Epic-Cure: History That Heals

Article excerpt

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 attention to itself as the single work of its kind, the single history as told by the marginalized--the other as the only. Kushner has his own kind of post-domestic-naturalism audacity: For seven hours, his "fantasia" spans our country and the heavens above, Angelic principalities to America--gay America, straight America, Jewish, Mormon, African, you-name-it America. Unrelated lives interpenetrate; Brooklyn becomes Antarctica; the souls of the dead link up to repair the ozone. The freedom of his imagination makes anything seem possible, even hope.

The Kentucky Cycle sweeps away the kitchen-sink unities, too, taking one plot of land and telling the seven generation, marathon-length tale of its rape, pillage, plunder, and resale. Then there's the inspired Anna Deavere Smith, America's theatrical roving reporter, speaking in the tongues of South Central L.A., giving communities their own voices, one person at a time.

These epic impulses aren't new, and that's part of their power. They're as American as Melville and apple pie. They connect the theatre of the '90s with sources as diverse as the waning "American Century." Smith's testimonial drama--one stop along a series of pieces called On the Road: A Search for American Character--recalls the Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspapers and documentary film; her vocal/gestural mimicry blends Brecht's epic acting with comic impersonation. The Kentucky Cycle plays like something out of the '30s: part Group Theatre social drama, part Paul Green-style outdoor historical pageant and part WPA mural. Gertrude Stein's literary experiments on Americans and their making and Adrienne Kennedy's lyrical hallucinations influence The America Play's verbal jeu d'esprit and racial phantasmagoria. Kushner, meanwhile, who feels to me more European than his contemporaries, mix-matches Brechtian stagecraft and ideology with gay camp, Caryl Churchill-like splicing of fantasy and gritty reality with Shavian excess of wit and of words. …