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A CurtainUp Review
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead
By Elyse Sommer
Bottom Line: I'm a Parks fan and can't wait until she continues her very fine triptych Father Comes Home From the War and brings it into the present. But this new and very colorful new-old play is not going anywhere near the top my list of favorite Parks works. Unlike Topdog/Underdog's spare yet fully descriptive title and easy to mount 2-person cast, The Death of the Last Black Man. . . is a somewhat pretentiously long mouthful and the 11-member cast hardly fits most theater companies' budgets. Given that it's an all black cast you might even make a case for dubbing it a lack of diversity in reverse.
In any case, given the dense, non-linear set up only a company like the Signature, where Parks is a resident playwright, can afford to ignore this play's risks — the expense of a big cast. . .the hard to get a handle on a narrative with at times undecipherable dialogue. . . a lukewarm reception from theater goers' (probably even African-Americans) more accustomed to the more contemporary story telling of playwrights like Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau.
But all this is less risky at the Signature which has built an unusually adventurous audience. To prove it, The Death of the Last Black Man. . . has already announced an extension before its official opening. Those adventurous ticket buyers will not be disappointed in terms of seeing it handsomely produced. Even though director Lileana Blain-Cruz's handsome, music-infused production isn't enough to offset the inaccessibility of the experience, there is the opportunity this production affords to Parks' fans to round out their first-hand acquaintance with her plays.
Actually, if you keep the two quotes at the top of this review in mind, the meaning of the characters' symbol laden names isn't that elusive. This also holds true for the frequent jazzy riffs by the actors playing them.
Poet Bob Kaufman's "when I Die/ I won't stay/Dead" zeroes in on the play's aim: to give the black people who died cruel deaths like hanging and electrocution through the course of their suffering filled lives their place in the history books . The Black Man With Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts) and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff) can be viewed as the key characters — he dying one horrific death after another, and she the source of his metaphorical rebirth. That's not to say that Ms. Parks is aiming for a specific man's rebirth. Instead she uses these satricially named characters as a device to reclaim their existence.
In addition to the Kaufman verse, the themes of death and its eternal aspects are expressed within the play by one of the ensemble characters, Yes-and-Greens-Black-Eyed-Peas-Cornbread (Nike Kadri). Her mantra is "You should write that down and you should hide it under a rock. This is the death of the last black man in the whole entire world."
The entire ensemble is excellent, and all have standout moments. All individualize and define the satiric symbolism of their names, and their doing so is given a big boost by Montana Blanco's witty costumes. Riccardo Hernandez, who also designed Topdog/Underdog has created a simple but effective set with a raised platform to separate the chorus from the Man With Watermelon and the Woman With Fried Drumstick.
While the play's repetitive aspects are in keeping with traditional African theater they all too often come across as just plain repetitious. Still, the vivacious performances and staging keep the audience engaged — even when more than a little confused.
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The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Cast: William DeMeritt as Voice on Thuh Tee V, Nike Kadri as Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread, Patrena Murray as Ham, Reynaldo Piniella as And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger, Julian Rozzell as Old Man River Jordan, Roslyn Ruff as Black Woman with Fried Drumstick, Mirirai Sithole as Prunes and Prisms, Da vid Ryan Smith as Before Columbus, Daniel J. Watts as Black Man with Watermelon, Jamar Williams as Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork, Amelia Workman as Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut.
Sets: Riccardo Hernandez
Costumes: Montana Blanco
Lighting: Yi Zhao
Sound: Palmer Hefferan
Projections: Hannah Wasileski
Movement: Raja Feather Kelly
Wigs: Cookie Jordan
Special Effects: Paul Rubin
Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Running Time: approx 85 minutes
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
From 10/25/16; opening 11/13/16; closing 12/04/16 -- extended to 12/18/16 before opening (special prices do not apply to extended performances)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/11 press preview
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