The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 18, $30 through December 4, $35-$65 after
As the audience enters the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre to see the Signature revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead, a man in overalls is onstage, sitting in a chair, his bare feet on the gravel, arms dangling at his side, his head, face covered by a hat, slumped over, as if dead. Behind him is a long, diagonal tree branch and an electric chair on a cantilevered porch. Most of the people who filter in take a quick look at the stage before continuing ongoing conversations, paging through the Playbill, or checking their cell phones. Meanwhile, the dead man just sits there, mostly unnoticed, the lengthy title of the play projected in large block letters on the back wall. It’s an apt metaphor for the show itself, first presented in 1990 at BACA Downtown in Brooklyn and now extremely relevant again amid the Black Lives Matter movement and the shooting of so many unarmed black men, women, and children by police. The searing eighty-minute production begins with an overture in which nine spirit characters, each representing a different African American archetype/stereotype, slowly enter Riccardo Hernandez’s set, carrying a watermelon with them. During the overture, they introduce themselves by speaking their signature lines, which also serve as their names: 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). Then Black Woman with Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff) sits in the rocking chair next to the dead man, Black Man with Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts), and says, “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. . . . Why dieded he huh? Where he gonna go now that he done dieded? Where he gonna go tuh wash his hands?” Moving around Riccardo Hernandez’s set in highly stylized motion choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly and in representative costumes by Montana Blanco, the characters talk in a poetic and rhythmic language about the world being flat, the “saint mines,” the civil rights movement, dragons, and freedom over the course of four acts called panels — “Thuh Holy Ghost,” “First Chorus,” “Thuh Lonesome 3Some,” and “Second Chorus” — that unfold in a nonlinear and repetitive manner. “The black man bursts into flames. The black man bursts into blames. Whose fault is it?” asks Black Man with Watermelon, who dies over and over again. “Figuring out the truth put them in their place and they scurried out to put us in ours,” Before Columbus says.
Pulitzer Prize winner Parks (Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home from the Wars [Parts 1, 2 & 3]) sets the play “here,” in “the present,” and it’s frightening how that could fit from the discovery of America to today and beyond, particularly given the current state of the country, so mired in systemic racism. When Black Man with Watermelon says, again and again, “Cant breathe,” and gasps, it is impossible not to think of Eric Garner, but those lines were written more than twenty-five years ago. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz (War, Red Speedo) maintains a mesmerizing rhythmic flow to the abstract narrative, which was inspired by the Stations of the Cross and free jazz. The cast is outstanding, portraying stock characters who are far more complex than mere stereotypes and reach deep into black history. For example, And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger is an expansion of Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son, Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut is based on the second Egyptian female pharaoh, and Ham is a conglomeration of the son of Noah and the old minstrel song “Hambone, Hambone, Have You Heard?” Front and center are Watts (Hamilton, The Color Purple) and August Wilson veteran Ruff (Fences, Familiar), who embody the desperation blacks have suffered for centuries. Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread demands, “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.” And that’s precisely what Parks has done although, unfortunately, it appears to be a story with no end. (Blanco will discuss her costume design before the November 16 performance, the shows on November 17, 22, and 29 will be followed by a talkback with members of the cast and creative team, and there will be a cocktail hour before the December 1 show. Parks’s Signature residency continues in April 2017 with Venus followed by The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood and Fucking A in the 2017-18 season.)