32 pages 1 hour read

Suzan-Lori Parks

The America Play

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide


The America Play, by Suzan-Lori Parks, opened off-Broadway in 1994 at the Public Theater. The play was one of Parks’s earliest successes, and she became one of the most celebrated African American playwrights of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As a playwright, Parks became particularly well-known for her poetic language, innovative style, and experimental structures. Like many of her works, The America Play explores the way Blackness is represented and erased in mainstream narratives of United States history. The play suggests that subjugated histories are not entirely lost—just buried.

The central figure of the play, the Foundling Father, is a Black Abraham Lincoln impersonator who longs to make his own mark on history like the late President Lincoln. The Foundling Father character returns in Parks’s most well-known play, Topdog/Underdog (2001), which was her first work to transfer to Broadway in 2002, and for which Parks became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Through performance and alternative modes of excavation, Parks uses the stage as a site for historical mythmaking to exist alongside the fabricated myths of White-dominated historical narratives.

Plot Summary

The play takes place “in a great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of ‘The Great Hole of History’” (158), dug by an African American man who is referred to as the Foundling Father. He is dressed like Abraham Lincoln and explains that he has been told his entire life that he bears a strong resemblance to Lincoln. The Foundling Father descends from a long line of gravediggers. He recalls his honeymoon, when he and his wife visited the real Great Hole of History, where tourists can watch major historical figures parade past. Inspired by his desire for historical greatness, the Foundling Father left his wife and five-year-old son to travel West and dig his own Great Hole of History. He attempted to earn a living as a Lincoln impersonator but could only make money by performing Lincoln’s assassination, allowing visitors to play the role of John Wilkes Booth and pretend to shoot him.

In Act 2 the Foundling Father has died, and his wife Lucy and now-adult son Brazil have traveled to the replica of the Great Hole to find his body and give him a proper burial. Lucy is a Confidence, a secret-keeper for the dead, and she listens for echoes from her husband to determine that they are close. Brazil digs, recalling what he knows about his father. Before the Foundling Father left, he taught Brazil to perform as a mourner at funerals as part of the family business. Brazil finds artifacts in the hole, called Wonders, some of which are from history and some of which belonged to his father. When they finally find the Foundling Father, Lucy tries to convince him to get into his coffin. The Foundling Father gives a eulogy and then, after another reenactment of the assassination, dies. Brazil then describes to the audience all the Wonders he found, finishing with his father’s body.