History is back. Playwrights are bringing it back, urging the theatre from its obsession with the self and family to an investigation of the nation and its legacy. Even the names ring out with a sense of moment and place, regional or national rooting: The America Play, The Kentucky Cycle, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Angels in America. The "Me" decades are skidding to a halt before the approaching millennium, while such playwrights as Suzan-Lori Parks, Robert Schenkkan, Anna Deavere Smith and Tony Kushner begin reexploring the "We," that odd congregation of "others" called America.
Each of these recent works paints our time as diseased, uncertain. Each probes the racial, ethnic and sexual gulfs so visible from the precipice of century's end. Each offers a tentative, suggestive, inconclusive vision of healing and redemption--new ways of seeing a land that, "although battered and bruised," as Schenkkan says of the Appalachian hills where his Kentucky Cycle is set, "still remembers." Kushner's Angels takes place primarily in the near-present and Twilight, Smith's one-woman choral epic, lodges us firmly in the afterburn of the 1992 L.A. riots; still, all these plays shuttle us, at least by allusion, through generations of struggle: slaveries, deaths, civil war, civil rights, immigration, new frontiers.
These plays make theatrical history, too. They remove us from a recent time when the mainstream American stage was said to have no politics, no memory, no scope. The small-cast, one-set, cheap-to-produce, American domestic drama that's been our staple for the past decade or more looks even punier next to the new epic: the great, groping, revisionist, American history play.
OUT WITH THE LIVING ROOM. In with what Parks dubs the "Great Hole of History" and its pun-implied twin, the Great Whole. An African American in her early thirties, Parks has the linguistic audacity to entitle her work The America Play, a mockingly exclusive moniker, calling …