Bruce J. Robinson
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American Wake

AMERICAN WAKE revolves around the death of the ultimate Civil War hero -- Ulysses S. Grant. The play follows the huge impact that his loss had on the lives of the play's three other characters: Samuel Clemens (the editor of Grant's autobiography and his biggest fan), General William Tecumseh Sherman (Grant's best friend), and Arthur Dubois (an African-American waiter).

This one-act, four-actor piece takes place in New York City on August 6, 1885 -- the night before Grant's to be buried. It opens on a private alcove in the plush Lotos Club. Dining are the sardonic, brilliant Clemens and the imperious, volcanic, and equally clever Sherman. All evening, these old and close friends battle to define and claim Grant's legacy.

Often, we follow their memories of Grant back into the moments themselves -- most of which play against the backdrop of his fight against cancer to complete his autobiography. In one recollection, Grant recounts Sherman's history of near-psychosis during times of loss and elicits a promise from Clemens to help Sherman maintain sanity when Grant dies.

Waiting on the two is Arthur, the only fully invented character. He's a conduit to one the play's main concerns and America's central tragedy -- racism.

As the evening gets later and the two men get drunker, Clemens manages to induce Sherman to accompany him uptown to where Grant's laid-out -- the future site of Grant's tomb. The smashed Clemens sensibly hires Arthur to drive the carriage.

It's early morning in Morningside Park. There, the three men struggle to come to terms with how things are and to say good-bye: Clemens to a hero who was more like a god, Sherman to a friend who was more like a father, and Arthur to his beloved nephew -- his journey to the grave quickened by Grant's racial indifference.

Grant was quintessentially American -- both for the good and bad. For him, it's an American wake.
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