The America Play
New Traditions Theatre
Through June 9
Common Ground Theatre
In the final analysis, could George Santayana have just possibly been an incurable optimist? Who says it's only those unable to learn from history who are, in his vivid words, "doomed to repeat it"?
For those unfamiliar with the term, "historicity" isn't some easy synonym or corruption of for the word "history"; not "truthiness" set a century or so back. It's the concept that our notion of history itself is built on at least one quite vulnerable principle. Here's one way of putting it: that some final cause, like "progress," not only drives all human activity, it quite conveniently unites it all into a finite number of coherent narratives (or, even more suspect, a single one) as well.
Analyzed in this light, what communities and countries have taken as their history at times has been subsequently revealed as an oversimplified, overextended grid of rationalizations and apologia, as rickety in its way as the half-painted wooden staircase placed, apparently ad hoc, at the back of Rachel Klem's set for New Traditions Theatre's current production of The America Play.
Still, it's hard to say that the characters in playwright Suzan-lori Parks' thought-provoking 1994 play characters have risen to that level of disingenuousness. True, a character archly one named Founding Father (a gravedigger, even more symbolically), having realized he can make a penny impersonating President Lincoln in a grotesque sideshow, admits to the audience, "Some inaccuracies are good for business," as he cops to some small, distasteful hucksterism in his side trade. Among a ludicrous collection of fake beards he sports (along with his stovepipe hat, vest, and black frock coat and bow tie), one's apparently a strip of beige shag carpeting with two loops sewn on to hook it to the ears. Another matches the red, white and blue shoes he wears every Fourth of July.
But throughout what is basically a one-act monologue during the first half of the show, Father (Lester Hill, in a sterling, incisive performance, created here in collaboration with director TeKay) nearly seems a victim of an almost sociopolitical form of autism, or possibly Tourette's syndrome. The Father stands or sits, eyes sharp, his head cocked to one side, as if listening intently for an inner or outer voice. And as the Father does, he repeats the words representing his station in life, his country's beliefs and his look-alike (Lincoln, here called the Greater One) like a person who has just lost the thread of the words he's saying, misplacing either their true meaning or what must follow them as a result. He's distracted, but listening very carefully at the same time—for if he does, surely, it will all come back to him in a moment.
Before the end, the Father approaches Everyman, standing in not only for African Americans, but all Americans, fumbling with the real meanings of the familiar—and by now, all but null—patriotic words.
Potent concepts and surreal imagery collide in Parks' lethal vaudeville, and through a second act featuring strong supporting work by Jasmé Kelly as the Father's wife, Lucy, and a keen Steven Rausch as son, Brazil. True, this youthful work doesn't earn many points for subtle symbolism. This African-American family's business is, literally, dying: digging their graves, keeping their secrets and professionally mourning in public. Even chillier, given the last century of American history, is the exact vehicle by which Father earns his living as a Lincoln impersonator.
Grad student syndrome may also be seen in the arch names of characters, archer self-references to themselves in the third person, and even archer stage directions ("A wink to Mr. Lincoln's pasteboard cutout") that are announced by the actor before they are performed.
But we watch this historic family grapple for their own true identities, and the meanings of their lives, while caught in what we might term a riptide of history. Is the Father, in this preview of the simulation society, actually catching up with the past, or is the past drawing nearer to him?
Upon reflection, given the reversals in civil rights and sociopolitical achievements in recent years, here's an even more important question: What happens if, or when, the past actually catches us? Or have we already seen the answer?
E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.