Off-Broadway Review: "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead" at the Pershing Square Signature

Off-Broadway Review: "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead" at the Pershing Square Signature

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic

“Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in thuh whole entire world. Uh! Oh. Dont be uhlarmed. Do not be afeared. It was painless. Uh painless passin. He falls twenty-three floors to his death. 23 floors from uh passin ship from space tuh splat on thuh pavement. He have uh head he been keepin under thuh Tee V. On his bottom pantry shelf. He have uh head that hurts. Dont fit right. Put it on tuh go tuh thuh store in it pinched him when he walks his thoughts dont got room.”  - Black Woman With Fried Drumstick

Suzan-Lori Parks’s “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” rehearses nine powerful archetypes that have ricocheted throughout the annals of Black History. These archetypal dreamscapes have regrettably defined that history (oral and written) and more often than not have impeded the advancement of that history. Ms. Parks’s play subtitled “AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” powerfully reframes the funerary of Black Man With Watermelon (played with a transformative melancholy by Daniel J. Watts) and establishes the importance of both telling and preserving the history of this allegorical black man who refuses to die just once and be forgotten. 

Voice on Thuh Tee V (William Demeritt), Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri), Ham (that son of Noah played by Patrena Murray), And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella), Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell), Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole), Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith), Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams), and Queen-Then-Pharoah Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman) fill the spaces between the panels (the Seven Stations of the Cross perhaps) with admonitions and warnings relevant to Black Man’s untimely passing. And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger wearing a hoodie sits in an electric chair and begs, “WILL SOMEBODY TAKE THESE STRAPS OFF UH ME PLEASE? I WOULD LIKE TUH MOVE MY HANDS.” And Ham’s Begotten Tree rant quickly morphs into the slave auctioneer’s selling cadence of premature death. Mr. Piniella and Ms. Murray bring the horrific deaths of young men of color to a stark level of authenticity.

Using the rich repetitive genres of jazz, spoken word, dance-theatre, and poetry, Ms. Parks’s 1990 play 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. Ms. Parks explores the underbelly of language in unique ways often setting diction and syntax uncomfortably at odds with the conventions of rhetoric to create a delicious tapestry of meaning and rich enduring questions that cry out for authentic answers.

In panel (scene) after panel this “Negro Book of the Dead” explores the “spells” that accompany The Man on his journey to the afterlife. His grieving wife Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (played with a deep wrenching sadness by Roslyn Ruff) asks over and over, “Why dieded he huh? Where he gonna go now that he done dieded?” After each death (by hanging, electrocution, suicide, and sheer neglect), The Black Woman attempts to revive The Black Man with a drumstick that sustains him no more than the feathers plucked from the hens she slaughtered and no more than their eggs they eerily lay post mortem.

Despite her efforts, her husband’s ascent to freedom (his ability to “move his hands”) is prevented by yet another death. “They” will do whatever is possible to erase the Black Man from majority history. Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (played with the gentle spirit of aggression by Nike Kadri) utters the mandate repeatedly, “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. 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.”

Obviously, what plays out on Riccardo Hernandez’s looming set dominated by a large imposing tree branch and an electric chair is not just something that happened once before or after 1317 when Black Man fell twenty-three floors to his death. Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s meticulous direction, the cast of “The Last Black Man” makes it clear it is difficult to awaken from the nightmare of racism and attempts to eradicate the history of African Americans or – equally vile – to redact it beyond recognition. Ms. Parks’s play is revived at the Signature Center at a preternaturally auspicious time when so many histories are threatened by extinction in a new political environment that seems doggedly to defy understanding.

Montana Blanco’s surreal costumes compress history and its archetypes into a collage of color and form that defies the constructs of precision and Yi Zhao’s imaginative lighting brings the death of the last black man in the whole entire world into an alarmingly sharp focus that sears the memory of the audience with rich images that linger long after the curtain call. It is not always easy to witness or fully understand Ms. Parks’s dense and rich text. But then it is equally difficult to fully understand or witness repeated attempts to erase history. Black Man With Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick admonish one another with, “Miss me” and Re-member me.” Black Woman tearfully entreats her husband to “Re-member me. Call on me sometime. Call on me sometime. Hear? Hear?” Let the re-membering of history begin here and now.

DEATH OF THE LAST BLACK MAN IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD AKA THE NEGRO BOOK OF THE DEAD

The cast includes William DeMeritt, Nike Kadri, Patrena Murray, Reynaldo Piniella, Julian Rozzell, Roslyn Ruff, Mirirai Sithole, David Ryan Smith, Daniel J. Watts, Jamar Williams, and Amelia Workman.

The creative team includes Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design), Montana Blanco (Costume Design), Yi Zhao (Lighting Design), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design), Hannah Wasileski (Projection Design), Raja Feather Kelly (Choreographer), Cookie Jordan (Wig Design), Paul Rubin (Aerial Effects). Terri K. Kohler is the Production Stage Manager. Casting by Telsey + Company. Production photos by Joan Marcus.

For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets for all Signature productions, call Ticket Services at 212-244-7529 (Tues. – Sun., 11am – 6pm) or visit www.SignatureTheatre.org. Running time is 75 minutes without intermission.

 Photo: Pictured (L-R): William DeMeritt, Amelia Workman, Patrena Murray, Jamar Williams, Miririe Sithole, Julian Rozell, Nike Kadri, and Daniel J. Watts. Credit: Joan Marcus.

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