Playing with the past

"A play is a blueprint of an event: a way of creating and rewriting history through the medium of literature. Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history – that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, disremembered, washed out, one of my tasks as a playwright is to – through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life – locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down." – Suzan-Lori Parks in her essay "Possession," 1994

The names Lincoln and Booth are inextricable from a moment in history that shocked a nation at odds and shaped its future. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States and the leader who guided America through a divisive civil war that ultimately ended slavery and reunited the union, was shot by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer, while watching a play at Ford’s Theatre in April 1865.

To evoke those names in Topdog/Underdog, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks suggests the backdrop of the play is a country in turmoil and conflict between the two men is inevitable. Are they fated to take opposing sides in some sort of battle? Are they destined to carry out the actions of their namesakes?

The characters Lincoln and Booth in the play – named the way they were by their father as a joke – are also brothers. In addition to ghosts of a divided nation, these two men carry the burden of brotherhood, calling to mind sibling rivalries like that of Cain and Abel. The question of destiny and fate returns, begging whether their relationship as brothers assures they must fight each other for status and favor.

The year after Topdog/Underdog premiered in 2001, the play and its playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first and only time (so far) that it has been awarded to an African-American woman. The play presented contemporary America from the point of view of two brothers at the mercy of their circumstances, men who believe that our culture is made up of hustlers and victims, that all human interaction can be reduced to a con and that he who tells the story decides how it ends. Could the play be suggesting that American history is the biggest con of all?

Rewriting History

The character of Lincoln in the play – whose job is to be repeatedly shot in an Abraham Lincoln assassination reenactment in a shabby arcade – understands the futility of questioning deeply held beliefs about American history. “People like they historical shit in a certain way,” he says. “They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book.”

But there are many ways to unfold the past. History depends on point of view and has, by and large, been told from the perspective of the victor, the one who ends up on top, though there are millions of stories from the points of view of everyone else. American history is just beginning to acknowledge the experiences of a wider range of races, classes, economic statuses and educations to create a more complete vision of the past. In recent generations, writers, historians and artists have added to the conversation by stretching what was once a narrow account of history to include new perspectives.

The Legacy of Lincoln

Parks is one of the artists putting forth a new definition of history. She rejects the commonly held reverence for this country’s mythology. For example, she challenges the notion of Abraham Lincoln as a venerated, yet untouchable individual in history. “To me,” Parks said in an interview in The New York Times in 2002 just after Topdog/Underdog opened on Broadway, “Lincoln is the closest thing we have to a mythic figure. In days of great Greek drama, they had Apollo and Medea and Oedipus – these larger-than-life figures that walked the earth and spoke – and they turned them into plays. Shakespeare had kings and queens that he fashioned into his stories. Lincoln, to me, is one of these.”

In The America Play, Parks’s 1994 drama and one of her early successes, the main character is told he looks like Lincoln, so he often ends up dressing like him and reciting his words, leading to a similar occupation as the elder brother in Topdog/Underdog. Parks refers to this character as “the Foundling Father,” and he refers to himself as “the Lesser Known,” as compared to “the Great Man” he is playing.

Parks explores the complicated relationship black America has to the legacy of Lincoln in both of these plays by pulling off the iconic shroud he is often cloaked in to show his flaws. Lincoln is a symbol of so much progress in this country and, at the same time, he held personal beliefs that are out of order today. Parks doesn’t limit history to only one view of Lincoln but embraces the many sides of the complicated man to create a more complete vision of the past.

Then and Now

It has been ten years since the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Topdog/Underdog and conversations continue about the limitations of our currently accepted version of American history and the ongoing need for expanded perspective. To spend all our time looking to history, however, ignores the history we’re making right now. “There’s a relationship with the past, an important one,” Parks said, again in 2002. “But I think to focus on that relationship and de-emphasize the relationship of the person right in the room with you is the great mistake of American culture and the mistake of history. We have to deal with what’s happening right now.”

The conversations this play continues to inspire about history, race and the many different Americas people experience is a way of honoring the past and redefining the future.