REVIEW Long before Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prizewinning Topdog/Underdog (2002) was bedazzling them on Broadway, an earlier and related work called The America Play (1990-93) was wowing Bay Area audiences in a small but vital production staged by Thick Description. Like the later play, the company’s 1994 West Coast premiere churned themes of memory, identity, kinship, and race in the maw of American history, all of it focused provocatively on a wonderfully fertile conceit: the image of a black man dressed as Abraham Lincoln, sitting watching a play a human target and one big, very specific arcade duck for the pleasure of patrons reenacting the role of presidential assassin.
The similarities begin to diverge after that. Where Topdog centered with seeming realism on two African American brothers named Lincoln and Booth, The America Play concerns a father and son, the son searching out the father by excavating a theme-park site specified as "an exact replica of the Great Hole of History." It also incorporates the wife and mother, and concentrates on the uncanny Lincoln-likeness of the father known as the Foundling Father as well as the life-altering inspiration he receives from the story of "the Great Man." Not least among its differences, the play operates on a more openly abstract, even abstruse plain, albeit one brimming with cultural significance and palpable irony.
The American Play may lack the edginess and also some of the tautness of the more concentrated 2002 two-hander, but revisiting the work in Thick Description’s exquisite revival, as part of its 20th anniversary season, shows it is still worthy and affecting in a sly, haunted fashion that gets its full due from artistic director Tony Kelly’s intelligent and lyrical staging, as well as a fine cast headed by 1994 veterans Rhonnie Washington and Brian Freeman, both brilliantly reprising their roles as, respectively, the gravedigger-turnedAbraham Lincoln impersonator and his son Brazil. Rounding out the enjoyable ensemble are Deirdre Renee Draginoff, Cathleen Riddley, and David Westley Skillman.
Setting us on the abstract expanse of history, "a great hole in the middle of nowhere," Rick Martin’s sublime set is a gorgeous cascade of plank-wood flooring falling in a graceful curve from the top rear of the stage out to the lip, where it meets a proscenium shaped as a large wooden picture frame. The Foundling Father addresses us from a wooden rocker center stage, a pasteboard cutout of Lincoln over his right shoulder, a small bust of "the Great Man" on a table downstage to his left. Sections of the wall/floor come out later to produce an excavation site and a mini stage for a play-within-the-play.
The action and the dialogue rich, redolent, and blunt as freshly dug earth resonate powerfully and strangely, taking gradual but firm hold. It’s all funny ha-ha and funny eerie, cuttingly ironic, and wonderfully suggestive this play built up around the notion of an African American man as latter-day double and relation to the lanky senator from Illinois who became world-historic leader of the country. As for how it reads a decade-and-a-half after the first production, let’s just say the play’s excavations of history are as timely as ever.
THE AMERICA PLAY
Through Sun/14; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; $15$30
1695 18th St., SF