The America Play, which centers on both a black Abraham Lincoln impersonator and his estranged family’s search for him after his death, actually consists of several (often overlapping) plays-within-a-play. From the Foundling Father’s “Lincoln Act” to the Great Hole of History and the reenactments of Our American Cousin (the play Lincoln was watching when he died), it is often difficult for audiences to tell whether they are watching the play’s real “figures” (a term Parks prefers to “characters”), or the figures acting out their own fictional characters. But this is intentional: not only does Parks hope to show how that theater can capture powerful truths through fiction, but she also rejects the hard-and-fast distinction between reality and fiction altogether. In short, Parks argues that everyone is acting all the time, and that there is no “true” original behind the stories that people tell.
By writing several layers of metafiction (that is, fiction about fiction) into this play, Parks illuminates the way that acting expresses and creates meaning through reinterpretation. the Foundling Father (who impersonates Lincoln) and his son Brazil (who is hired to mourn at funerals) are both actors who shift between “being themselves” and “acting” throughout the play. The Foundling Father’s wife, Lucy, even comments on his incredible talent for “fakin,” which she says “was his callin,” and acts out his act for Brazil. In these examples, acting honors the original by recreating and interpreting it. But it goes further: the Foundling Father’s “Lincoln Act” (Act One’s title, which is also a pun on his Lincoln reenactment) is itself a replica of an original play from the Great Hole of History, a theme park where actors played historical figures for the public. This Great Hole inspired the Foundling Father, who cared about the performance, not the historical figures behind it—for him, performance was the reality. Finally, Lincoln famously died in a dramatic setting, when the actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated him in a theater during the play Our American Cousin, which also gets reenacted during Parks’s second act. The assassination reminds readers and audiences that, even though its purpose is to elevate and celebrate fiction, the theater is a real space with real consequences. So The America Play has real consequences, even when it consists of an onstage reenactment (by the actors) of a reenactment (by Lucy and Brazil) of a reenactment (by the Foundling Father) of a reenactment (at the Great Hole) of something that happened in a theater (Lincoln’s assassination) during a play (Our American Cousin), which is also reenacted.
Parks blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction by showing how copies and interpretations can be just as real as originals (if “originals” even exist). For instance, the Foundling Father notes that he must distort the truth about Lincoln to satisfy his audience. Lincoln would not have worn his hat indoors, “but people don’t like their Lincoln hatless.” He uses various beards for the sake of flair and freely invents quotes that historical figures like John Wilkes Booth and Mary Todd Lincoln might have said. And he is black, while Lincoln was white. But the Foundling Father believes that these artistic liberties add to the power and authenticity of his performance, rather than detracting from it. Similarly, Lucy spends much of Act Two listening for signs of the Foundling Father, including the the gunshot that continually echoes in the theater. She emphasizes that one has “tuh know thuh difference” between the original gunshot and its echo—reality and the imitation of it—in order to find the truth that lies behind appearances. But she never figures out which gunshot is real, which suggests that perhaps this distinction is obsolete or unimportant. Similarly, at the end of the play, both the Foundling Father and Brazil give up on the distinction between reality and fiction: Brazil weeps for his father, without making it clear if he is expressing himself spontaneously (as a son) or theatrically (as a professional mourner), and the Foundling Father actually dies while reenacting the Lincoln assassination. Clearly, Parks rejects a sharp distinction between authenticity and acting.
Having rejected the distinction between reality and artistic representation, Parks also flouts narrative and stylistic conventions of the theater in order to give her actors power over the meaning in her work. She writes the intentionally vague stage direction “(Rest.)” and sections of blank dialogue called “spells” into her script, so that actors can freely portray their characters (or “figures”) in “their pure true simple state.” She also brackets sections to indicate that directors can omit them. Parks gives the interpreters of her work more autonomy than they would ordinarily have, just as her figures (like the Foundling Father) have autonomy over how they interpret the people they are supposed to represent (like Lincoln). This highlights actors’ power to shape an audience’s perception of the “real” figure (fictional character or historical person) being interpreted out onstage. But Parks also makes strategic omissions to highlight the relative nature of any individual dramatic performance, and that emphasize the silences and gaps that the audience will never be able to fill. For instance, she writes secret dialogue that the audience is not allowed to hear—at one point, Lucy tells Brazil something that “ssfor our ears and our ears uhlone.” Parks includes homophonic puns, like “he digged the Hole and the Whole held him,” that are clear in writing but may be confusing onstage, and she adds footnotes throughout the script, which provide context that the audience doesn’t see. In this way, she emphasizes that a performance—no matter how much truth it captures—is never a total, absolute, or perfect reproduction of the essence of an artwork.
Theater and Reality ThemeTracker
Theater and Reality Quotes in The America Play
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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)