By Joseph Geha
By Jonathan Kiefer
By Katie Tandy
By Mollie McWilliams
By Jennifer Baires
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
Suzan-Lori Parks' cataclysmic The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is to the detriment of the whole entire world a play often discussed but rarely seen. The subject of countless articles about "reconfiguring African-American history," "the new literary vernacular," and other similarly weighty themes in scholarly publications like the Drama Review and Theatre Journal, this play, with its radical take on history and Joycean narrative disruptions, is the sort that has academics drooling down their corduroy jackets with excitement. Unfortunately, it often has the reverse effect on theater producers: Besides defying traditional notions of plot, character, and structure, the work calls for a sizeable cast of 11 actors, all of them black, and a facility on the part of the entire team to make sense of lines like "do in dip diddly did-did."
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As a result, producing Deathis not for the risk-averse and in attempting the feat, the Cutting Ball Theater shouts its motto, "Risk Is This," more loudly than ever before. The company staged one Parks drama, Pickling a quirky radio play for a solo performer about a middle-aged black woman's attempt to hold on to her memories by literally preserving them in jars as part of its Fall 2004 Avant GardARAMA! series. But for audiences largely familiar with the author's more accessible, melodic works, such as Topdog/Underdog (which in 2002 made Parks the first African-American female playwright to earn the Pulitzer Prize), her screenplay for Spike Lee's 1996 movie Girl 6, and her TV adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the chromatic dissonances and improvisatory freestyle of Deathmight baffle, to say the least.
In dealing with such themes as the rewriting of history and African-American identity and experience, Deathcovers similar ground to Topdog/Underdogas well as to her Obie Award-winning Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. But this piece is more wide-ranging and virtuosic in scope, and more inventive in its use of language. Shuttling backward and forward through thousands of years of history from Ancient Egypt to the present, the drama is loosely composed around a central theme: the ongoing extermination, through horrific means (lynching, the electric chair, drowning, etc.), of one "Black Man With Watermelon," and his cyclical rebirth in the arms of the nurturing and earth-motherly "Black Woman With Fried Drumstick."
Nine other equally extreme black archetypes from the white slave-trader's book of world history round out the proceedings, including "And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger," a perverse take on the title character in Richard Wright's popular 1940 novel Native Son an angry young man forever doomed to a life of crime and punishment; and "Ham," a response to racialist theories dating back to the 18th century, based on Noah's curse against his dark-skinned son Ham's descendents (as told in Genesis), to justify slavery and discrimination against people of color. Through a series of startling images, Parks presents us with a brutally satirical perspective on the past, in which the African-American story has all but been stamped out by white colonial history. As the porch-sitting, pea-shelling, Mamielike character "Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread" reminds her kinsmen, "You should write this down. You should hide this under a rock."
The richness of the radical historical and sociological ideas embedded in Parks' text is enough to send the brain into overdrive or maybe launch an academic career. But to spend hours pontificating over how the drama's collapsed time frame brings to mind the opening lines of Frederick Douglass' famous 1845 slave narrative is to miss the play entirely (and perhaps increase the likelihood that it never receives a public performance again). I think director Rob Melrose's advice to his audience in the program notes "Let the sounds, images, and ideas wash over you, and let the 'meaning' come in dreams and discussions after the show" is astute.
Visually, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World can be described as a dramatized mosaic built out of hundreds of glimmering images, from the bright green watermelon revolving as deliberately as the planet to the bleached wood and muted sage walls of Liliana Duque Piñeiro's artifact-scattered set. Aurally as many critics have noted the play is a piece of spiraling bebop. One of the greatest strengths of Melrose's rhythmic production lies in the actors' ability to toss Parks' demanding, syncopated cadences around among them like a beach ball. The work is also underscored by the sound of various African and jazz instruments (thumb piano, flute, and double-bass), but the performers are the true music-makers. At some points, the actors seem to be scatting, Louis Armstrong-style. (As "Old Man River Jordan," David Westley Skillman tosses off lines like "do drop be dripted" with punctuated ease.) At others, Parks evokes "call and response" structures with a chorus answering a solo voice. When LeNeac Weatherby, as the stately "Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut," postulates over the difference between the world being "roun'" and "round," it is as if we're listening to bent notes on a saxophone. The tender exchanges between Myers Clark's "Black Man With Watermelon" and Allison L. Payne's "Black Woman With Fried Drumstick" bring to mind duets between Ella Fitzgerald and a quiet, plucked bass. And in one of the most flashy moments, Ham, played by Steve Crum as a slouching jazzman in a trilby and shades, jumps out of the shadows to deliver a hard-hitting, satirical monologue around the Biblical phrases "begat" and "begotten" that's equivalent to the mother of all drum breaks.
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