In The America Play, a black man known only as the Foundling Father makes a career out of impersonating Abraham Lincoln and charging people to pretend to assassinate him. By portraying black suffering in the context of a white narrative, Parks reveals how white people have capitalized on this suffering throughout history and emphasizes that black identity is an inalienable part of American identity. Ultimately, she argues that separating white and black narratives in history and art perpetuates white supremacy, and The America Play embodies the inevitable connection between black and white history in the United States.
The Foundling Father’s Lincoln impersonation is a clear metaphor for the oppression of African Americans. Because he guided the United States through the abolition of slavery, Lincoln’s presidency marks the official incorporation of black Americans into the nation, and he has become a symbol of the still-unrealized ideal of a racially equal America. Parks sees Lincoln as an “American” hero, in the term’s broadest sense, and the Foundling Father’s unmistakable resemblance to Lincoln shows how a truly “American” identity must be multiracial. But the Foundling Father’s trajectory is tragic: rather than embodying Lincoln’s heroism as an emancipator (by reciting the Great Man’s speeches, as he initially hopes to do), the Foundling Father only makes a living by letting white people assault him. First, he starts “inviting [people] to come and throw old food at him,” and later, he realizes that people will “pay a penny” (with Lincoln’s face on it) to reenact Lincoln’s assassination. In other words, white people are not interested in honoring an American hero represented by a black actor—they’re interested in ridiculing and murdering him. Parks shows this assassination scene over and over again, with a nonchalance that recalls acts of racial violence like lynching. This repetition evokes the perpetual and systemic nature of antiblack racism in the United States and illustrates how black people’s suffering has been converted into profit and entertainment throughout American history—including, potentially, for some audience members during this very play.
Beyond this Lincoln impersonation, Parks consistently puts black characters in positions usually reserved for white Americans to further challenge the separation of black and white American history and emphasize that American history belongs to all Americans. For example, the Foundling Father goes “out West” to build his fortune, and his wife Lucy and son Brazil follow. This is a clear reference to the importance of westward migration in American history, and specifically to the period of “Manifest Destiny” around the time of Lincoln’s presidency, when white settlers colonized Native American land in the western United States. The Foundling Father’s westward migration is clearly ironic because Manifest Destiny was a white supremacist ideology, but also shows how migration—whether as pioneers, immigrants, refugees, or slaves—unites Americans. Similarly, while Brazil and Lucy are searching for the Foundling Father, Lucy shouts out, “Sweet land of—?” but seemingly forgets what comes next, and Brazil replies, “Of liberty!” Their rather adverse circumstances suggest they are joking, and it is telling that Lucy strategically forgets the punchline: the promise of “liberty” is foundational to American identity, but it has always applied unequally to people of different races. Clearly, liberty has played a small, even forgettable, role in Lucy’s life as black woman.
Finally, the recurring motif of the Great Hole of History represents how black history and art are relegated to an inferior status. After visiting the original Great Hole, an amusement park full of historical reenactors, the Foundling Father is inspired to move West and dig his own “Great Hole,” where he performs his “Lincoln Act.” This “Great Hole of History” is also a metaphor for how the black experience of American history inspired Parks to write this play. For African Americans, history is a “Great Hole” in two senses. First, for several generations African Americans’ lives were largely defined by slavery, and before that, their histories are difficult to trace: there is a literal void or “Hole” in the narrative of history. Secondly, African Americans’ history and role in shaping contemporary America are often ignored in historical retellings, supplanted by the supposedly heroic deeds of (slaveholding) “Founding Fathers” and other white men. In most American schools, African American history is a neglected “Great Hole,” with the history of white people taught as the history of the nation, and black history either ignored or compartmentalized. Through the Foundling Father, Parks suggests that art (particularly theater) replicates this problem by portraying white stories as heroic and universal, while black stories—if they’re told at all—are segregated into a separate category of “minority art” and not taken seriously. This segregation lets white people “appreciate” black art without taking its lessons to heart, and thereby deny their role in the legacy of African American oppression. Indeed, the Foundling Father’s reenactment of racialized violence onstage suggests that this segregated model of storytelling turns theater into another way for white audiences to dominate and inflict violence on black people. More controversially, Parks also thinks this segregation prevents black people from defining themselves in terms beyond their history of oppression and slavery. The America Play shows that this doesn’t have to happen—instead, theater can tell a more complete, integrated, and accurate story of American identity that shows how black and white history are two sides of the same coin.
Who owns Abraham Lincoln’s story? Parks argues that all Americans do, and that it is not just morally wrong, but also historically inaccurate and socially counterproductive, to separate stories about black people and other minority groups from those about “America.” She argues for a hybrid, not hyphenated, identity that includes the experiences of all Americans. And she contends that separating art into categories according to race perpetuates white supremacy by relegating non-white artists to their own “Great Hole.” In short, The America Play is Parks’s attempt to tell a story about black America—which is to say, America as a whole—without letting blackness limit her narrative possibilities.
Race and American Identity ThemeTracker
Race and American Identity Quotes in The America Play
“In the beginning, all the world was America.”
“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!”
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!”
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: 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!
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)