African American types and stereotypes crowd the stage in the striking revival of Suzan-Lori Parks surreal and cryptic 1990 play at the Signature – a man in sharecropper overalls holding a watermelon (his character in the program is listed as “Black Man With Watermelon”) , a woman in a do-rag (“Black Woman With Fried Drumstick”) and nine others, including a minstrel performer (“Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork”), and a kid in a black hoodie (“And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger.”)
“The black man moves his hands,” says Black Man With Watermelon, the first line in the play. And then he doesn’t move his hands – because, after all, he is holding a watermelon.
“The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” is reminiscent of both Adrienne Kennedy’s 1964 Funnyhouse of a Negro, which was revived at the Signature earlier this year, and Gertrude Stein’s libretto for the 1934 all-black opera on Broadway “Four Saints in Three Acts.” Like its predecessors, “Last Black Man” offers searing imagery mixed with repetitive auditory gibberish, words that exist far more for their effect as sounds than for their meaning — words as jazz.
“Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in thuh whole entire world. Uh! Oh,” says Black Woman With Fried Drumstick.
I am sure a studious undergraduate could not only make sense of the text, but detect patterns of significance in it, beneath the obvious one of black oppression in America.
Parks, Pulitzer Prize winner for “Topdog/Underdog,” who is the resident playwright this season at Signature, recently offered her own two-tiered take on her early play in the Signature’s free magazine. On the surface, “it’s about a man, and his wife, and the man is dying….This man is dead and his wife is basically trying to find his final resting place…And what they find at the end is that his final resting place is a play called ‘The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.’ It’s like a funeral mass in a way.” Even she, however, in effect advises theatergoers not to focus on such surface concerns as discernible plot or coherent dialogue: “…think of jazz music first of all…slam poetry, hip hop, like a poetry slam.”
There is humor here if you look for it: The only character dressed in a modern business suit, who says things like “Good Evening, this is the news,” is named “Voice On Thuh Tee V.” The characters’ names as a whole, if often opaque, can be amusing. (Read them all in the credits below.)
But for most of us, I suspect, the appeal of “Last Black Man” rests largely with the production values. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has assembled a first-rate design team — Montana Blanco’s costumes range from vivid and playful to disturbing, Yi Zhao’s lighting is evocative and haunting, Palmer Hefferan mixes lively music with ominous sounds. There is an impressive level of commitment from the 11-member cast, led by Daniel J. Watts, an eight-time Broadway veteran last seen in Hamilton, as the Black Man with a Watermelon. There are startling moments casually inserted upstage, like Reynaldo Piniella as the hoodie kid lurching and gasping in an electric chair. Some of these moments from a play written in 1990 feel alarming in their continuing relevance. Watts, in and out of a noose, never far from a hanging tree, at one point says, again and again: “Can’t breathe.”
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, projection design by Hannah Wasileski
Cast William DeMeritt as Voice on Thuh Tee V, Nike Kadri as Yes and Green Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread, Patrena Murray as Ham, Reynaldo Piniella as And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger, Julian Rozzell as Old Man River Jordan, Roslyn Ruff as Black Woman as Fried Drumstick, Mirirai Sithole as Prunes and Prisms, David Ryan Smith as Before Columbus, Daniel J. Watts as Black Man with Watermelon, Jamar Williams as Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork, and Amelia Workman as Queen-Then Pharoah Hatshepsut
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $30 through December 4; $35-65 afterwards.
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead runs through December 18, 2016