Review: `The America Play’

Dec 05

Rhonnie Washington (left) is The Foundling Father, an Abraham Lincoln lookalike, who lets customers (such as David Westley Skillman) take aim and fire a cap gun at him in Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play, part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season. Photos by Rick Martin.

 

Thick Description revives `America’
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Echoes, parallels and holes fill the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind Topdog/Underdog and The America Play, which is being revived as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary.

Parks is a fascinating, entertaining, often inscrutable writer. She’s more poet than storyteller, and her work has a particular rhythm that plays out amid recurring motifs and themes. But when a director cracks the Parks code, as Thick D’s Tony Kelly has done with “The America Play,” the results rattle the brain and the bones.

Kelly and Thick Description first produced The America Play in 1994 at the cavernous Theatre Artaud, where the stage stretched 60 feet back and turned Parks’ work into an avant garde epic.

In the much, much smaller confines of the Thick House, set designer Rick Martin reconceived is design in a genius way. He frames the entire stage with a thick wooden border and forces perspective with a gorgeous, rustic wood-plank floor and wall that opens up in surprising ways to become the stage of Ford’s Theatre and the great maw of an open grave.

The visual precision of the production – which receives assists from Lucas Benjaminh Krech’s lights and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro’s 19th- and early 20th-century costumes – is important because the look is nearly as important as the content. Or maybe I should say there are as many visual echoes as there are auditory in Parks’ play.

The setting, we’re told, is an exact replica of the “Great Hole of History.” And in this hole is a man, the Foundling Father (Rhonnie Washington, reprising his role from 14 years ago), an African-American man who apparently bears a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, so he finds himself playing the man from time to time. Someone told him he played Lincoln so well that “he ought to be shot.”

So the Foundling Father, a grave digger by trade from a long line of diggers, abandoned his wife and young son and ventured into the world. He ended up with an interesting job: he would play Lincoln on the last night of his life attending a production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. While the president sits in his box chortling over the middling comedy on stage, customers pay a penny (a Lincoln penny, of course) to aim a cap gun and pretend to shoot the great man. Following the “assassination,” in true John Wilkes Booth style, the assailant or assailants (played by David Westley Skillman and Deirdre Renee Draginoff) shout something along the lines of, “The South is avenged!” or “And so to the tyrants!”

It’s a living.

Washington is personable, funny and fully believable in this strange alternate universe, where his character is continually winking at the pasteboard cut-out of Lincoln to his right and nodding to the bust of Lincoln to his left.

It’s hard to make sense of oft-repeated lines such as, “He digged the hole and the hole held him,” or to make such words as “historicity” seem authentic, but Washington does it effortlessly.

In Act 2, Washington is mostly a memory as the Foundling Father’s wife, Lucy (Cathleen Riddley) and son, Brazil (Brian Freeman, another alumnus of the ’94 production), are digging in search of…what? In search of a body? Of artifacts? Of family? Of history?

Linear storytelling is not high on Parks’ list of priorities in this play, but Kelly’s production is so vivid, his cast so astute – Riddley and Freeman are wonderful together – that the free-form nature of the play becomes an asset. There’s humor and humanity in abundance, even when there’s an absence of coherence.

Being able to trust the production and the actors means you relinquish the need to know exactly what’s going on at every moment. The America Play, with its off-kilter view of history and patriotism, deals with race and legacy and purpose in ways that sneak up on you.

In the end, this is an America that makes it easy to stand up and salute.

In the photo above right: From Act 2 of The America Play, Lucy (Cathleen Riddley) and Brazil (Brian Freeman) dig through the Great Hole of History.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The America Play continues through Dec. 14 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org.

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