Suzan-Lori Park's 'Death off the Last Black Man' Revived
A giant tree limb slices diagonally across the stage, creating a looming image in Suzan-Lori Parks’ symbol-laden, language-rich, ritualistic play about the erasure of African Americans and their history from Western World chronicles. It’s one of many powerful images that Parks and director Lileana Blain-Cruz use for dramatic and haunting effect in this handsomely staged, evocative revival of Parks’ 1990 play at Signature Theater.
As African-American archetypes and stereotypes from the biblical, historical and folkloric past roam on stage in a limbo state, Parks weaves a woozy spell with her stylized, fragmented and elliptical use of language. Your response to the work might parallel how you feel about a free-form jazz session, one filled with meditative riffs and theatrical flourishes.
Characters at this ancestral burial ground include the Old Testament figure of Noah’s son Ham (Patrena Murray), the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman), and Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son” (Reynaldo Piniella). They reflect upon or attend to the figure of a dead black man, who is first seen as lifeless, seated on stage at the play’s start. He is brought back to life — but his Lazarus lift is short-lived, for he is destined to die and return again and again.
The figure is called Black Man with Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts), and this surrogate victim represents multiple deaths of his race — lynching, electrocution, suicide — over the ages. But his greatest demise is death by invisibility.