Race, Slavery, and “Temporal Transcendency” in Suzan-Lori Parks: An Interview with Helena Woodard

By Alexandra Thomas and Luisana Cortez

Woodard, “New Histories, Lost Causes, and ‘Alternative Facts’: Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play in the Age of Trump,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 62.4 (2020): 463-82

Alonzo Chappel, The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln (1868)

Your essay sees Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play as revealing a “temporal transcendency” between centuries. Could you summarize the play for readers not familiar with it?

The play pairs Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 with a Black American Lincoln look-a-like protagonist—the Lesser Known—whose reenactment of that assassination occurs in a modern-day setting (Parks published the play in 1990.) But the play’s thematic treatment of untruths, myths, and popular culture artifacts in that time frame forecasts the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016.

With more than a dozen plays since 1984 and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama under her belt, Suzan-Lori Parks is as prolific as she is talented. What led you to choose The America Play in particular?

Beginning with its very title, The America Play defines the nation’s identity through its complex relationship with race and slavery. All that is positive and all that remains problematic about America is wrapped up in its lineage through the conundrum of race, slavery, and their aftermath.

Does theater lend itself to a “temporal transcendency” that may not come as easily to other media? If so, what gives theater this power?

Lincoln Memorial, photo by Martin Falbisoner. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Theater lends itself to a “temporal transcendency” through dialogue, performance strategies, moveable scenery, etc. which seamlessly reflects epochal shifts.

As well as plays, Parks has written essays and screenplays. How do you think The America Play would translate if she had written it for film or television and for a wider audience?

I do not think that The America Play would be as effective in film or television form. As a (live) performance on stage, the play is intimate, impactful, and (sur)real.

John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. 14 April 1865

Although not the protagonist, Lucy’s character is intriguing, to say the least. What are your thoughts on her? Or, more specifically, how would you characterize her within the “temporal transcendency” of The America Play?

In some ways, I see Lucy as Nanny’s “mule of the world” (through Nanny’s comment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, about the plight of Black women. As a character in The America Play, the long-suffering Lucy, who bears the brunt of her husband’s eccentricities, even sympathizes with Mary Todd Lincoln. Institutionalized by her own son, Mrs. Lincoln was depicted as hysterical, mentally unstable, and an embarrassment to the nation after Lincoln’s assassination. While it may seem a stretch to some, when I think of Lucy, temporally, I think of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Janie,” along with Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor.

Zora Neale Hurston (1937); World Telegram staff photographer

You describe Lucy as “the wife of the Lesser Known [that] bears the name of a venerable Black historical figure.” The symbolism of the Lesser Known’s name seems obvious. But what about their son, Brazil? How should we interpret his name?

Brazil bears the name of a nut derisively referred to as “n*****” toes, as mentioned in the play’s explanatory notes. (I remember getting those nuts as Christmas presents.) Yet, the racist name does not demean Brazil through his role as a character. Instead, it showcases yet another ironic, impactful device—and racist cue—that the play “hides in plain sight” beneath the surface of Americana.

In The America Play, the Lesser Known provides other members of the play the opportunity to recreate the assassination of President Lincoln. In making the comparison between this performance and the Age of Trump, how would you interpret President Trump’s remarks, during an interview, that “So, I think I’ve done more for the Black community than any other president, and let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln, ’cause he did good, although it’s always questionable”?

Which part of Lincoln’s legacy does Trump deem questionable since on the subject of Black support? Given Trump’s reverence for, and defense of existing confederate monuments, could it be Lincoln’s defeat of the Confederacy through the Civil War that resulted in an end to slavery? Of course, Trump lies—as usual—when he says that he has done more for the Black community than any other President. (He does not hold a candle to Presidents Johnson or Obama, for example.) To the contrary, Trump has been more harmful to the Black community than any other president through his courting of white supremacists, ordering the elimination of critical race theoretical and anti- racist programs, the 2019 Project, etc.

Abraham Lincoln’s last reception; lithograph (1865)

About President Trump: what do you think the implications are of having a president who was already established as a relic of popular culture before taking office? How might these be similar to and/or different from the legacy left by President Lincoln in terms of popular culture significance?

Parks says in an article titled “Possession” that some people are unable to separate the fake from the real—or “the real” from “the echo,” which is something that certain popular cultural and/or social media forms encourage.

Frederick Douglass composite

The Lesser Known originally attempted to make a living by reciting President Lincoln’s speeches. This reminds one that Frederick Douglass was a celebrated orator in his day. What should one make of the portrait of Douglass in The Good Lord Bird, and how might the Lesser Known help us understand that characterization?

I haven’t seen The Good Lord Bird (miniseries). Don’t subscribe to Showtime. Nor have I read McBride’s novel about Douglass. Oops! I might add that the iconic historian, David Blight’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, gets it right for me.

David W. Blight at the 2019 National Book Festival

Can you expand on the relationship between celebrity, falsehood, and financial gain? What are the effects of this triad working together?

Trump encapsulates this triad: a wealthy reality television star, he propelled himself into the Presidency through the monumental falsehood of lying about President Obama’s birthplace in order to de-legitimize his Presidency and even his American citizenship. The Lesser Known in The America Play gained notoriety through perpetuating falsehoods about Lincoln through an assassination reenactment scene. He even said that lying was good for business. The Lesser Known gained more $UCCE$$ for dramatizing Lincoln’s assassination through myths, falsehoods, and exaggerations than for reciting the President’s famous speeches. The ardent combined appeal of celebrity, falsehood, and financial gain today is legion, and sadly, it has reached the level of the Presidency.

President Barack H. Obama cradles an infant as his wife Michelle looks on while at the Anderson Dining Facility on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Dec. 25, 2011

Why do you suppose the American people in general place a higher value on iconography rather than the authenticity of history? Has this tendency remained constant or has it grown since the nineteenth century?

This trend has grown since the nineteenth century especially since the advent of social media, reality television, and the like. The problem is that iconography seems to be championed more for celebrityhood rather than for First Responders, such as for Covid-19, for example.

Scott Bradley’s set design for August Wilson’s Fences in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival staff photographer

Parks’s strategy of conflating time and personhood, or “temporal transcendency” as you call it, sounds like something extraordinary to witness. Are there other plays you’ve come across that incorporate similar structures? If so, could you recommend some?

Arthur Kopit’s Indians, which pairs the Battle of Little Big Horn with the Vietnam War.

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, which pairs the origins of a slave-descendant family’s prized heirloom—a piano that dates from slavery–with their internal dispute, in modern times, to sell it or to keep it.

Though not a play, Philip Glass’s Appomattox, the Opera, (redux) performed at the Kennedy Theater in the nation’s capital in 2015 conflates time and personhood. The Opera moves from Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia (1865), to the Civil Rights movement circa 1965. (Glass’s far less ambitious version of Appomattox, the Opera, was first performed at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in 2007.)

J.M.W. Turner, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on (“The Slave Ship”)

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on Marlene Nourbese Philip’s complex poem, Zong!, which posits a past-to-present time frame, in context with the Zong Ship Massacre, JMW Turner’s painting, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Sick and the Dying; Typhoon Coming On, and the Middle Passage.