Academic journal article American Drama

The Instability of Meaning in Suzan-Lori Parks's the America Play

Academic journal article American Drama

The Instability of Meaning in Suzan-Lori Parks's the America Play

Article excerpt

Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play (1990-1993) is a complex, multilayered play about history. Both the history and the play itself refuse to be pinned down; and appropriately, the play is devoid of clear linear plot movement, and thus hard to follow. For both viewers and readers of The America Play, just when a part begins to make sense, a slightly altered version of the same story generates doubts about what is really going on. As Steven Winn claims in his review of the play's West Coast premiere at San Francisco's Theatre Artaud, "Strange and original, allusive and arid, Suzan-Loria [sic] Parks' The America Play provokes and frustrates in more or less equal measure. It does what all good theater does, in other words: It starts an itch you don't quite know how to scratch." The play uniquely resists linear logic. Not only do the spectators try to track down the meaning of the work, but the play also chases its own meaning. Although this makes The America Play confusing at first, one eventually realizes that this is exactly the point. Parks consciously approaches the postmodern topic of 'what is history (1) via the instability complexity and layered-ness of meaning.

"Theatre," Suzan-Lori Parks explains, "is the place which best allows me to figure out how the world works. What's going on here" ("Possession" 4). Considering three domains--literary tradition, the increasing recognition of the African American literary contribution, and the entry of this literature into the "canon"-- she concludes that the (white) "history of Literature" and, consequently, the (white) "history of History" are in question ("Possession" 4). She defines her plays as literary mediations, as rewritings or makings of the fairly unrecorded and partly forgotten African American history.

... one of my tasks as playwright is to--through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life--locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.

The bones tell us what was, is, will be; and because their song is a play--something that through a production actually happens--I'm working theatre like an incubator to create "new" historical events. I'm remembering and staging historical events which, through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history. ("Possession" 4, original emphasis)

The fact that Parks focuses on the staging of new and alternative interpretations of historical situations emphasizes her awareness of the subjectivity and bias of traditionally white historiography. By reworking events that have only received a thorough documentation from the white perspective, she not only calls into question the validity of this traditional historiography, but also destabilizes and deconstructs the content of this documentation. By claiming that the staging of an historical event makes it "actually happen," she thus creates a way to challenge our perception of reality and history. In accordance to postmodernism's claim that history equals our narrative of past events, she seems to suggest that reality is based on subjective representation and that an objective version of reality, including historical reality, can only be achieved by a multiplicity of perspectives. (2) Thus, by offering a re-reading of history, she automatically redefines our, both black and white, ideas of the world, filli ng them with new signification. In The America Play, Parks does this by staging a black Abraham Lincoln look-alike who disturbs and challenges the white-defined Lincoln myth that plays an essential part in American history and modern American identity construction. (3)

Parks's writing is influenced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s work on the African American literary tradition. His seminal study, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, examines the relation of the black vernacular tradition to the African American literary tradition in the presence and under the influence of white language and writing. …

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