‘America Play’ not for everyone

Butcher Block’s premiere production of "The America Play" allows locals a rare listen to one of our nation’s strongest voices. It’s not an easy work. Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog") demands a lot from an audience. But she delivers as much as she expects.

The script has a broad, "Assassins" feel. We’re in "The Great Hole of History," which is to say, the hole of black American history. We begin with a black actor in white face (Asante Williams) dressed up as Abe Lincoln. He’s got a unique carnival act: for a penny, folks get to select a toy pistol and "shoot" him. (It’s cathartic for the anxiety-challenged.) He laughs mechanically like a wind-up doll and, when someone pulls a trigger, immediately goes limp.

This "Lincoln" is an excuse to take us into a fascinating tale about a black family — the widow of the Lincoln impersonator (Natalia Bermudez) and son Brazil (Marcus Hinton) — digging in "the hole of nowhere" for evidence of their racial heritage. All they seem to come up with are trinkets and artifacts of white men.

There’s much more to the story, and so much of the pleasure is Parks’ ability to add layers of intriguing — but not always easy to understand — information. I suspect that even if you’re not certain what’s going on — the play is not for everyone — you’ll likely at least fill up on the beauty of her prose.

Director Shawn Hackler captures the vaudeville spirit of the text. He seems to instinctively know how to honor its boundaries. (I’d hate to see this show in the wrong hands.) He also demonstrates unusual, English-teacher respect for Parks’ language.

Hackler’s unifying command of his cast is sometimes extraordinary. Will Klundt (as, among others, John Wilkes Booth), Williams, and Hinton seem to have materialized from the same cartoon draw boards. Their reality base never wavers. You never doubt the existence of this strange world.

Hackler’s one-set design suggests "The Great Hole" as well as a political platform from which "Lincoln" is habitually "assassinated." It’s fun to look at, intriguing, and just the right tone for Parks’ sociological riffs.

The only drawback — and it’s a big one — is that the show runs less than 45 minutes. At the performance I attended, most of the audience members remained in their seats in the end, unaware that the production was over. The evening desperately needs a companion piece.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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