the exact details of history are unknowable and irrelevant. Instead, for Parks, there are always multiple legitimate stories about any single event, since all narratives (including historical ones, and including plays) are written somewhere, by someone, for some purpose. Indeed, the Foundling Father points out that nobody agrees on the exact details of Lincoln’s assassination, like what Booth said after shooting Lincoln. This uncertainty makes Parks’s storytelling stronger, not weaker: by having different Booth impersonators yell out different lines after shooting the Foundling Father, she illustrates the range of thoughts and emotions that may have motivated Booth, encouraging the audience to think critically about history rather than blindly accepting one version of events. Similarly, the Foundling Father wears different beards on different days in order to show that different versions of Lincoln are equally legitimate and powerful, even if some stray from the truth. He recognizes that his history is alternative, but so is any other version of history. All versions, however, have power: at the end of the play, the Foundling Father suddenly returns to the stage, as though resurrected by the stories told about him. This illustrates how, to present-day people, the past is created or brought to life through stories. This, in turn, is why it matters whether history is reduced to a single story, like the grand narratives of the Great Hole of History and Hall of Wonders, or allowed to be complex and multiple.
Finally, by telling fragmented stories that highlight the difficulty of narrating history in the first place, Parks further explores how history affects the present day, which, she argues, is where its true significance lies. For instance, Lucy only vaguely references an abusive relationship with the Foundling Father, but never tells her story directly, in part because her inability to make sense of it demonstrates how it continues to affect her. She spends Act Two listening for messages from the Foundling Father (which she calls “echoes” and “Whispers”), but she does not get any coherent story from him: rather than distorting his meaning by speaking for him, she instead admits that she cannot recover what he has left behind. In contrast, Brazil likes to speculate wildly and irresponsibly about the past, spinning outlandish narratives that give the audience mistaken ideas about the Foundling Father and prompt Lucy to yell at him to “keep [his] story to scale.” Like the Great Hole’s parade of Great Men, Brazil’s stories lack the context that connects the past to its implications for the present and shows people what history can do for them. This is crucial because, for Parks, not only are people the products of history, but they also actively use history as a tool to build the future.
Ultimately, Parks’s goal in The America Play is to narrate history without seeking or pretending to offer a singular version of it. While she recognizes that history weighs profoundly on the present, she does not believe that it is possible to pin down with certainty. Indeed, she insists that any single story is a distortion—the more one digs into its omissions and assumptions, the closer one gets to the “truth” of the matter, and so the best way to narrate history is to expose and reconstruct the multiple, complex, and even contradictory voices of the various people who lived, made, and suffered from it.
History, Narrative, and Multiplicity ThemeTracker
History, Narrative, and Multiplicity Quotes in The America Play
“In the beginning, all the world was America.”
A great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of The Great Hole of History.
“He digged the hole and the whole held him.”
There was once a man who was told that he bore a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. He was tall and thinly built just like the Great Man. His legs were the longer part just like the Great Mans legs. His hands and feet were large as the Great Mans were large. The Lesser Known had several beards which he carried around in a box. The beards were his although he himself had not grown them on his face but since he’d secretly bought the hairs from his barber and arranged their beard shapes and since the procurement and upkeep of his beards took so much work he figured that the beards were completely his. Were as authentic as he was, so to speak. His beard box was of cherry wood and lined with purple velvet. He had the initials “A.L.” tooled in gold on the lid.
“You sockdologizing old man-trap!”
“Emergency oh, Emergency, please put the Great Man in the ground.”
Everyone who has ever walked the earth has a shape around which their entire lives and their posterity shapes itself. The Great Man had his log cabin into which he was born, the distance between the cabin and Big Town multiplied by the half-life, the staying power of his words and image, being the true measurement of the Great Mans stature. The Lesser Known had a favorite hole. A chasm, really.
On the way home again the histories paraded again on past him although it wasnt on past him at all it wasnt something he could expect but again like Lincolns life not “on past” but past. Behind him. Like an echo in his head.
The Lesser Known had under his belt a few of the Great Mans words and after a day of digging, in the evenings, would stand in his hole reciting. But the Lesser Known was a curiosity at best. None of those who spoke of his virtual twinship with greatness would actually pay money to watch him be that greatness. One day he tacked up posters inviting them to come and throw old food at him while he spoke. This was a moderate success. People began to save their old food “for Mr. Lincoln” they said. He took to traveling playing small towns. Made money. And when someone remarked that he played Lincoln so well that he ought to be shot, it was as if the Great Mans footsteps had been suddenly revealed.
(A Man, as John Wilkes Booth, enters. He takes a gun and “stands in position": at the left side of the Foundling Father, as Abraham Lincoln, pointing the gun at the Foundling Father’s head)
A MAN: Ready.
THE FOUNDLING FATHER: Haw Haw Haw Haw
HAW HAW HAW HAW
(Booth shoots. Lincoln “slumps in his chair." Booth jumps)
A MAN (Theatrically): “Thus to the tyrants!”
The Great Man lived in the past that is was an inhabitant of time immemorial and the Lesser Known out West alive a resident of the present. And the Great Mans deeds had transpired during the life of the Great Man somewhere in past-land that is somewhere “back there” and all this while the Lesser Known digging his holes bearing the burden of his resemblance all the while trying somehow to equal the Great Man in stature, word and deed going forward with his lesser life trying somehow to follow in the Great Mans footsteps footsteps that were of course behind him. The Lesser Known trying somehow to catch up to the Great Man all this while and maybe running too fast in the wrong direction. Which is to say that maybe the Great Man had to catch him. Hhhh. Ridiculous.
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?
LUCY: That iduhnt how it went.
LUCY: Thuh Mr. Washington me and your Daddy seen was uh lookuhlike of thuh Mr. Washington of history-fame, son.
LUCY: Thuh original Mr. Washingtonssbeen long dead.
BRAZIL : O.
LUCY: That Hole back East was uh theme park son. Keep your story to scale.
Him and Her would sit by thuh lip uhlong with thuh others all in uh row cameras clickin and theyud look down into that Hole and see—ooooo—you name it. Ever-y-day you could look down that Hole and see—ooooo you name it. Amerigo Vespucci hisself made regular appearances. Marcus Garvey. Ferdinand and Isabella. Mary Queen of thuh Scots! Tarzan King of thuh Apes! Washington Jefferson Harding and Millard Fillmore. Mistufer Columbus even. Oh they saw all thuh greats. Parading daily in thuh Great Hole of History.
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)