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The America Play

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Digging for roots: Rita Gregory (left) and Nate Jedrzejewski in The America Play, at Open Stage Theatre - PHOTO COURTESY OF JEREMY ROLLA
  • Photo courtesy of Jeremy Rolla
  • Digging for roots: Rita Gregory (left) and Nate Jedrzejewski in The America Play, at Open Stage Theatre

If you witnessed Suzan-Lori Parks' compelling and fascinating Topdog/Underdog, as brilliantly directed and played at City Theatre in 2004, you'll recall that a major element was Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Open Stage Theatre resurrects that theme with memorable effects in The America Play, Parks' more abstract and puzzling take, dating from six years before her better-known, Pulitzer Prized work.

Many meanings seem clear in Topdog/Underdog, an intense, well-focused story about African Americans struggling with identity while involved in public performances recreating the Lincoln-Booth encounter. You won't have it as easy this time. You'll have to dig deeply into what Parks is trying to say, even as one character named Brazil digs into his own roots. With a shovel. Certainly, questions of identity are raised again ... and again ... as pieces of the whole, ritual-like, play and replay like a nonstop Zapruder film loop.

Among many things, Parks seems to question public fascination with revisiting famous deaths -- overshadowing the meaning of the loss, and the substance of the victim's life. But you may not arrive at that conclusion. In fact, you may arrive at all kinds of conclusions and/or have a stovepipe hatful of questions.

You could ask whether this earlier play is even about race, because, unlike in Topdog/Underdog, race is never mentioned. In this case, the characters could be any poor, underprivileged people, even if portrayed by black actors.

Although linear progression is evident from the first act to the second, so many variations and permutations appear -- many mocking rather than dead-serious -- we can conclude that Parks aims to provoke us into our own interpretations.

Clearly, director David M. Maslow and his excellent cast have worked hard to create something interesting enough to prod us into ruminating after we leave our seats for the shadows of night.

Maslow imaginatively stages parts of this as almost vaudevillian, or a minstrel show, with actor Garbie Dukes displaying amazing virtuosity as the narrator and Lincoln impersonator. As his son, Brazil, Nathan M. Jedrzejewski follows in those dynamic footsteps, skillfully alternating between absurdities and realities.

Like the performances, the quality and look of the set, the props and the costumes give the production a constant sense of substance, even when all of Parks' ideas don't come clearly through. Maslow's debut as the company's producing artistic director bodes well for what is next to come.

The America Play continues through Nov. 4. Open Stage Theatre, 2835 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-394-3353 or www.openstagetheatrepittsburgh.org

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