Founding father 

America Play digs into history at Actor's Express

As the unnamed protagonist of Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play, Gary Yates takes the stage in the regalia of Abraham Lincoln. He has Lincoln's mole and Lincoln's mien, the facial hair and the stovepipe hat, and the resemblance is striking. Except for the key difference that Yates, like his character, is an African-American.

A premise in which a black American is obsessed with the Great Emancipator is clearly rife with implication about history and race in this country. Audiences will appreciate The America Play, on the boards at Actor's Express, to the extent that they're willing to seek interpretations and inferences. Directed by Artistic Director Wier Harman, it's a challenging show built around provocative ideas and haunting images, but one not always easy to sit through.

Upon entering the theater, attendees are told "Welcome to the Hall of Wonders," and Louisa Thompson's clever set suggests both a seedy museum and a rustic traveling show. Yates takes the stage and in stylized language punctuated by ritualistic gestures, he gives a speech about the parallel lives of a Great Man and a Lesser Man, i.e., Lincoln and himself. A gravedigger in an Eastern town, he seizes upon his supposed resemblance to the President and abandons his family to become a traveling Lincoln impersonator.

Parks' dialogue and its underlying meaning are often opaque, and she's not a playwright worried about making things easy for her audience. But The America Play also has humorous elements, especially when the Lesser Man explains how people told him that he plays Lincoln so well he ought to be shot every night. He consequently sets up an attraction in which people, from history buffs to giggly newlyweds, get to play the role of John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln's assassination, only with varying degrees of success.

Act Two introduces Lucy (Carol Mitchell-Leon) and Brazil (Robert Singleton), who in their black, formal costumes and eccentric behaviors, come across like characters from Samuel Beckett by way of Charles Dickens. We quickly realize they are the Lesser Man's wife and son, and they commence to digging a hole in the stage itself (a section consists of soil, not boards), trying to find the Lesser Man's long-lost resting place.

We learn that Brazil is a professional mourner proud of his teeth-gnashing abilities, while Lucy is a "confidence" -- someone who hears the last words of the dying and communes with spirits. Among the "whispers" she hears from the other side are moments of Our American Cousin, campy snippets from the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. As Brazil piles black soil onto the stage and drags out a coffin, Parks provides one unsettling tableau after another.

The America Play seems to go on forever, though, especially in the second half. When Lucy and Brazil drone about "his whole hole" or test each other's knowledge of state capitals, the action feels so drawn out it's as if the play is deliberately killing time, despite the power of its pay-off.

The cast helps the show seem like more than an exercise in abstractions. Yates and Mitchell-Leon are both quite accomplished at making their roles seem like real, fully dimensioned people, and not just walking symbols or insane asylum inmates. Singleton conveys Brazil's boyishness and eagerness to please, hinting that for all the play's evocation of the American heritage, it's underlying points concern families with fathers who have run off or are otherwise absent.

But The America Play answers few questions definitively. For instance, when Lucy gives Brazil a small garden shovel as a present, saying "Spade," it's up to us to figure out whether a racial epithet is intended, and what it means. The America Play can have significant rewards, but be aware that, figuratively speaking, the audience has to do its share of digging, too.

The American Play continues through Feb. 24 at Actor's Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun (and 2 p.m. matinees Jan. 28 and Feb. 11). $20-25. 404-607-7469.

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