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LA Theater Review

The America Play

An African American sideshow performer spends his days seated behind a curtain at an arcade, waiting patiently until someone puts a penny into a slot in the top of a bust of Abraham Lincoln. The performer dons a stovetop hat and fake beard to take on the persona of our 16th president, as customers line up to shoot him while he laughs through Our American Cousin in perpetua. It's an unforgiving image, focused on re-creating Lincoln's final utterances and those of John Wilkes Booth accurately, as though this repetitious depiction of the event will somehow define the men themselves, as though we as a people must explain history to assure ourselves we deserve a future. "I'm trying to follow in the Great Man's footsteps," says the Foundling Father (Harold Surratt). "But his footsteps were always behind him."

It's a starkly surreal history told by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who questions whether that history applies to her and her people, something intensified by the huge blank stage, designed by director Nancy Keystone, covered in pulverized tire rubber where various early American relics are buried, waiting to be unearthed. By Act 2, this faux Lincoln is dead, but Keystone's "great hole in the middle of nowhere" is now inhabited by his widow and son (J. Nicole Brooks and Darius Truly, respectively), who endlessly dig to find out why he spent his life re-enacting the assassination. But in doing so, they keep coming up with historical artifacts dating to long before the sideshow interpretation, giving Parks the opportunity to poetically take on our country's dubious political legacy.

Keystone and her ferociously committed cast join Parks' disturbing but lyrical visualization to boldly sabotage our contentment with the myths that have been fed to us, symbols meant to legitimize our past and our present whether accurate or not. It is a jarring, often humorous vision, made more disturbing by the use of Ebonics to speak a brazen new eloquence. On opening night there were glitches in performances, but the electrifying Truly, playing somewhere between Stepin Fetchit and Sammy Davis Jr., epitomizes the whole point here: For the still often displaced and disenfranchised African Americans, there's no real recorded history that has not, if you'll excuse the expression, been whitewashed into oblivion.

Presented by and at the Theatre@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor, Pasadena. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Oct. 14-Nov. 19. (626) 683-6883.

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