Sometimes a theater critic needs to turn to the script when a play proves problematic to decipher in performance. That’s certainly the case for Signature Theatre’s revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead. Sadly, even going to the printed page left me flummoxed.
This early (1990) effort by the playwright who would go on to write such acclaimed dramas as In the Blood, The America Play, When Father Comes Home From the Wars (Pats 1, 2 & 3) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning Topdog/Underdog is rarely produced, and it’s easy to see why. Dense, abstruse and elliptical, the piece is virtually incomprehensible. The playwright has said that the work emulates free jazz and the music of Ornette Coleman in particular, and theatergoers who prefer that style of jazz over, say, big band swing, may be more receptive to its challenges.
Dealing with themes of African-American history and identity, the play’s allusive, poetical language makes Gertrude Stein seem like Dr. Seuss by comparison. The two central characters are Black Man With Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts) and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff), nods to black stereotypes that are not exactly subtle.
The other archetypal characters, many drawn from ancient history or inspired by food, are Ham (Patrena Murray), Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith), Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman), Voice on Thuh Tee V (William DeMeritt), Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri), Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole), and Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams). There’s also And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella), a reference to the leading character in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son.
During 70 minutes that feels like an eternity, Black Man With Watermelon, who indeed clutches a large specimen of the fruit, has the misfortune to die over and over again via such methods as the electric chair and lynching, only to be repeatedly revived by the earth mother-like Black Woman With Fried Drumstick.
The musical language features endless repetition, with subtle variations providing the linguistic equivalent of jazz improvisations. But a little of it goes a long way, as evidenced by this example: “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. You should write it down and you should hide it under a rock. You should write down the past and you should write down the present and in what in the future you should write it down.” That’s one of the more straightforward passages.
You also won’t have any trouble remembering the play’s title, recited and projected so often throughout the proceedings that when the evening is over you’ll be longing for regression therapy. The energetic dance sequences, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly and frequently performed to deafening electronic music, don’t help.
Although the piece works on a certain visceral level, its failure to communicate its intellectual themes in remotely coherent fashion diminishes its intended power. It’s certainly no fault of the performers, who, under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction, go through their demanding physical and verbal paces with admirable energy. The production elements are also first-rate, including Riccardo Hernandez’s spare set dominated by a giant tree branch that inevitably takes on a tragic function. But while one can certainly admire the literary and theatrical ambitions of this deliberately challenging play, it’s a lot harder to actually enjoy it.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center
Cast: William DeMeritt, Nike Kadri, Patrena Murray, Reynaldo Piniella, Julian Rozzell, Roslyn Ruff, Mirirai Sithole, David Ryan Smith, Daniel J. Watts, Jamar Williams, Amelia Workman
Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Montana Blanco
Lighting designer: Yi Zhao
Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Projection designer: Hannah Wasileski
Choreographer: Raja Feather Kelly
Presented by the Signature Theatre