Somebody Planted This on Me

The title says it all: The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead is about the death and burial of a character named only Black Man with Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts).  His wife, Black Woman with Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff), remains haunted by this death and the two parse through their shared history while surrounded by a chorus of other Black stereotypes, ranging from the demeaning Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams) to the more empowering Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith).

But to speak about plot is to miss the point of Suzan-Lori Park’s play.  Likewise, to call this seventy-five-minute work “nonlinear” is a massive understatement: it is a dreamscape of enunciations whose influences can be found somewhere between the Samuel Beckett of The Unnamable and ‘sixties experimental Black theater like Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro.  In a more lucid moment, Black Woman with Fried Drumstick says to her husband, “They comed from you and tooked you.  That was yesterday.  Today you sit in your chair where you sat yesterday and thuh day afore yesterday afore they comed and tooked you.”  But frequently the language is more musical than expository, often employing repetition to create the cumulative sense of the burden of living in a Black body—a burden that is more acute than ever now that a Hollywood villain like Jeff Sessions has been appointed Attorney General.  I am reminded of Claudia Rankine’s maxim from Citizen: “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.”

Still, I must confess to finding The Death of the Last Black Man largely impenetrable and frustrating.  It is a play that reads better than it stages, that requires close attention to language that is impossible when it washes over you like it does in performance—even in a pitch-perfect production like this one.  I am glad the Signature has decided to revive this challenging work; I’m just not sure I particularly like it.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead runs through December 18th at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre.  480 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 15 minutes.  No intermission.

Aaron Botwick

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