Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World a/k/a The Negro Book of the Dead ** C

Seeing Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the War, Parts 1, 2 & 3 was one of the highlights of my theater-going year in 2014, so I was eagerly awaiting Signature Theatre’s revival of this early work from 1990. Be careful what you wish for. According to the ushers, the running time was 80 minutes; it actually came in at 67 minutes. Let’s just say that I was not sorry that it ended 13 minutes sooner than expected. In principle, I admire the decision to mount such a complex, significant work, but in actuality I found it tough to sit through. The cast of 11, led by the talented Roslyn Ruff as Black Woman With Fried Drumstick and Daniel J. Watts as Black Man With Watermelon, perform with total commitment. I found the structure, in which the play is divided into panels and choruses, the titles of which are projected on the rear wall, confusing. The dialog has a lyrical, almost incantatory quality at times with many phrases and sentences returning, often with slight variation as in jazz. I got that the central character repeatedly dies, by electrocution, hanging and other unpleasant means and understood the plea that black history should not be allowed to remain undocumented and therefore become lost. I grasped why Ham (Patrena Murray), the source of biblical justification for animus against blacks, is a character. Ditto for Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell) as well as And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reyanldo Piniella), an allusion to Native Son. But why Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith) and Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman)? I missed the apparent allusion of a character named Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri) or one called Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams) or Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole.) Calling one the Voice on Thuh Tee V (William Demeritt) seemed pointless. The significance of breaking eggs and eating feathers was lost on me. There are some funny moments, including a scene that’s a worthy riff on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First.” The choreography by Raja Feather Kelly provided some of the most enjoyable moments. Riccardo Hernandez’s set design is effectively spare. Montana Blanco’s costumes are wonderful. Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction is fluid. What the play lacks in coherence, it almost makes up for in sheer energy. Unfortunately for me, I prefer coherence. 

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