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Theatre in Review: The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World...(Signature Theatre)

Daniel J. Watts. Photo: Joan Marcus

You can't say they don't plan their seasons thoughtfully at Signature Theatre. Six months ago, I sat in Signature's Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, feeling ravaged by Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro -- a plotless, nonlinear nightmare of a play that harrowingly probed the self-hatred that must necessarily follow when one is black, living in a racist society. Currently playing in the same space is The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead, a plotless, nonlinear nightmare of a play that harrowingly probes the horror of living in a society that treats black lives as if they most assuredly don't matter. If Suzan-Lori Parks didn't write her play in response to Kennedy's stinging, brutal 1964 work, then Signature Theatre has arranged for them to form a dialogue of sorts -- and what an ugly, yet compelling, conversation it is.

Although the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray aren't mentioned, they haunt the stage as powerfully as any ghost. Parks has imagined a landscape, which, as designed by Riccardo Hernandez, is as arid and forbidding as any production of Waiting for Godot. The stage is raked downstage and angled from right to left. A bare tree branch bisects the space. At midstage is an electric chair. Projected on the upstage clapboard wall is the title of the play. One by one the members of the company enter, all of them black, carrying watermelons; this noxious racial cliché is the first in a parade of disturbing images, most of them alluding to the callous, casual way young black lives are, all too often, extinguished.

The stage is populated with a variety of figures who allude to different aspects of black history. They include Voice on Thuh Tee V, a Don Lemon-ish news reporter; Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork, a minstrel show performer; Prunes and Prisms, a young girl dressed up in hat and gloves; the regal Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut; and And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger, a young man in a hoodie. They swirl around the central characters, Black Woman With Fried Drumstick and Black Man With Watermelon, the latter of whom is the title figure, who is both living and dead and seemingly aware that he will be killed over and over again.

Many of the characters allude to multiple persons and ideas. Prunes and Prisms, a perfect little lady, calls to mind of the victims of 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, a horrific event featured in the Ava DuVernay's film Selma and Spike Lee's documentary 4 Little Girls. Her name is a probable allusion to Mrs. General, a character in Little Dorrit, who is the epitome of snobbery. (The words in question are part of an elocution exercise.) Thus, the girl may be seen as a kind of striver, attempting to conform to white norms of social behavior. And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger inescapably recalls Trayvon Martin, but at times he seems to be Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son; like both of them, he is certain to be cut down in his youth. Ham sometimes recalls the character Hambone from August Wilson's Two Trains Running, or any other of Wilson's holy-fool figures, but could also be an allusion to the children of Ham, the faulty theological notion that black people are descended from the reviled son of Noah. Hatshepsut is the embodiment of a regal chapter in African history; she also refers to herself at least once as the Queen of Sheba.

It's a crowded landscape, spanning centuries and a multitude of images and ideas, but they have all been assembled to take part in a dance of death that seemingly has no ending. Referring to that electric chair, Black Woman With Fried Drumstick says, "They take it from county tuh county. Only got one. Can only eliminate one at uh time. Woulda fried you right here on thuh front porch but we dont got enough electric. No ones got enough electric." Before long, Bigger will be placed in it, his body shaking from wave after wave of electric shock. A noose flies in and Bigger is strung up; the sight of him dangling above the stage sends a chill through the theatre. Later, Black Man With Watermelon has his head put in a noose; it is attached to a tree branch, which he is given to hold; he sometimes gasps for air - like the late Eric Garner, victim of an altercation with the police, he can't breathe.

I won't pretend that this isn't a difficult work or that, at 75 minutes, it doesn't suffer from longeurs. At times, the text seems impossibly dense, especially when the cast employs thick accents; at other times, it seems irritatingly repetitious. But it also evokes a world underpinned by dread that, I fear, is all too real for too many Americans. A figure named Before Columbus talks about the once-prevalent notion that the world was flat, adding, "Them thinking the sun revolved around the earth kept them satellite-like. They figured out the truth and scurried out. Figuring out the truth put them in their place and they scurried out to put us in ours." The newsman announces the death of Major Gamble, "born a slave, taught himself the rudiments of education to become a spearhead in the Civil Rights Movement. He was 38 years old. News of Majors death sparked controlled displays of jubilation in all corners of the world."

Not a play but a poem conceived for the stage, The Death of the Last Black Man... is a strange experience, alternately gripping and mystifying -- but the overall effect is haunting. Days after seeing it, certain images and phrases refuse to be ignored. The piece benefits enormously from the precise, visually compelling staging by Lileana Blain-Cruz and a highly disciplined company that includes Roslyn Ruff, menacingly dropping eggs into a bowl as Black Woman With Fried Drumstick, and Daniel J. Watts, sitting quietly in expectation of the worst as Black Man With Watermelon. Montana Blanco's costumes draw on a broad variety of styles and periods, creating a number of iconic looks. The lighting by Yi Zhao ranges from ice-cold white washes to Technicolor displays on the upstage wall that recall the aurora borealis. Palmer Hefferan's sound design includes a sinister low hum, the sizzle of the electric chair, a thumping bass line, and various types of music. Hannah Wasileski's projections announce the title of each of new sequence.

The Death of the Last Black Man... is a tough experience but a necessary one, a confrontation with a reality that many of us never face, rendered in stark, abstract terms. It touches on one of the ugliest facts of life in these United States: How each new killing of a black man unleashes another round of hand-wringing followed by no change in the status quo -- until it happens all over again. When, she asks, will someone break the cycle? -- David Barbour


(23 November 2016)

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