Sometimes, with a good-enough playwright, it’s good to have no idea what’s going on. That was the case for me with Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, which opened Sunday night in a stupendous staging at the Signature. First produced in 1990, the play operates on a kind of dream logic; Parks says its title in fact came to her in a dream. The characters do not act like regular people, even regular people in plays; they are archetypes, with names like Black Man with Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick. They speak in an exaggerated dialect that represents, in the manner of dream symbols or cubism, several viewpoints at once. Black Woman, mourning the death of Black Man, says things that border on minstrelsy like “Why dieded he huh? Where he gonna go now that he done dieded?” But Parks also uses the dialect to get to a kind of transcendence through poetry. Likewise the watermelons — there are so many! — eventually move from the realm of racist iconography to art. Other characters take on the attitude or dialect of centuries’ worth of stereotypes, from the Eartha Kitt haughtiness of Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut to a little girl who is called Prunes and Prisms and says that odd phrase, with perfect “white” diction, over and over. It is, we eventually learn, an elocution exercise to “cure your big lips.”
One way to make sense of the play is as a pageant of black history; Prunes and Prisms is costumed like Ruby Bridges integrating William Frantz Elementary School in 1960. You could also look at it as a deliberately alienating Brechtian exercise. (Titles are projected between scenes, bells ring to start and stop the action.) But perhaps it’s most useful to approach it as jazz; Parks says she was listening to Ornette Coleman while writing it. Phrases repeat and transmogrify over the course of 70 minutes, creating the odd feeling of development without clarity; you never even settle into a location or time. (Dialogue suggests everything from 1317 to the antebellum South to some interplanetary future.) But gradually a shadow of a story centering on Black Man (Daniel J. Watts, terrific) and Black Woman (Roslyn Ruff, indispensably moving) emerges. Black Man, who may be a freed slave, returns home to Black Woman after being executed, or perhaps lynched, or perhaps both, for a crime. In any case he is dead, or almost dead, or undead; in a sequence of powerful scenes that are somehow both specifically black and untethered from any specific reality, Black Woman tries to accept the truth and also to forestall it by feeding him hen feathers. “Wrung thuh necks of them hens and they still give eggs,” she says, mournfully and wonderingly. “Huh: like you. Still sproutin feathers even after they fried.”
History continues, Parks seems to be saying, as long as there’s someone to record it and someone to remember it. In more recent plays, like the brilliant, unfinished nine-part Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parks has rendered that history more literally, putting a frame around her improvisation. In Death of the Last Black Man (which is subtitled The Negro Book of the Dead) you see how she invented her voice years ago by applying enough pressure to words to crack them. At times I was reminded less of Coleman’s free jazz than of the bewildering, incandescent, and dogged poetry of Gertrude Stein. Like her, Parks wants to see what’s on the other side of language, and of history. On the evidence of this production, superbly directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and designed by Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Montana Blanco (costumes), and Yi Zhao (lights), it may not be pretty, or even coherent, but it’s beautiful.
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In the past month I’ve seen seven major productions of plays by black playwrights, or about black lives, or both, at important Off Broadway theaters. Aside from The Death of the Last Black Man there have been “Master Harold” … and the boys (also at the Signature), Notes From the Field (at Second Stage), Sell/Buy/Date (at Manhattan Theater Club), Nat Turner in Jerusalem (at New York Theater Workshop), Sweat (at the Public), and, opening tonight, Party People (again at the Public). I could have doubled that number if I’d had time. Is there a correlation between this efflorescence and the political moment? Probably not; most of these productions, and some of the plays, have been in the works for years. Nevertheless, they mean something important and possibly a bit hopeful, coming at us all at once as Barack Obama gets ready to leave office.
Party People was always going to be a 2016 production, I guess: It coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panthers in 1966. Their history, along with that of the Young Lords, a Hispanic group patterned on the Panthers, constitutes the main action. Most of that action is retrospective, as fictional but representative characters recall today what they did then. The framing device, however, is a bit more bizarre: Two young men, the literal and spiritual offspring of Panthers and Lords, are introduced in the process of putting together an evening of poetry, video, spoken word, and performance art to explore the ways in which the activism of their forebears might be carried out in the present. This apparently includes gassy monologues, mad overacting, and a mortifying clown show. As a result, the older generation’s stories, filled with ambivalence, pride, and a forthright admission of mistakes, blows the kids’ paltry art-activism to pieces — in one scene almost literally. The production should come with a trigger warning for those people, like me, who can’t tolerate having guns pointed directly at them and then discharged, repeatedly, for about 30 seconds.
The point, presumably, is to force us to experience the kind of brutality that motivated the groups to action. (Fred Hampton, head of the Illinois Panthers, was executed by Chicago police and the FBI in much the same manner in 1969.) But another scene is brutal for a completely different reason: It depicts the torture of a suspected mole. I’m sorry to say that however much this history needs to be explored, and however valuable the work of the Universes ensemble that created the play and composed the music, merely relating facts and demonstrating atrocities does very little to elucidate the matter. Brutality comes to seem not just the cause of action but a motive in itself.
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is at the Signature Center through December 11.
Party People is at the Public Theater through December 11.