Suzan-Lori Parks "The America Play" is at the Wells-Metz Theatre in a thoroughly fascinating production directed by Edris Cooper-Anafowoshe. The piece is hard to describe. In some places it feels like a dream play in other sections a piece of absurdist drama, but throughout it has the flavor of an American tall tale. The central character is a tall, lanky African-American who plays President Abraham Lincoln. Parks can't have planned it, but the figure of another tall, lanky African-American as our own current President certainly adds a layer of resonance to the play.
Recent IU grad Jamaal McCray plays a character that Suzan-Lori Parks has teasingly called the Foundling Father. The entire first act of "The America Play" is a monologue. McCray talks about his character's occupation as a digger, a grave digger. It's a business that he expanded to include his wife as a confidant of the dying and his son as a professional mourner. On the side, inspired in part by a honey moon visit to a great theme park of American History called the Great Hole and by his likeness to Abraham Lincoln, he's worked up a simple tent show act in which he portrays President Lincoln in the box at "Our American Cousin" and allows patrons to pay money to play John Wilkes Booth in his assassination. It's a long speech, but McCray presents it in a thoroughly pleasant, amiable, but dignified fashion, pausing only occasionally to die for patrons of the assassination skit.
The second act of "The America Play" features the Foundling Father's wife Lucy, played with grace and charm by Dawn Thomas. His now grown son Brazil is played with boyish curiosity and a certain on-again-off-again fey quality by Shewan Howard. They're busy excavating an area where the Foundling Father buried artifacts gathered over the years and putting them in a poor little museum which they pitch to the public. Throughout there are echoes from the earlier monolog and occasionally bits of insight, but it's mostly just family talk on the edge of the dig. Perhaps playwright Parks was cautioning herself as she has Lucy say several times to Brazil, "Keep your story to scale." The Foundling Father does reappear. He's anachronistically heralded by a TV unearthed from the dig. He's still a figure of grace and dignity even as he accepts his place in the coffin and follows the details that Lucy lays out.
"The America Play" is indeed aptly titled. Like all of us in this country it embraces, avoids and manipulates history. The Foundling father describes the residual effects of the blank pistol shots that he hears during each of the assassination skits, saying "a little ringing in the ears and some deafness." All I hear is the ringing.
Suzan-Lori Parks "The America Play" continues at the Wells-Metz Theatre with evening performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday and a Saturday matinee.
Listen to WFIU's George Walker's interview with director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and actor Jamaal McCray.