Chicago Theater Review: THE AMERICA PLAY (Oracle)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 14, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


The America Play was inspired when author Suzan Lori-Parks observed a professional African-American Lincoln impersonator hard at work pleasing a crowd. This strange early work by the dynamic playwright (of Topdog/Underdog fame) is itself a curiosity. (It even features a cabinet of curiosities packed with detritus from American history.)


In Oracle Theatre’s latest bold venture a metaphor becomes literal: The author digs up a hole packed with Americana. Located in a western desert, this will be the tomb for “the Foundling Father” (Travis Delgado), a black performer who’s consumed with replicating the 16th President, in particular his assassination at Ford’s Theater.


Most of the one-act’s 80 minutes are devoted to the Foundling Father’s oral history about his strange patriotic ritual. This former gravedigger tells us how he moved west, leaving his wife Lucy (Jessica Dean Turner) and son Brazil (Tony Santiago) and trading on his resemblance to Honest Abe in order to repeat the speeches and enshrine the memory of the Illinois “rail-splitter.” (“I played Lincoln so well they said I ought to be shot.”)


Along the way he picked up two assistant “visitors” (havalah grace and Rory Jobst) who depict assorted Booth assassins (a backstage alcove contains vintage guns) and the frivolous characters in Our American Cousin, the fatal comedy at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday 1865. Posing for comparisons with a giant cut-out of Lincoln, pointing in admiration to a plaster bust of the martyred Emancipator, the Foundling Father constantly and invidiously compares himself–the “Lesser Known”–to the “Great Man” he imitates, screaming “Emergency! Great man in the ground!” as his elegy for Lincoln. (I prefer Walt Whitman’s “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.”) The faker’s only complaint is a slight deafness and a ringing in the ears: It came from having so many revolvers discharged by paying customers close to this head over countless reenactments.


In the final scene his wife and son visit the grounds of his entombment, a “Hall of Wonders” site. A humble equivalent of Mt. Rushmore, the hole is filled with the props of history, including Washington’s wooden teeth and a television with a tape still looping of the Founding Father’s act. The boy–the real son to an actual father–must come to grips with the father’s legacy, as dubious an assemblage as the real contradictions of our less than United States.


Fluid and elusive, Delgado’s faux trickster is an intricately camouflaged “Lincoln.” He’s an enigma compared to the much more straightforward searchers depicted by Turner and Santiago as his bewildered loved ones. Despite its all-encompassing title, The America Play is a very intimate chamber piece about race as a lens for “historicity.” It all happens on a sloping stage with a grave at audience eye level. There little happens but much gets said about a lost legacy. It’s clever of Lori-Parks, who says she likes to combine a “joke” with the “yoke” of Africa-American ancestry, to turn seminal turning points into sardonic vaudeville: Her two-way spoof inevitably indicts our notions of national greatness and historical significance. That’s what Oracle does best. Vanesa Stalling’s staging is no exception.


photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux


The America Play
Oracle Productions
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway
Fri, Sat, and Mon at 8; Sun at 7
ends on August 1, 2015
admission is FREE in Public Access Theatre
for tickets visit

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