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The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead

A dense, overwritten, yet poetic introduction to an award-winning playwright’s career.

Patrena Murray, Jamar Williams, Daniel J. Watts, Reynaldo Piniella and David Ryan Smith in a scene from “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Patrena Murray, Jamar Williams, Daniel J. Watts, Reynaldo Piniella and David Ryan Smith in a scene from “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Every writer, including MacArthur “Genius” Award winner, Suzan-Lori Parks, had to start somewhere with early works that don’t quite measure up to their more mature output yet indicate ingenuity and imagination. Her The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead (1990) displays her genius for language but a beginner’s passion for overwriting, throwing in way too many allusions in too many styles.

The Last Black Man condenses, in just seventy-five minutes, an eccentric history of black folk with massive amounts of ersatz folk tales, painfully real history and bizarre stereotypes.  The character list, itself, tells much of the play which begins with each actor introducing him/herself like a Greek chorus slowly coalescing:

Voice on Thuh Tee V (William Demeritt)

Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Cornbread (Nike Kadri)

Ham (Patrena Murray)

And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella)

Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell)

Black Woman With Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff)

Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole)

Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith)

Black Man With Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts)

Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams)

Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman)

Roslyn Ruff and Daniel J. Watts (center); Mirirai Stihole, Amelia Workman, David Ryan Smith, Nike Kadri and Jamar Williams (background)   from “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Roslyn Ruff and Daniel J. Watts (center); Mirirai Stihole, Amelia Workman, David Ryan Smith, Nike Kadri and Jamar Williams (background)   from “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The folksy, pretentious names say a lot.  They are bitter, yet witty and presage the bursting of archetypes of black history in Ms. Parks’ jazzy, flowing language. All the actors, Ms. Workman and Ms. Ruff in particular, chew the words thoroughly and spit them out in constantly changing rhythms.  Mr. Watts is the title character, an imposing, handsome man wearing a huge noose around his neck and caring for a watermelon sitting comfortably in his lap.

There is no plot, just a series of verbal jousts played out on Riccardo Hernandez’ sleek, two-tier set with just the image of trees looming over the actors wearing  Montana Blanco’s colorfully exaggerated costumes.  From the childlike Prunes and Prisms of Ms. Sithole to the angrily twisted Bigger (a reference to Richard Wright) of Mr. Piniella, the actors recite the difficult lines, goaded to do their finest by director Lileana Blain-Cruz who totally understands the work.

Ms. Parks, as this play clearly shows, was honoring early influences like Beckett, Adrienne Kennedy, James Baldwin and even language magicians like Gertrude Stein.  Although it is often dense, Black Man is a bracing look at both black history and the early career of the woman who would someday write masterpieces like Father Comes Home from the Wars. 

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead (through December 18, 2016)

Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre/The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signturetheatre.org

Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (164 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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