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. (Even Angels’s subtitle evokes Shaw’s similarly apocalyptic Heartbreak House; “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes” becomes “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”)
LIKE MOST AMERICAN THEATRE, such epic ambitions derive in part from Eugene O’Neill. Like him, these artists possess one thing that lends their attempts power even when they fail: reach. Prior to writing his famous autobiographical masterworks (Long Day’s Journey into Night and Moon for the Misbegotten), O’Neill embarked on (and abandoned incomplete) a vast, nine-play historical cycle: A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed, a name that equally suits Schenkkan’s own nine-play saga. (You might turn this around to describe August Wilson’s decade-by-decade, African-American history cycle-in-the-making. Call it: “The Dispossessed, Self-repossessed.”) Unlike contemporary epicists, however, O’Neill’s obsessions remained firmly planted within the four walls of the family manse. “I’m not giving a damn whether the dramatic event of each play has any significance in the growth of the country or not,” he wrote a friend. “The Cycle is…the history of a family….I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this Cycle is much concerned with what is usually understood by American history, for it isn’t.”
If, as Tennessee Williams said, O’Neill “gave birth to the American theatre and died for it,” his legacy, dominant since the ’40s, was this preoccupation with family. Eighties theatre shared this fixation, zooming in on family dysfunction. The epics of the ’90s, by contrast, view the world wide-angle. These are shifting landscapes, roiling stews to the nouvelle theatrical cuisine of the past decade. Like Shakespeare’s histories (also written at the close of a century, the 1590s), these works focus on an ailing body politic, civil blood; like the epics of Bertolt Brecht, they turn history into parable, tale-telling into political dialectic. Often, as with The America Play and Twilight, they are defiantly apsychological Moreover, they aren’t content to sketch the problems; they dream of solutions, healing cures.
Parks, for instance, ends her play with a young black man, Brazil, climbing out of a huge pit, at least the size of the stage. His mother, meanwhile, paces the hole’s periphery, listening for history’s echoes through an ear trumpet. The image of his father–the man who dug the hole–dead and dressed like Abraham Lincoln, glares out from a TV screen. Brazil’s father spends his life reenacting Lincoln’s assassination in a theme park, as if all black history stems from the man who “freed the slaves”; until his final exit, Brazil spends his life digging for relics of his father’s confused life.
By replaying the death of Lincoln, Parks brings American history into collision with the absence of African-American history. She broaches a new national narrative by means of puns, all self-contradictory. The Hole is the Whole; the forefather is the “faux-father,” which means false and sounds like enemy; the digging is–even a generation after emancipation–“spadework” done by a family of “diggers,” both of which echo racial epithets; and the black man who imitates and resembles the president is not the progenitor of the nation but its orphan or “Foundling Father.” By trying to excavate a history for himself where there is none, Brazil digs his own grave–as his father had–out of which he must eventually climb.
PARKS’S HISTORICAL INSIGHTS and verbal skills are the play’s chief wonders. It’s a virtuoso literary turn–a mindfield–that remains strangely inert on stage. Unlike earlier works (and even an earlier draft of this one), The America Play runs short on visual surprises and dramatic events. I miss the wacky, brilliant and confusing stage koans that animate a play like The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Here Parks’s newer minimalism checks her wild theatrical imagination. In so static a world, it’s hard to see Brazil getting anywhere once he ascends.
Schenkkan’s cycle is more conservative to begin with, and more narrative. He follows Shakespeare’s lead by reconstructing a conflict-laden, multigenerational history of a land. As he traces a single spot in the hills from homestead to sharecropper’s cabin to coal-company-owned slum to United Mine Workers headquarters to wasteland awaiting strip mining, he concurrently charts the fates of three families, two white and one black.
What begins as good old-fashioned storytelling becomes, by the end of its day-long toll, increasingly schematic and predictable. Horror piles upon horror; every ounce of vengeance has to be had. Having started the cycle, Schenkkan condemns himself to finish it. He conjures an act of reconciliation with the land and its ghosts: Joshua Rowen, scion of the land’s original settlers, turns a shotgun on his companions to protect the recently unearthed corpse of a baby girl, 200 years old, preserved in a bunting of beaded buckskin. A recovering alcoholic, Rowen buries the child (who, unbeknownst to him, was his great-great-great aunt) and, by doing so, unites the ghosts of his ancestors in a tableau of harmony.
In the end, we’re left with questions answered and age-old enmity resolved. The rough, sprawling overgrowth of life that makes history (and great history plays) gets shorn away. Recovery of the land gets equated with recovery from alcoholism; the proper burial of a once-rejected half-Indian baby spells delivery from our violent heritage. It’s way too tidy an ending after so much drama. An ambitious undertaking has turned simplistically symbolic. (Perhaps the American theatre’s new play development system, with its emphasis on readings and narrative clarity, is to blame.)
Smith, on the other hand, starts simple and lets life’s complications accrue. She never manipulates, but instead lets our sympathies go where they will. She remains aloof from her characters, even as she captures them incisively. She refuses historian-speak–the surety of the single voice–opting instead for inclusive oral history. She serves up the knotty contradictions of racial and ethnic unrest and leaves us to untangle the knot. If she delivers any remedy at all, it’s a talking-cure.
HER ENDING EXEMPLIFIES a mindful, hands-off attitude. As Twilight Bey, one of the architects of the Crip/Blood gang truce, (echoing earlier words of cultural critic Homi Bhabha) she/he reminds us that the limbo-light of dusk is a valuable time, a time when, paradoxically, we can see things we miss in the light.
I see darkness as myself. I see the light as knowledge and the wisdom of the world and understanding others, and in order for me to be a, to be a true human being I can’t forever dwell in darkness, I can’t forever dwell in the idea of just identifying with people like me…
Now is such a time, she suggests, standing against the twilight sky in Dashiki tunic and Kente cloth hat; it’s an opportunity to identify with difference, to see, in the ethnic tensions of our nation, truths about the American character that more usual light obscures.
In Angels, difference is more ideological than ethnic, and the battle is fought, not in the streets, but in the body, mind and heart. Stasis versus progress–these are Kushner’s dueling ideologies. The former is embodied by conservative Republicans, specifically in the compelling evil of Roy Cohn, and by the Angels, who want mankind to “hobble” itself, to grow roots and stand still. Progress means liberation–racial, sexual and individual liberation–and the mysterious work of building a better world. Even on a personal level, Angels concerns staying still or moving on, as one partner in each of the two central couples leaves, one abandoning his sick lover, the other his agoraphobic, valium-popping wife.
Kushner precisely locates the play in contemporary history, 1985-90, the height of the Bush/Reagan era and the beginning of the restructuring of eastern Europe. This also covers the five years “prophet” Prior Walter has lived with AIDS. As Kushner scours this premillennial moment for the real sources of disease, he keeps his perspective (and ours) flipping. His sweeping vision closes beneath the statue of an Angel, commemorating the Civil War dead. The emaciated Walter stands before it, surrounded by friends, waving at us and reminding us that the “Great Work” of life is always just beginning.
If history will guide us in this great work, though, it won’t be exact. Kushner’s prescription is necessarily as murky and difficult as Smith’s, if more pleasantly upbeat. He combines images of disease (AIDS) and death (Civil War) with those of spiritual awakening (the Angel) and healing (her cleansing fountain). He adds a blessing for “More Life.” Kushner leaves us with “a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.” This painful progress is our hope in this time of transition, twilight, restructuring and revision. One century dies, and a version of America dies with it. Another stands waiting to be born. We dream restlessly forward.