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The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World
aka the Negro Book of the Dead

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 13, 2016

Roslyn Ruff, Daniel J. Watts, and the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

"You should write that down." This exhortation, heard time and time again throughout Suzan-Lori Parks's play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka the Negro Book of the Dead, which just opened in a credible but not quite electrifying Signature Theatre revival at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is not just an idle request. It is, as the title implies, a matter of life and death: the only chance a people may have to be remembered before they're swallowed whole by history. Parks has done her part by preserving their posterity on the stage, but that's not good enough. Oral retelling only takes you so far, particularly given how easily it can be corrupted in an existence where everyone is trying to claim everything for their own, rather than respecting it for what it is.

In this fascinating but scattershot play, which has been directed here by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Parks conjures up clich├ęs and stereotypes galore for the express purpose of forcing us to see beneath them to the story and the humanity they represent. These take on forms ranging from black people's prowess as entertainment figures and their commitment to their religious convictions to the power they once wielded (in this case, in Egypt about 3,500 years ago), their preference for certain kinds of Southern food (by the end, watermelons are literally littering the stage), and, naturally, their status as perennial sub-humans (and thus topics of mockery) for a power structure that exists well behind their eyesight, let alone ability to function. (Character names include Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread, Old Man River Jordan, Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork, and Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut.)

All of these are depicted as remnants of the unique black culture in existential decline, but vital to remember to understand who they were, what they meant, and why they progressed the way they did. This is evident in everything from the design (the set, by Riccardo Hernandez, is a bleak plain decorated by a sturdy tree from which a noose hangs; Montana Blanco's costumes run a wide fantasy gamut; Yi Zhao's piercing lights and Palmer Hefferan's eerie, cathedral-like sound further fix the place) to the words themselves, which rain down in a fierce tumult idiom, overlap, and repetition that ring with the emotional violence of music at its mournful. It's no shock that the original 1990 production was styled a "requiem mass in the jazz esthetic—the entire evening rests at the crossroads of improvisation and urgency, as though there really are only mere moments left until the end of one kind of life as it's always been known.

Anchoring the proceedings are the title character, here called Black Man With Watermelon (played by Daniel J. Watts), and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff), the woman (wife, mother, what have you) who makes him better than he is. His past is already great; he was, one character says, "born a slave, taught himself the rudiments of education to become a spearhead in the Civil Rights Movement." And his destiny is to die, over and over (often after being dropped 23 floors from a passing spacecraft), while she endlessly coaxes him back to life to suffer and redeem until... well, who knows. This does, however, make what he leaves behind all the more important. Because every day it becomes harder to distinguish between this man and the Everyman he's slowly but surely becoming.

It's a powerful message on its face, and one that does not want for relevance in the Black Lives Matter-aware United States of 2016. But a little of it does go a long way, and even at 75 minutes The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World feels overlong. With but isolated exceptions—a lengthy rap-styled speech given by Ham (Patrena Murray), the hanging, the pleading finale—this isn't a play that much develops or focuses on finely honing its statements, and the archetypal characters with which it's filled naturally can't grow past a certain point. Blain-Cruz has wrangled it well enough, but not exactly enforced whip-cracking pacing, and with the exception of a resigned Watts, a forceful Ruff, and a intensely focused Murray, the performances are closer to library-tome dusty than they are theatrically vivid.

History, in other words, does not exactly come alive. But maybe it doesn't need to—its arrival at all makes it possible for us to commit it to posterity, so that we'll never forget the identity of the black man who was eternally searching for it. "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," comes the early imploring; it's matched later with, "You will carve it all out of a rock / so that in the future when we come along / we will know that the rock does yet exist." Parks has lived up to her side of the compact, and created a work that, even in an imperfect form, is not easily forgotten once seen. What we do with the knowledge we acquire is not a topic Parks much broaches. It's clear, though, that taking that first step is key: Once we know we've ensured something will endure forever, we have time to figure out what the next step ought to be.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka the Negro Book of the Dead
Through December 18
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
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