- OTHER MEDIA
- Parks' poetry peaks in provocative 'Last Black Man'
By Chad Jones
- review in the Oakland Tribune
- PULITZER PRIZE-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks dived into the mainstream
with her drama "Topdog/Underdog," an extraordinary play about
two African-American brothers, one named Lincoln, one named Booth. Unconventional
but deeply compelling, "Topdog" showed off Parks' facility for
using highly charged language and exaggerated slang as poetry and cultural
connection. That facility is also the hallmark of an earlier Parks play,
"The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,"
a rarely produced 1990 work now on stage courtesy of The Cutting Ball Theater
of San Francisco.
- To call "Death" a play is like calling a Jackson Pollock
painting a landscape. In fact, Parks' collage-like collection of African
and African-American stereotypes is very much like a piece of visual art,
a painting that speaks and moves. The play is also choral poetry that incorporates
joined voices and frequent repetition, not unlike a long verbal jazz riff.
What the play doesn't have is a story, and for my money, that's what theater
needs if it's really going to connect with an audience.
- There's a lot to admire in director Rob Melrose's strong production,
from Liliana Duque Pineiro's handsome wood-plank set to Melrose's sharp
- The 11-member cast does some striking work, even though some of them
have very little do. But all of this is in service to a performance piece
that doesn't entertain so much as stir up words and images and then asks
you to make your own connections and draw your own conclusions. For some,
that's an ideal piece of intellectually stimulating theater. For me, it's
an exercise in frustration.
- What's engaging here is very engaging. At the center of Parks' kaleidoscope
are two slave characters: Black Man with a Watermelon (Myers Clark) and
Black Woman with Fried Drumstick (Allison L. Payne). There's an emotional
connection between the two that rises above all of the bizarre twists that
Parks puts them through, and Clark and Payne are fantastic at making the
characters as emotional and human as the script allows.
- Payne's character is the titular black man who keeps dying over and
over again, although nothing we see him go through matches the other characters'
description of the death, which we hear over and over again. That death,
we're told, occurred in the year 1317 as the man, a former slave and later
civil rights advocate Gamble Major, fell 23 stories from a passing ship
from space. He was 38 and kept a head under his television.
- What? Perhaps logic is not the best thing to bring with you to the
EXIT on Taylor.
- Parks seems to want to tell us something about the complexities and
inaccuracies of history, especially African-American history. One of her
characters, called Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Alexandrai
Bond), keeps telling people they should write things down and put them
under a rock.
- Perhaps that's what Parks, in essence, is doing as she gathers Egyptian
queen Hatshepsut (LeNeac Weathersby), Bigger Thomas (Dwight Huntsman) from
Richard Wright's novel "Native Son," Noah's son Ham (Steve Crum),
Old Man River Jordan (David Westley Skillman) and others as they offer
their scraps of history, philosophy and poetry.
- There are also some striking visual images that float above the seeming
randomness of Parks' work. The most moving involves watermelons. As most
of the cast is led away toward what appears to be a slave auction, each
character has left behind a watermelon to hold his or her place on stage.
- At just 75 minutes, "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole
Entire World" is dense but mercifully brief. The Cutting Ball has
done an excellent job with the play, but I still can't help feeling that
something this obtuse and abstract belongs in a museum more than a theater.