Signature Theatre, known for year-long retrospectives of the careers of living playwrights, is offering a sensory rich revival of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead by Suzan-Lori Parks. This 1990 work from the writer whose Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 exists at the crossroads of theater and lyric poetry.
Parks' script is a fantasia of statements and speeches intoned by 11 figures. The performance begins with a so-called Overture, in which the speakers introduce themselves with lines or phrases that will be heard again and again during the 75-minute performance.
"Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgo in 1317 dieded [sic] the last black man in thuh whole entire world," says a character designated the “Black Woman with Fried Drumstick” (Roslyn Ruff). "You should write that down and you should hide it under a rock," responds a woman identified as "Yes and Greens Black-eyed Peas Cornbread” (Nike Kadri).
In the six episodes that follow, Parks' poetic text yields a simple story. A man, identified in the playbill as “Black Man with Watermelon” (Daniel J. Watts), is dying. His long-suffering spouse, the previously mentioned Black Woman with Fried Drumstick, is caring for him and keeping watch at his bedside.
Visitors arrive—they're relatives, friends and mourners but they're more than that. Among the arrivals: "Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork" (Jamar Williams); "Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut" (Amelia Workman), whose successful reign is documented by first-century historian Josephus; Noah's son Ham (Patrena Murray); and a figure reminiscent of Bigger Thomas (Reynaldo Piniella), protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son. These characters (if they may be called such) represent cliches and personalities from history and fiction that have influenced society's view of African-Americans for generations. Now, as they circle the dying man in a ritualistic manner that fits the play's subtitle (The Negro Book of the Dead), these rather abstract characters present him to the audience as every black man who has given up the ghost from ancient times to now.
Parks' text is aurally opulent but, on first encounter, it's as perplexing as Ezra Pound’s Cantos. In her audacious attempt to make lyric poetry stand on its own in front of the footlights, Parks calls to mind Ntozake Shange and her powerful 1976 verse drama For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The non-linear, imagistic qualities of Death of the Last Black Man are reminiscent of Adrienne Kennedy, whose Funny House of a Negro (1962) was revived by Signature last summer.
Supervised by resourceful director Lileana Blain-Cruz and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, the current production has the grandeur of a pageant and, thanks to a top-notch creative team, it's visually enticing throughout. Bells ring to indicate breaks in the text and projections by Hannah Wasileski serve as signposts as actors (imaginatively costumed by Montana Blanco) and audience progress through the chapters of Parks' drama. Palmer Heffernan's moody sound design works hand-in-glove with the emotional shifts of Parks' poetic text.
Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has situated the play on a raked, two-level stage that resembles a back porch and dusty yard in the deep South. When certain figures appear, the playing area is transformed by Yi Zhao's intricate lighting design; and speeches by figures of the past, such as the Pharaoh and the character called "Before Columbus" (David Ryan Smith), seem to arrive from an astral plane. The most imposing element of the uncluttered setting is an enormous, sinewy-seeming tree branch that rises across the stage from left to right—a reminder of lynching, the cruel and most notorious means of death for black citizens in American history.
Audience members coming cold to Death of the Last Black Man are bound be perplexed and, perhaps, impatient. But no theatergoer is likely to be unmoved by the final moments of this unnamed man, played with force and nobility by the superb Daniel Watts. Parks' prevailing theme, embodied by the admirable emotional qualities with which Watts and Ruff imbue their characters, is how horrific it is to be treated, generation after generation, as less than human and relegated, in death and in life, to the status of a cipher.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead plays through Dec. 18 at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre of the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd St., between Ninth and Tenth avenues). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and on Sunday, and at 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There is no evening performance on Dec. 4. Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.signaturetheatre.org.