There are pieces of poetry, paintings, scenes from plays, movies that will turn themselves over and over living actively in our memories for a very long time to reveal new truths, new beauty, new troublesome anomalies of the life they imitate.
The Death of The Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead is one of these pieces of art. It is poetic performance art that felt to this privileged white girl like Gertrude Stein met Mos Def met Caryl Churchill met Maya Angelou met Miguel Pinero . . . .
But before I go on, let’s just get this out of the way: I do not feel qualified to write this review as I am white and this work showed me that I had an education about a flat earth with huge holes in it that were clearly eaten out by dragons. Either my socialization as a middle class white American had me tune out a lot of my nation’s racist history or I may have to admit that much of it was never mentioned to me. Or is it that some of these references are to a popular culture before my time? The guilt over feeling lost when the lights came up and the show was finished was a little hard to get past. I turned to my date saying, “F^<k you, T—s; you said this was going to be a comedy!” I was ashamed that I was unsure about the meaning of what I saw. In the thought that I should have understood it all, I was aware of my own arrogance for thinking it.
Ah, but maybe those feelings are all perfect. Here’s what I experienced:
The stage is raked and dimly lit with no curtain as the audience shuffles in. There is an old fashioned electric chair in the upper left, a long tree branch rising diagonally from the left in to the grid and, down right, is a black man in a hat pulled low like a prisoner’s hood, blue jeans, feet in the dirt, sitting in a hard wooden chair, head down, hands hanging low and . . . dying? As the house lights dim, figures dressed in familiar costumes walk on and off the stage in a sort of stylized death march acquiring more and more watermelons as they exit and enter again handing off their burdens to one another. The costumes designed by Montana Blanco scream stereotypes of the figures named, for example, Black Woman with Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff), Black Man with Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts), Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams) and Queen-then-Pharoah-Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman).
The spoken poetry begins. The speeches are rhythmic, beautiful, often playful – the language itself is playful and so is the delivery by these highly animated actors. Phrases are repeated and expanded then contracted and rolled out for another lap around the characters and the stage. We are seduced into the scenes by the precision of each spoken word and each movement on the stage. The choreography by Raja Feather Kelly is solid, stylized and exact. The character of Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell) has the most delightfully long legs and every word he says comes through a knowing smile. We almost feel giddy until we are confronted with what that smile may know about us. Black Man with Watermelon’s death tale is told to us in several incarnations, but the telling has him escape the final moment almost every time. Watts’ gorgeous muscled body folds and flows so easily over the stage with no resistance to every assault of words, dance, touch, music that lay heavy on him; it’s a rare kind of strength, surrender. The text rolls forward, but often circles back around upon itself as does the movement of bodies. Ruff gives us long narratives, each very similar, of her struggle with her partner’s near death, but she holds our interest in each recounting because she is living the story in a new moment even as she is weary of it all happening over again.
The character of And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella) is unmistakably representing Trayvon Martin. I really wanted to run out of the theatre when a noose was placed around his neck and he was pulled up toward the grid high over the large tree branch that traversed the stage. This was so difficult to watch as Piniella’s expression was so consistently youthful; there was hope in his voice even as he was being condemned.
It’s the voices I heard that continue to haunt me as I write this review. What were they saying? Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole) repeats her character’s name several times throughout the piece and then finally explains the evil instructions she was given to repeat herself this way. I felt relief to know followed quickly by, What else are we missing here? And then Voice on Thuh Tee V (William DeMeritt) shouts, “Whose fault is it?” Oh, this hurts as, at one point, all the figures on the stage point to Ham (Patrena Murray) who is, brilliantly, just slightly less choreographed –indeed, more free in her movements, though awkward – than anyone else on the stage. The free spirit is to blame. Of course. Don’t dare to be free because “they” will lynch you. But the pain is so beautiful. The rhythm is hypnotic. Workman stops all action on the stage with her beauty of form and diction so many times that I can’t wait to see her do it again. Lileana Blain-Cruz directs an ensemble that pulls our back off our seat cushion to listen and watch closely because there is something we need to know here – or is it that we knew it and we need to remember it?
I’m reminded of Satyr Plays. (Just follow me down this road for a moment.) Theatre history is something I remember a tiny bit about as I fought hard for my theatre degree oh so many years ago. My Theatre History professor told us that there are no extant complete texts of Satyr Plays anywhere in the world. Yet, we believe there were many of them performed often in ancient Greece for a long time. The absence of full texts is likely because Satyr Plays were entertainment reserved for the lower classes in ancient Greece – those people who did not matter and had nothing of value to contribute to the culture in the estimation of the aristocracy. No effort was made to preserve these plays. Recently some scraps of texts were found to survive at Oxyrhynchus (or was that just fiction I witnessed in a play I saw once?). We’re told that Satyr Plays were just banal humor and loaded with gross debauchery. But haven’t we learned that history is written and preserved by the winners? Who knows what else we don’t – we’re not allowed to – remember? What is killed when we are not looking? Is The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World . . . jogging a collective experience I may not be allowed to have much longer? Yes and Greens Black Eyed Peas and Cornbread (Nike Kadri) tells us, “You should write that down and hide it under a rock!”
So, I enjoyed the whole painful thing. I did laugh, too. There were funny bits. And many hours later, I turn it over and over again in my memory discovering more truths about humanity, my world, beauty and ugliness, decency and justice, love and hate, ignorance, vision, blindness . . . . Bless you, Suzan-Lori Parks; I will never let you go.
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead – by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
WITH: William DeMeritt (Voice on Thuh Tee V) Nike Kadri (Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread) Patrena Murray (Ham) Reynaldo Piniella (And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger) Julian Rozzell (Old Man River Jordan), Roslyn Ruff (Black Woman with Fried Drumstick), Mirirai Sithole ( Prunes and Prisms), David Ryan Smith (Before Columbus) Daniel J. Watts (Black Man with Watermelon), Jamar Williams (Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork), Amelia Workman (Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut).
Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, Costumes by Montana Blanco, Lighting by Yi Zhao, Sound by Palmer Hefferan, Projection Design by Hannah Wasileski, Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly. Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler. Casting by Telsey + Company. Through December 18th in The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street (Between 9th and 10th Avenues). Running time: 80 minutes. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Services at 212.244.7529 (Tues. – Sun., 11am-6pm) or visit www.SignatureTheatre.org.