- OTHER MEDIA
- Bebop Beauty
A glimmering production rescues a riveting but dense play from the ivory
By Chloe Veltman
- review in the SF Weekly
- Suzan-Lori Parks' cataclysmic The Death of the Last Black Man in the
Whole Entire World is to the detriment of the whole entire world
a play often discussed but rarely seen. The subject of countless
articles about "reconfiguring African-American history," "the
new literary vernacular," and other similarly weighty themes in scholarly
publications like the Drama Review and Theatre Journal, this play, with
its radical take on history and Joycean narrative disruptions, is the sort
that has academics drooling down their corduroy jackets with excitement.
Unfortunately, it often has the reverse effect on theater producers: Besides
defying traditional notions of plot, character, and structure, the work
calls for a sizeable cast of 11 actors, all of them black, and a facility
on the part of the entire team to make sense of lines like "do in
dip diddly did-did."
- As a result, producing Death is not for the risk-averse and
in attempting the feat, the Cutting Ball Theater shouts its motto, "Risk
Is This," more loudly than ever before. The company staged one Parks
drama, Pickling a quirky radio play for a solo performer about a
middle-aged black woman's attempt to hold on to her memories by literally
preserving them in jars as part of its Fall 2004 Avant GardARAMA!
series. But for audiences largely familiar with the author's more accessible,
melodic works, such as Topdog/Underdog (which in 2002 made Parks the first
African-American female playwright to earn the Pulitzer Prize), her screenplay
for Spike Lee's 1996 movie Girl 6, and her TV adaptation of Zora Neale
Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the chromatic dissonances and improvisatory
freestyle of Death might baffle, to say the least.
- In dealing with such themes as the rewriting of history and African-American
identity and experience, Death covers similar ground to Topdog/Underdog
as well as to her Obie AwardÐwinning Imperceptible Mutabilities in
the Third Kingdom. But this piece is more wide-ranging and virtuosic in
scope, and more inventive in its use of language. Shuttling backward and
forward through thousands of years of history from Ancient Egypt to the
present, the drama is loosely composed around a central theme: the ongoing
extermination, through horrific means (lynching, the electric chair, drowning,
etc.), of one "Black Man With Watermelon," and his cyclical rebirth
in the arms of the nurturing and earth-motherly "Black Woman With
- Nine other equally extreme black archetypes from the white slave-trader's
book of world history round out the proceedings, including "And Bigger
and Bigger and Bigger," a perverse take on the title character in
Richard Wright's popular 1940 novel Native Son an angry young man
forever doomed to a life of crime and punishment; and "Ham,"
a response to racialist theories dating back to the 18th century, based
on Noah's curse against his dark-skinned son Ham's descendents (as told
in Genesis), to justify slavery and discrimination against people of color.
Through a series of startling images, Parks presents us with a brutally
satirical perspective on the past, in which the African-American story
has all but been stamped out by white colonial history. As the porch-sitting,
pea-shelling, Mamielike character "Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas
Cornbread" reminds her kinsmen, "You should write this down.
You should hide this under a rock."
- The richness of the radical historical and sociological ideas embedded
in Parks' text is enough to send the brain into overdrive or maybe
launch an academic career. But to spend hours pontificating over how the
drama's collapsed time frame brings to mind the opening lines of Frederick
Douglass' famous 1845 slave narrative is to miss the play entirely (and
perhaps increase the likelihood that it never receives a public performance
again). I think director Rob Melrose's advice to his audience in the program
notes "Let the sounds, images, and ideas wash over you, and
let the 'meaning' come in dreams and discussions after the show"
- Visually, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World
can be described as a dramatized mosaic built out of hundreds of glimmering
images, from the bright green watermelon revolving as deliberately as the
planet to the bleached wood and muted sage walls of Liliana Duque Piñeiro's
artifact-scattered set. Aurally as many critics have noted
the play is a piece of spiraling bebop. One of the greatest strengths of
Melrose's rhythmic production lies in the actors' ability to toss Parks'
demanding, syncopated cadences around among them like a beach ball. The
work is also underscored by the sound of various African and jazz instruments
(thumb piano, flute, and double-bass), but the performers are the true
music-makers. At some points, the actors seem to be scatting, Louis Armstrong-style.
(As "Old Man River Jordan," David Westley Skillman tosses off
lines like "do drop be dripted" with punctuated ease.) At others,
Parks evokes "call and response" structures with a chorus answering
a solo voice. When LeNeac Weatherby, as the stately "Queen-Then-Pharaoh
Hatshepsut," postulates over the difference between the world being
"roun'" and "round," it is as if we're listening to
bent notes on a saxophone. The tender exchanges between Myers Clark's "Black
Man With Watermelon" and Allison L. Payne's "Black Woman With
Fried Drumstick" bring to mind duets between Ella Fitzgerald and a
quiet, plucked bass. And in one of the most flashy moments, Ham, played
by Steve Crum as a slouching jazzman in a trilby and shades, jumps out
of the shadows to deliver a hard-hitting, satirical monologue around the
Biblical phrases "begat" and "begotten" that's equivalent
to the mother of all drum breaks.
- Like a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo or Billie Holiday singing "Strange
Fruit," the show emits an irrepressible energy that can't be quashed.
This life force is where the "meaning" of The Death of the Last
Black Man in the Whole Entire World lies, and you don't need a Ph.D. in
dramatic literature to feel it. Melrose's poetic production rescues Parks'
most precious play from the confines of the ivory tower and puts it where
it belongs do drop be dripted, dammit on stage.