01 December 2016

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

[I’ve always reserved the privilege of writing my play reports in a way that spotlights an aspect of the performance that caught my attention.  I don’t write reviews, in any case, so I’m not bound to a standard format or outline.  I haven’t exercised my self-proclaimed privilege often, but Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is an extraordinary occasion, reportorially speaking.  So what you’ll find below is not the kind of performance report I’ve been posting.  Furthermore, as lengthy as it is, I don’t come even close to saying all I would have liked about the play, the writer, or the production.  Nevertheless, I hope you’ll find my report useful, informative, and even revealing.  If you need a conventional evaluation, there are plenty of reviews on line—and I’ve surveyed a selection (some things don’t change).  Considering how fascinating academic writers have found Suzan-Lori Parks and her work, there are also quite a number of scholarly pieces, including both numerous essays and a few books, that analyze and purport to explain Last Black Man and other Parks plays.  (Some are even readable!)  ~Rick]

Last month, following an incident at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in which the cast of Hamilton addressed a statement to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence in the audience, President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted, “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”  Well, special, yes—but safe?  Most theater people, including most veteran theatergoers, wouldn’t accept that.  Certainly playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wouldn’t, not for a New York second.  Her entire career is proof that she’s in it to challenge people’s complacencies, invade their comfort zones—and no better illustration of this fact is on display right now at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre.  Believe you me, safety is the last thing Parks is there for.  “Since the early 1990s,” writes Jenna Clark Embrey, Signature Theatre Company’s literary manager, “Parks has incited a revolution in the American theatre with plays that remix history, truth, fantasy, and fables; the worlds that she creates are built on controlled chaos.”

Parks is this season’s Residency One playwright at STC.  This program affords each writer-in-residence multiple productions over a year’s period and the first of Parks’s plays for her Signature residency is her 1990 composition, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, an expressionistic, jazz-influenced stage poem that’s about the history of black America.  Or, more precisely, the eradication of African Americans and their history from the record.  In the words of Nicole Hodges Persley, a scholar of African-American theater, Parks’s history plays (please, don’t think Shakespeare), of which Last Black Man is one, “both exhilarate and confound audiences and critics.”  My companion, Diana, for example, dismissed the performance curtly as “a complete waste of time.”  She was almost angry and couldn’t understand why I found it intriguing.  (I’ll get to that later.)  As the playwright herself says: “Don’t go in there expecting to be served a meal from your mommy’s spoon.  We don’t do that in this show. . . .  Go in there expecting to see the stories come at you from all sides.  It is confusing, like the world is.” 

Parks wrote Last Black Man in 1989 (she says she started it in 1987 or ’88) and the New York Theatre Workshop held a reading of the script in its east Village home on 2 October directed by Beth A. Schachter.  The play premièred at BACA (Brooklyn Arts and Culture Association) Downtown on 13 September 1990 under Schachter’s direction and later was produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre’s WinterFest in New Haven, Connecticut, from 22 January to 7 March 1992, staged by Liz Diamond.  The current Signature revival is the first in New York City since the NYTW reading and the BACA début over a quarter of a century ago—and the first full, professional staging of the work in Manhattan.

Billed at STC as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead, the revival, staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s War, Lincoln Center Theater; Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, NYTW; both 2016) in the 191-seat Griffin, started performances on 25 October and opened on 13 November; it’s currently scheduled to close on 18 December (after two extensions from 4 and 11 December).  Diana and I met at Signature’s Theatre Row home for the 7:30 performance on Wednesday evening, 16 November.  (I’d never seen that subtitle used for any publication or production of Last Black Man before, but Parks explained that it was added for the STC production because when she needed to clarify the title for the actors, she realized “that it needed an addition.”  In an e-mail, Signature’s associate artistic director added that Parks appended the subtitle in September and affirms “that the addition is now part of the complete title.”)

Last Black Man is non-linear in structure, and largely non-narrative.  (Parks’s earliest plays, which include 1987’s Betting on the Dust Commander, 1989’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, and Last Black Man, are her most experimental and challenging in form.)   Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem, “Kubla Khan,” The Death of the Last Black Man, says Parks, came to her as a result of a dream.  Waking from a nap, the playwright

stared at the wall: still sort of dreaming.  Written up there between the window and the wall were the words, “This is the death of the last negro man in the whole entire world.”  Written up there in black vapor.  I said to myself, “You should write that down,” so I went over to my desk and wrote it down.  Those words and my reaction to them became a play.

But it’s more than just a dream.  This description is recounted in an essay called “Possession” (published in the same volume, The America Play and Other Works, in which The Death of the Last Black Man appears) and as an epigram to the piece, Parks provides a pair of definitions:

possession.  1. the action or fact of possessing, or the condition of being possessed.  2. the holding or having of something as one’s own, or being inhabited and controlled by a demon or spirit.  

The first meaning comes into play, but for now, it’s the second part of definition 2 that’s important.  Last Black Man is about reclaiming history and the figures—what Parks prefers to call the dramatis personæ—are from the past, from literature, from folk culture, from the Bible—and Parks seems to feel she’s been possessed by these spirits of African-American life, demanding that she tell their story.  “You should write it down because if you dont write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist,” says a figure called Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread.  As Parks sees it:

A pay is a blueprint of an event: a way of creating and rewriting history through the medium of literature.  Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to—through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life—locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.

Indeed, Parks did write it down.  What she sees herself doing in plays like Last Black Man is “re-membering,” which means both reclaiming lost history or putting African-Americans back into the historical record from which they’ve been erased and putting back together the black man who’s been systematically dismembered, both metaphorically and even actually. 

This is also where definition 1 above for ‘possession’ applies.  For most of African history in North America, the black man and woman has been a possession; a thing, an object that could be owned by someone else.  They were non-persons, and even after legal emancipation, hardly more than that.  Non-persons have no place in history.  They can’t make accomplishments or contributions.  They have no standing (the 1856-1857 Dred Scott case essentially declared that a slave had no right to bring suit in a U.S. court).  They leave no impression, even—or perhaps especially—when they die.  The question Parks asks is If a black man dies and no one bothers to record it, does his life make an impression on history?  The first half of definition 2 also returns to African Americans the right to their own possessions, including the power to create and own their own stories.  (Are we still in safe territory?)

This is the foundation of Parks’s themes.  With respect to form, the dramatist realizes “that my writing is very influenced by music; how much I employ its methods.”  Parks has explained, “When I wrote [Last Black Man] I was listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman [jazz composer-musician, 1930-2015], The Shape of Jazz to Come, which is a brilliant, brilliant album—and it very much has some jazz motifs in it.  So the play does as well.”  One of the play’s most prominent jazz techniques is “Repetition & Revision,” which Parks defines as “a concept integral to the Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised.”  The playwright continues:

“Rep & Rev” as I call it is a central element in my work; through its use I’m working to create a dramatic text that departs from the traditional linear narrative style to look and sound more like a musical score . . . [.]  How does this “Rep & Rev”—a literal incorporation of the past—impact on the creation of a theatrical experience?

Coleman, whose musicianship was, to say the least, unorthodox, unusual, and unstructured, was a controversial figure in jazz.  (He played a plastic saxophone in his early career!)  He’s considered one of the principal innovators of free jazz, a form of the music that essentially broke the rules of the genre and generally pushed the envelope.  (The term itself was invented by Coleman as the title of a 1960 album, and he never completely accepted it as a label for a type of jazz music, or that his own music should be called “free jazz.”)  My friend Kirk Woodward, who’s been a frequent guest-blogger on ROT, saw Coleman perform (he gets a mention in Kirk’s “Some Of That Jazz,” posted on 7 June 2015) and says of the sax-player that “he’s one of those pioneers that many people detested but then found he’d changed their way of experiencing an art forever.”  (Kirk has also blogged on Parks twice for ROT: “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009—which includes references to Last Black Man—and “A Playwright of Importance,” 31 January 2011.)  Music critic Steve Huey said of the album to which Parks was listening when she wrote Last Black Man, 1959’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, that it “was a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with.  The record shattered traditional concepts of harmony in jazz . . . .”  Huey wrote that “Coleman’s ideals of freedom in jazz made him a feared radical in some quarters.”  That’s a little like Parks’s position in theater—and, like Parks, Coleman was a Pulitzer Prize-winner (for music in 2007) and a MacArthur (“genius”) Fellow (1994). 

In plays like Last Black Man that are structured around Rep & Rev, explains Parks, “we are not moving from A à B but rather, for example, from A à à A à B à A.  Through such movement we refigure A.”  This effect is very audible in Blain-Cruz’s production.  Rep & Rev, however, has other applications in Last Black Man in addition to the lines the figures speak.  First, for example, the titular black man dies repeatedly and not always in the same way, so elements of Parks’s story are repeated and revised.  On the macro level, furthermore, the whole theme of The Death of the Last Black Man is a repetition and revision as the history—or non-history—of Africans in America is repeatedly rewritten until it’s eradicated.  Now it’s being revised again and restored.  So Rep & Rev isn’t just a playwriting technique in Last Black Man, it’s the structural foundation and the conceptual rationale. 

In combination with Rep & Rev, Parks also uses call and response, an element of both African and African-American public discourse and music.  This is defined as a “spontaneous verbal non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener.”  Along with African-American worship (grounded in African ceremonials), it is an integral element of jazz, blues, and hip hop, as well as political rallies and street demonstrations. 

On top of Parks’s musical structure and linguistic legerdemain, the writer roils the text with several other non-linear elements.  One of these is the temporality of Last Black Man.  Time in the play doesn’t move in a straight line—in fact, it twists around and folds back on itself; the play takes place simultaneously in the distant past, the more recent past, today: “Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 . . . .”  Parks enhances the confusion of time by mixing up the verb tenses and even composing some forms that defy tense parsing altogether.  In addition, time isn’t the only aspect of Last Black Man  that’s obscured: the play’s location is indeterminate and undecipherable.  At times were in ancient Egypt, 1492, the ante-bellum South, Jim Crow America, more-or-less contemporary U.S. (circa 1990 or 2016, take your pick), outer space, and the hereafter.  If you try to sort this out rationally, it’ll make you crazy and the play will be totally meaningless.  If you accept that Last Black Man takes place in all times and all places at once and just go with that, it works a lot better.  But it’s hardly simple. . . or comfortable.

One of Parks’s influences and models was Ntozake Shange (b. 1948), from whom the younger writer learned to compose in a poetic medium.  (Parks had written songs before turning to playwriting.)  Shange called her 1976 play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf a “choreopoem,” and the same descriptor could be applied accurately to Last Black Man.  Another literary influence on Parks’s work was playwright Adrienne Kennedy (b. 1931) who showed her the power of writing in contemporary street vernacular—what Parks refers to as “hip-hop, Ebonics, jazz speak.”  (I saw Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, another abstract performance piece that employs Rep & Rev, at STC last spring and reported on it in “Signature Plays” on 3 June.  I also saw a production of for colored girls directed by Shange in 1995, but it predates ROT and there is no report on it.) 

During the performance, I was very taken with Parks’s use of language, and the physical and verbal imagery she evoked—though some of that, of course, is also creditable to director Blain-Cruz, designers Riccardo Hernandez (set) and Montana Blanco (costumes), and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly.  In fact, Parks eschews stage directions and leaves the movements and placements of the actors “mostly to the director.”  Nonetheless, she takes responsibility for the physical life in her plays:

95 percent of the action, in all of my plays, is in the line of text.  So you don’t get a lot of parenthetical stage direction.  I’ve written, within the text, specific directions to them, to guide their breathing, to guide the way they walk, whether or not they walk, whether or not they walk with a limp, whatever.  They know what to do from what they say and how they say it.  The specifics of it are left up to the actor and the director.  The internals are in the line, the externals are left up to them. 

In the program for Last Black Man, Parks quotes another literary figure who had some impact on her art as well, a few lines from “Dolorous Echo,” a 1965 poem by Beat poet Bob Kaufman (1925-86): “When I die, / I won’t stay / Dead.,” which can be seen as a capsule statement of Last Black Man‘s theme.  Known in France, where his work is still popular, as the “black American Rimbaud,” Kaufman was also a surrealist inspired, like Parks, by jazz music.  So, at least on a superficial level, so far we have a play drawing on jazz—not to mention avant-garde jazz—African-American street speech, Beat poetry, call and response, history and culture as it’s been distorted by popular stereotyping, a temporal Möbius strip, an evanescent location, and stunning (literally) movement and visual imagery.  Oh, and all this is packed into a swift 75 minutes.  It’s certainly not easy going—and, I wouldn’t imagine, what someone looking for an evening’s entertainment would find “safe.”  As Tina Turner memorably proclaimed: “. . . we never ever do nothing nice and easy.  We always do it nice and rough.”

Suzan-Lori Parks was born in 1963 in Fort Knox, Kentucky (“where they keep the gold”), but as the daughter of a career military officer, “grew up all over,” including “quite a while” in Germany, where she went to local schools and became fluent in German.  “We were moving around every year.  So I’m from all over,” says Parks, but “I consider myself a Texan, because my mom’s a West Texan, and we spent a lot of time hanging out in far west Texas.”  After high school in Germany and, while her father was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, at a prep school near Baltimore, Parks attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, one of of the Seven Sisters colleges (the women’s counterpart to the then largely all-male Ivy League), graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in English and German literature in 1985.  Having at first been steered away from studying literature, Parks took up an interest in chemistry, but returned to the writing that had marked her earliest childhood focus, when she wrote poetry and songs.  At Mount Holyoke, the incipient playwright studied under novelist James Baldwin (1924-87) in his first writing course, and he encouraged her to consider writing for the stage. 

When the young writer started with Baldwin, she was writing novels, short stories, and songs, but when she read her stories aloud in class, she says, “I was very animated.  Like I would do what the stupid theatre people did, like ‘Laaa Laaaa Leyy!  And Read Alouddd!  And tell the characters and then paint the scene!  And do all this stuff!’”  So her teacher said to her, “‘Ms. Parks, have you ever thought about writing for the theatre?’  And gave me that look . . . [.]  I started writing for the theatre that day, that very day.”  After Mount Holyoke, the young writer studied acting for a year at the Drama Studio London in order to understand the stage better.  Since her stage début (The Sinner's Place, written at Mount Holyoke in 1984, while she was still a student), Parks (whose given name is spelled with a ‘z’ due to a misprint in an early show flyer—which she just kept) has so far written 18 plays (plus a revision of the book for George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess, but not counting all 365 plays of 2006-07’s 365 Days/365 Plays), two screenplays, a novel, and numerous essays; she has several projects in the works, according to her own account, including a series for Amazon and a musicalization of the 1972 Jamaican reggae film, The Harder They Come, for the stage.  She continues (since 2011) weekly to perform (and live-stream) Watch Me Work, a meditation on the artistic process and an actual work session during which Parks works on her latest project in the lobby of the Joseph Papp Public Theater before a live audience who get to ask questions during the last 15 minutes of the piece. 

In 2001, Parks received a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”) and the following year became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog (Public Theater, 2001; Broadway, 2002).  Topdog/Underdog also won the 2002 Drama Desk Award and the 2002 Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award and was nominated for a best-play Tony; Parks was nominated for two additional Pulitzers: in 2000 for In the Blood and in 2015 for Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, 3).  Off-Broadway, the playwright received a nomination for the 2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play for Father Comes Home and won the 1995-1996 OBIE Award for Playwriting for Venus.  (Venus, which I saw at the Public in 1996 before I wrote regular reports, will be seen at Signature in the spring of 2017.  I also saw the Broadway production of Topdog, but there’s no report on that, either.)  To date, the dramatist has garnered over a dozen awards, honors, and nominations during her career, including the Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2007), the NAACP Theatre Award for Ray Charles Live! (2008), and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History for Father Comes Home (2015).  Parks teaches playwriting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Rita & Burton Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing and is the first holder of the Master Writer Chair at the Public Theater in New York City. 

Parks loved to write even as a child, though she points out that no one in her family was a writer; her brother and sister would be playing outside, she recounts, while she’d be hanging out inside, “writing my novel.”  She says she doesn’t write so much because she has something she has to say (though from the evidence of her plays I’d dispute that as a categorical denial), but rather because the act of writing “is so . . . like it’s a funnel.  And it pulls my energy.”  When she’s inspired, she says to herself, “‘Wow, I just gahh, oh yo, I gotta write this!’  Because there’s a funnel of energy, a cone of energy that’s like pulling me toward it.” 

The Death of the Last Black Man, says Parks, is

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.  There’s a reoccurring question in the play: “Where’s he gonna go now that he done dieded?”  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.

This is where the lines from Kaufman’s poem apply (“When I die, / I won’t stay / Dead”).  The figure around whom the play revolves, Black Man With Watermelon, essentially the title character insofar as Last Black Man has one, suffers serial deaths throughout history; on stage he’s hanged/strangled and electrocuted.  The Black Woman With Fried Drumstick, the black man’s partner, describes his death(s):

Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in thuh whole entire world.  Uh!  Oh.  Don’t be uhlarmed.  Do not be afeared.  It was painless.  Uh painless passin.  He falls twenty-three floors to his death.

Just as the black man’s life has been erased from the public and historical record, his contributions discounted and ignored, his death(s) is (are) deemed inconsequential. 

But as far as the dramaturgy goes, the author suggests that we “think of jazz music first of all, think of like free jazz—it moves like that.  It’s not like a tidy, well-made play that we’re accustomed to seeing in traditional theatre.  Think of poet’s theatre, slam poetry, hiphop, like a poetry slam.”  The jazz medium “dovetails very much with current language today.  This street language, urban language, creative language that we use.”  It’s not just in the form, however, where Last Black Man resonates, but in its content as well—which is why I suspect that Parks is being modest when she says she doesn’t write because she has something to say.  (The writer’s said that she considers form and content the same thing.)  The playwright continues with her explanation of Last Black Man:

But it’s also dovetailing with some of the current events, the difficult current events that are going on in our country today.  They weren’t so apparent and on the surface back in 1990.  It was always there, but now it’s kind of on everybody’s Twitter feed. Revisiting this play now felt like, “Wow this is going to be cool, there’s more to this than I remember.  There’s a lot to this.”  It felt very current, it felt like I’d written it a couple of years ago.

Some of the lines in the play seemed so current, I wondered if Parks had done some revising for the Signature remount, but that’s apparently not the case:

Because there’s this part in the play, this thing where the man is talking about how he can’t breathe.  There’s a rope around his neck and he’s dying yet another death, and he says, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”  And I’m just like, “oh, that sounds familiar . . . [.]”

The words “I can’t breathe” clearly echo the 2014 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island at the hands of New York City police who placed him in a choke hold.  No one who hears the lines today can miss the reference, even if Parks wrote them in 1989.  The appearance of Black Man With Watermelon with a noose around his neck, however, may be less obvious in its contemporary allusion. (Of course, the image of lynchings during the Jim Crow era, which is what Parks doubtlessly had in mind in 1989, is unambiguous.  To be sure this allusion is clear, set designer Hernandez dominated the sage with a huge tree branch running diagonally from the down right floor level to the up left fly space.  It’s virtually the only scenery in the Signature revival of Last Black Man.)   In 2007, there was a well-publicized incident on the campus of Columbia University in New York in which a noose was found hanging on the office doorknob of an African-American faculty member; and last year, a student hung a noose from a tree in front of the student center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  The noose, like the burning cross and the Ku Klux Klan hood, remains a potent symbol of intimidation and subjugation of African Americans and a tool of rendering black Americans non-persons, and many other incidents in the past dozen years have made the news.

There are also frequent references to Black Man’s hands being bound, which call to mind not only the leather straps used to secure the hands of a condemned man in an electric chair, which figures prominently in Last Black Man, or the rope with which a black man’s hands were bound behind him when he was lynched, but also slave shackles and, with a current connection, police handcuffs—such as those which Freddie Gray was wearing while in custody when he died in the back of the police van in Baltimore last year.

Of course, the very theme of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, the repeated and serial deaths suffered by African Americans, their apparent expendability both in the historical record and in life itself, is one of the most current topics in our society right now.  It’s Sanford, Florida (the figure And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger, an incarnation of Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son—and Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son—but also a reflection of the white fear of the big, strong black “buck,” wears a black hoodie, a design element that points to the 21s century); Ferguson; Cleveland; Baltimore; Staten Island; and other cities where unarmed black people, including several women, were killed by police or other authorities—or in the case of Charlotte, a homegrown terrorist.  It’s  Back Lives Matter. 

Even a repeated line by Black Man With Watermelon has resonance that probably didn’t ring with an audience in 1990: “The black man moves his hands.”  What resonated now, at least for me, is the implication that this action is the excuse police officers have used for those shootings of unarmed black men: they were reaching for something presumed to be a gun.  It’s not what Parks intended the words to mean, but that’s what I heard. 

In a “Playwright Letter” published in Signature’s Study Guide for The Death of Last Black Man, Parks even asks, “Are there any things going on stage that reminded you of current events?”  Isn’t that what good plays, good art, does?  It refers to our lives today even if the play was written years, decades, even centuries ago.  I don’t think you can legitimately dismiss a play that can do that.  Not if you’re honest . . . and paying attention.  (Sorry, Diana.)  And I also don’t think you can take refuge in a theater where that kind of play is on stage.  That’s not a safe, comfortable, or unchallenging place.  And it never should be.  (Sorry, Donald.)

Actually, I’m not in the least sorry.  It’s what I love about theater and art.  It’s why I go to the theater and art museums, and read books and essays.  It’s why I have this blog.  And it’s why I’m a First Amendment absolutist.  But that’s an argument for another day.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is a peculiar play, to say the least.  I can’t do a standard description and evaluation, so I’ll sketch it out very broadly and say only that I found it exhilarating as a theater piece.  (To quote the reviewer of another revival some years ago, “To call ‘Death’ a play is like calling a Jackson Pollock painting a landscape.”)  The stage of the little Griffin Theatre is raked and at preset, there’s no curtain.  As I noted earlier, the main set piece of Hernandez’s scenic design is the huge tree limb that bisects the stage.  A vintage wooden electric chair sits up left beneath the branch.  A hangman’s noose drops from the branch ominously.  Yi Zhao’s lighting is stark, as if the sun were directly overhead; nothing is obscured—or softened—by shadow. The floor of the sloped portion of the stage is covered with sand or loose dirt, like a huge sandbox or parched landscape—reminiscent, perhaps, of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s; below this is a narrow strip of level stage at the front of the playing area.  Two chairs are down front, slightly right of center; in the one farther right sits Black Man With Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts), dressed in coveralls like a sharecropper of the ’30s, barefoot and holding an immense green watermelon in his lap.  He looks dead.  In a rocking chair to his left sits Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff), dressed in a work shift of the same period as her counterpart.  She wears a knotted kerchief on her head “Aunt Jemima” style.

The performance begins with what Parks labels in the script an Overture, like a symphony or musical theater, and all the figures of the play identify themselves themselves and preview a little of their signature lines we’ll be hearing more of later: Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams), Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman), And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella), Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole), Ham (Patrena Murray), Voice on Thuh Tee V (William DeMeritt), Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell), Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri), and Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith).  (Each of these figures, as suggested by their names, is an archetype of some aspect of lost black history, black stereotyping, and black pop-culture imagery and there’s so much to say about them that it just won’t fit here.)  They move in highly rhythmic choreography from Raja Feather Kelly, clothed in evocatively stylized costumes by Montana Blanco (one stand-out example: DeMeritt as “Broad Caster,” the TV news anchor, is dressed to look like Malcolm X) as they speak Parks’s idiosyncratic vernacular poetry based on stereotypical (and exaggerated) black English, a travesty of 19th- and early 20th-century minstrelsy.  The New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote that Parks’s words “suggest tragedy told as a joke.”

It’s not visible (or audible) in the performance, but Last Black Man proceeds not by traditional scenes, but what Parks calls panels and choruses, each of which is a Rep & Rev of the one that went before.  Thus, the playwright deconstructs and then reconstructs the story of black people in America, showing both how they’ve been portrayed in popular culture and how absurd that portrayal has been.  Even as the panels repeat themselves in slightly altered ways, the figures, especially Black Man, resist the prescribed roles—Black Man refuses to stay dead, after all—and Parks resists a conclusive ending.  (Black Man’s repeated dying and returning surely suggests Jesus Christ, especially since Parks, who went to a Catholic prep school for high school, equates the play’s panels with the Stations of the Cross.)  The last line, “Hold it. Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it,” plays as if all the figures don’t accept the final action—the death yet again of the last black man—and are about to rewind and go again.  Will it break the cycle and change this time?  Or will it play out yet again in the same way?  We don’t know. 

Even at only an hour and a quarter, Last Black Man is so dense and packed full of shiny moments of theater, meaning, symbolism, imagery, wisdom, and admonition that I can’t come near doing it justice in a blog report—even one that’s bound to go long.  I’ll add, too, that it stayed with me for weeks after I saw it, leaving me to go over it again and again in my mind and continue to try to sort it out long after I left the theater.  I can’t even do right by the excellent production here; the kaleidoscope of staging, performance, design, and language often left me in sensory overload—and I mean that in the best possible way.  (The best way to experience this play is to see it once and just let the presentation wash over you like some kind of hyper-aroma therapy, and then go back again, maybe a few days or a week later, and try to observe the details.)  So, in lieu of assessing the performances and the tech as I usually do, let me just capsulize: the acting ensemble was startling from first to last (Variety’s Frank Rizzo proclaimed the cast “charismatic”), Blain-Cruz guided them superbly and imaginatively at every turn, and the designers pulled out all the stops and made a visually dazzling show that paralleled both the acting and the writing.  What’s more, it all worked together like a perfect symbiosis.  The Death of the Last Black Man may not be a play in the conventional sense—but it damn sure is theater!

As of 30 November, Show-Score has surveyed 25 reviews for an average score of 75.  The tally included 76% positive notices (high score: 95 – websites Theatre is Easy and Front Row Center; four 90’s), 4% negative (low score: 35 - Hollywood Reporter), and 20% mixed.  (My round-up includes 19 reviews.)

Joe Dziemianowicz of New York’s Daily News characterized Signature’s Last Black Man as “bold and striking, but frustrating,” explaining, “One is left to grapple and wonder, What's going on?”  The Newsman added, “Then again, maybe that’s [Parks’s] point.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” was: “Tough, prescient Parks revival—historical pageant and poetry slam.”  On the evidence of Last Black Man, she called Parks “uncompromising, strenuous and stylistically daring,” adding, “She also was eerily prophetic.”  Dubbing the STC revival “expert,” thanks to director Blain-Cruz’s “self-mocking and serious production, as much of an ordeal as an enchantment.”

Calling the play “dark and forbidding,” the Times’ Brantley wrote that the STC revival of Parks’s “phantasmagorical theater piece” is “a sepulchral parade of images:  Saying that the play “sometimes feels like a senior semiotics project,” Brantley described it as a “combination of willful opacity and obvious symbolism” which “can feel tedious if you strain to make sense of it.”   His suggestion was to “give yourself over to the sensory flow of Ms. Blain-Cruz’s production” so that “the play acquires the eerie inevitability of a fever dream from which there is truly no waking.”  The Timesman reported that Blain-Cruz’s staging is “hypnotic,” Blanco’s “bright, cartoonish” costumes “might have stepped out of a child’s illustrated history book from the mid-20th-century,” and Hernandez’s set is a “shadowland” lit by Zhao “with the dark starkness of a bad dream.”

The Death of the Last Black Man “feels like a bad dream,” declared Max McGuinness in the U.S. edition of the Financial Times.  “Frequently it’s difficult to make out quite what is going on,” McGuinness continued, but then added, “And yet certain grim themes come into sharper relief.”  “Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s precise direction,” the FT reviewer reported, the actors “bring that dark vision to haunting life” with “exquisitely restrained movement.”  McGuinness suggested “a little more variety” in the cast’s delivery, and he found too much monologue over dialogue, “but all this is never less than engaging,” he concluded.  His final judgement was: “This revival offers a powerful tonic at a time when America’s divisions seem starker than ever.”  In the New Yorker, Hilton Als characterized Last Black Man as an “exceptional production” directed by a “great new talent.”

In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky called STC’s Last Black Man “an exquisite production” of “a surreal, poetic meditation” in which “[h]istory repeats itself . . . directly—and more heartbreakingly.”  While Last Black Man “evoke[s] music and painting more than drama, the play riffs on language and remixes racial stereotypes with boldness and grace,” observed Felton-Dansky, “creating an experience that is both revelatory and irresistibly watchable.”  The Voice reviewer asserted of the content of the play, “These histories are bleak, but watching Parks's play is not” as Parks transforms “history into disturbing, evocative ritual.”  “Sometimes, with a good-enough playwright, it’s good to have no idea what’s going on,” observed Jesse Green at the top of his New York magazine review.  “That was the case for me with Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.”  He confirmed that the Signature revival is “a stupendous staging” which has been “superbly directed” by Blain-Cruz “and designed” by Hernandez, Blanco, and Zhao.  Green concluded that “it may not be pretty, or even coherent, but it’s beautiful.”

Surreal doesn’t begin to describe watching Suzan-Lori Parks’s postmodern vaudeville of African-American stereotypes the day after Trump was elected,” declared David Cote in Time Out New York.. The man from TONY called the play a “jazzy, poetic fever dream” which warps “temporality and dialect to create music and noise.”  Cote warned that Last Black Man, ”a jagged, angry, weird text,” “is not an easy play to dissect or digest,” but director Blain-Cruz “stages it in high style, with a skin-prickling soundscape by Palmer Hefferan . . . and a raft of brave in-your-face performances.”  Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter lamented in his “Bottom Line,” “Despite an excellent production, this frustratingly oblique and elliptical play never comes into focus.”  He explained that he had resorted to consulting the text to “decipher” the play, but he acknowledged, “Sadly, even going to the printed page left me flummoxed.”  The HR reviewer proclaimed, “Dense, abstruse and elliptical, the piece is virtually incomprehensible,” though he allows that “theatergoers who prefer [Coleman’s style of free] jazz . . . may be more receptive to its challenges.”  The “endless repetition” of the language may provide “the linguistic equivalent of jazz improvisations,” however, “a little of it goes a long way” and the play’s “70 minutes . . . feels like an eternity.”  Scheck declared that “when the evening is over you’ll be longing for regression therapy,” adding as a final complaint, ‘The energetic dance sequences, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly and frequently performed to deafening electronic music, don't help.”  Although the cast “go through their demanding physical and verbal paces with admirable energy” and the “production elements are also first-rate,”  Scheck’s final assessment was that though “the piece works on a certain visceral level, its failure to communicate its intellectual themes in remotely coherent fashion diminishes its intended power.”

In Variety, Rizzo characterized Last Black Man as a “symbol-laden, language-rich, ritualistic play” with “many powerful images” that generate a “dramatic and haunting effect in this handsomely staged, evocative revival” at STC.  With her “stylized, fragmented and elliptical” language, Parks “weaves a woozy spell.”  Rizzo warned, “Your response to the work might parallel how you feel about a free-form jazz session, one filled with meditative riffs and theatrical flourishes.”  Even Blain-Cruz’s “hypnotic” direction and the “talented” acting company, however, have trouble creating “an emotional bond [that] lasts longer than an impulse.”  When they do, though, such as in the play’s final scene, “it’s a heartbreaking revelation.”  In the end, the Variety review-writer warned that “‘Death of the Last Black Man’ may still be challenging for some audiences as they try to make connections,” though “others will find the experience resonating down to their bones, rich with meaning of their own making.” 

Charles Nechamkin of Stage Buddy contended that, like the other actors in Last Black Man, “Black Man With Watermelon . . . doesn’t seem to understand the part he’s been cast in.”  Nechamkin also determined that “the audience struggles to break through these stereotypes to the people underneath” (apparently the reviewer took a survey) and even claimed that Parks “struggles with us.”  The play’s dialogue, said our Stage Buddy, is “a jumble of words: lyrical, emotional, tautological,” yet he labeled the show “compelling.”  The Signature revival is an “energetic production,” but “it’s the relationship between Black Man With Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick . . . that anchors us and gives us something human to hold onto.”  The “other characters . . . aren’t characters at all, they’re refrains.”  It’s as if, said Nechamkin, we’d “stumbled upon the funeral procession of a stranger”: “We’re overwhelmed by a vague but familiar sense of loss.”  The SB reviewer posited, “It makes for a challenging and abstruse piece of theater, one that may not be satisfying to those seeking a neat and moralizing social drama,”  adding that “even the most patient and open-minded audience member will come away with more questions than answers.”  Still, he concluded, “Even so, there’s something valuable and vital here.”

On New York Theatre Guide, Margret Echeverria decided that Last Black Man “is one of these pieces of art” that “turn themselves over and over living actively in our memories for a very long time to reveal new truths, new beauty, new troublesome anomalies.”  Echeverria admitted, however, that she may not be “qualified to write this review” because she’s white and feels ignorant about much of the history in Parks’s play.  So she proceeded to describe “what I experienced.”  (I’ve done that, too, under similar circumstances.)  She praised the performances lavishly and reported that Blain-Cruz “directs an ensemble that pulls our back off our seat cushion to listen and watch closely.”  In the end, Echeverria confessed, “I enjoyed the whole painful thing” and “I turn it over and over again in my memory discovering more truths.”  Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway called the Signature production of Last Black Man “a credible but not quite electrifying” revival of a “fascinating but scattershot play.”  The TB review-writer described Hernandez’s set as “bleak,” Blanco’s costumes as running “a wide fantasy gamut.” Zhao’s lights as “piercing,” and Hefferan’s sound as “eerie, cathedral-like.”  Though Murray found Parks’s point “powerful,” he felt “a little of it does go a long way,” and as short as it is, Last Black Man  “feels overlong” to the reviewer.  Murray felt that “this isn't a play that much develops or focuses on finely honing its statements,” and that “the archetypal characters” are limited in their scope.  He also deemed “the performances . . . closer to library-tome dusty than . . . theatrically vivid.” 

Jonathan Mandell, calling Last Black Man “striking,” dubbed Parks’s play “surreal and cryptic” on New York Theatre.  The play “offers searing imagery mixed with repetitive auditory gibberish,” said Mandell, suggesting that “for most of us, I suspect, the appeal of ‘Last Black Man’ rests largely with the production values.”  In CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer declared that Last Black Man represents “Parks at her most inaccessible,” naming among its negatives, “the hard to get a handle on . . . narrative with at times undecipherable dialogue.”  The “ensemble is excellent,” the costumes are “witty,” and the set is “simple but effective.”  Though well produced, felt Sommer, Blain-Cruz’s “handsome, music-infused production isn’t enough to offset the inaccessibility of the experience.”  She found the repeated aspects of the production “all too often come across as just plain repetitious,” but the “vivacious performances and staging keep the audience engaged—even when more than a little confused.”  Describing the play as a “free-form dramatic riff,”  Michael Dale  asserted on Broadway World that Blain-Cruz’s “mock-celebratory pageant-like production is performed by a fine ensemble whose tongues are nimbly set within their cheeks.”  Dale suggested that “the exact intention of the piece may not be easy to grasp, but it's still to be admired as an uninhibited abstract collage.” 

David Roberts of Theatre Reviews Limited reported (rather floridly) that Last Black Man “captures the attention of the audience and holds captive its aching heart and sin-sick soul for a powerfully unforgettable seventy minutes of cathartic ghoulish disquietude.”  At STC, Blain-Cruz’s direction is “meticulous,” Hernandez’s set  is “looming,” Blanco’s costumes are “surreal” and “compress history and its archetypes into a collage of color and form,” and Zhao’s lighting is “imaginative” and “brings [the play] into an alarmingly sharp focus that sears the memory of the audience.”  On TheaterMania, Hayley Levitt warned that Last Black Man “is not the mindless escapism audiences are likely to be craving right now.”  Levitt continued, “Instead of letting you off the hook, it holds your feet right to the fire” and “if you’re up for a mental and emotional challenge, Parks’ poetic one-act is worth meditating on at this unsettled social and political juncture.”  The TM reviewer likens Parks’s poetic monologues to “a spoken-word symphony” and the physical environment is enhanced by Hernandez’s “sparse set” and projection designer Hannah Wasileski’s “haunting shadows.”  She warned theatergoers, however, that “Parks’ text is doubly abstract and is likely to lose you along the way.”  Levitt found, though, that the “tender relationship between Watts and Ruff’s characters [Black Man and Black Woman] is the only accessible element of the play and succeeds in bringing out the human emotion that the other noncharacters lack.” 

Proclaiming Last Black Man “eerily prescient,” Jennifer Vanasco of WNYC, a National Public Radio station in New York City, calls it a “fever dream of a play” which “has a timeless quality.”  The production is “more like a dance piece or a symphony than a traditional narrative story.”  The times have caught up with Last Black Man, Vanasco asserted, making it seem more relevant today than in 1990; the WNYC reviewer stated, “Few works have ever seemed more relevant in our political moment—or as worth seeing.”

1 comment:

  1. On 22 May 2017, the Village Voice and the American Theatre Wing handed out the Obie Awards for excellence in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater for the 2016-17 season. 'The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World' won an award for Directing (Lileana Blain-Cruz).