The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World

by Marcus Scott

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 16, 2016

Patrena Murray, Jamar Williams, Daniel J. Watts, Reynaldo Piniella and David Ryan Smith
Patrena Murray, Jamar Williams, Daniel J. Watts, Reynaldo Piniella and David Ryan Smith  

Playwright and dramatist Suzan Lori Parks is a singular anomaly in the theater world, mostly because her work is composed as an ocular spectacular visual séance, relying rather heavily on innovative stagecraft and poetics than the power of the structure or nuance of the language. None of her plays are more challenging, one could argue, than her 1990 Brechtian choreopoem "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead," now having its first off-Broadway revival with Signature Theatre Company.

It's a play that may confuse and even vex theater critics (many of them being non-diverse), but that's perhaps in no small part to its fever dream quality and outré black aesthetic. You know, the kind of 75-minute play without intermission that code-switches without itemizing the content or the narrative for a white audience. That is why this rarely produced political work has maintained its razor-sharp ferociousness while highlighting Parks' adverse fearlessness as an artist. Delphic, opaque, speculative, mystifying and oracular, the ensemble show is at once fundamentally perplexing and emotionally overpowering.

According to a collage curated and on display in the lobby, the playwright noted that the work emulates free jazz and the music of Ornette Coleman, particularly his 1959 avant-garde magnum opus "The Shape of Jazz to Come," which makes a lot of sense in the execution of the show. Refusing to imbue traditional Western storytelling devices, the play finds its influence in the African and African-American ritual of call-and-response as well the compact and cyclic structure of jazz muzak.

Immediately it becomes evident that this is a story where Parks, acting as a conjure woman of sorts, brings to light the many masks, personalities of servitude and shackles worn globally by African people, especially those brought to America during the transatlantic African slave trade via the Middle Passage. In a sense, in this play the U.S. is treated as both a hunting ground and a dystopian survivalist colony in which black persons have to endure to ensure their existence and self-care.

Staged in a phantasmagorical arena designed by Riccardo Hernandez, a colossal tree limb transverses across the stage while a gaggle of garish racialist black stereotypes strut across an auction block in various vignettes. At the center of the narrative is Black Man With Watermelon (played by Daniel J. Watts; a future Broadway leading man), sentenced to endure various trials and tribulations that ultimately lead to his death, which loops over and over and over again; each time is different. Thanks to Yi Zhao's stark lighting design, you can really understand the magnitude of the weight of that colossal fruit and the ugly history of this pigeonhole.

Looming onstage is an electric chair; the players illuminate that the item was set up in town squares for local entertainment. A hangman's rope dangles like fog from a branch of the tree limb over the ensemble; a lynching is on the menu. And if that weren't gloomy enough, the protagonist suffers from melancholia and fits of depression, hinting at self-harm and suicide.

Through these deaths he becomes a surrogate martyr for the fallen dynasties and future ancestors who were and will be murdered physically, psychologically and emotionally. The sickest act of violence against him would be his termination by erasure by none other than mainstream media, academics and historians of the Western World. And each time our hero is ready to pass over and transcend to the other side, he's repeatedly revived by the Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (played by a reliable Roslyn Ruff), his spiritual confidant, partner and surgeon in life.

Directed with blistering fury and emotional acumen by Lileana Blain-Cruz (who staged Branden Jacobs Jenkins' "War" at LCT last summer), rounding out the ensemble are a coterie of characters drawn from biblical scripture, ancient history, black caricature or soul food: Ham, the philosophical son of Noah made famous for his Old Testament parable (played by Patrena Murray); Prunes and Prisms (played by Mirirai Sithole), a reference to a vocal exercise targeted to Negro people which asserted practicing this phase could reduce the size of the speaker's lips if reiterated on loop; Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (played by Jamar Williams), a dandy-dressed vaudevillian minstrel showman; Bigger and Bigger and Bigger, a figure inspired by Bigger Thomas, the 20-year-old impoverished black youth from Richard Wright's 1940 magnum opus, "Native Son" (played by Reynaldo Piniella); Old Man River Jordan (played by Julian Rozzell), a stevedore inspired by the 1927 Kern & Hammerstein classic "Showboat" signature; Before Columbus (played by David Ryan Smith), an explorer inspired by Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima's 1976 novel, "They Came Before Columbus"; and Voice on Thuh Tee V (played by William DeMeritt), a dapper and eloquent broadcast news reporter that gives a nod to the modern-day state of the affairs regarding impartial journalism.

Finally, there is Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (played by Nike Kadri), who eerily and menacingly prompts the audience to remember the show's significance: "You should write it down because if you don't write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist."

These words are haunting, especially when echoed by the statuesque Egyptian Queen-turned-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (played by Amelia Workman), who later recounts the legacy of colonization and white supremacy by European people. Oddly enough the point of the story hits its target like a double-decker bus on impact when the queen pharaoh addresses globalization and presents the world, once as a level playing field, now as a conquest when the first explorers sailed the ocean blue. Tyranny and enslavement was bound to happen after it was discovered the world was round and not flat: "Figuring out the truth put them in their place, and they scurried to put us into ours."

Enigmatic and even stupefying at bouts -- my guest complained about the groovy dance sequences choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly and performed to interpolations of Top 100 radio jams (Beyonce's "Partition" comes to mind) as a source of confusion -- one thing is certain: Although a monotonous hodgepodge of black hagiography, Signature's latest revival of "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead" is a cathartic fever dream of transgressive art with Suzan Lori-Parks playing the part of the number-one jubilant hierophant of black life.

"The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead" runs through December 18 at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. For information or tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org