Death of a History | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Death of a History 

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Chicago Actors Ensemble

at Preston Bradley Community Center

Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is far from a traditional play. A fragmented work composed of themes, variations, and repetitions, its structure is reminiscent of a symphony, though it uses ideas instead of music. Sometimes confusing and occasionally heavy-handed, it's nevertheless a fascinatingly complex work that redefines and stretches the boundaries of theater.

The experiences of slavery and the African diaspora have left many modern writers trying to hold on to a history that's been taken away from them. Like August Wilson's Herald Loomis in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, who's been an aimless wanderer ever since he lost his song, the characters in Parks's play represent figures of a disappearing history. Their stories are told in bits and pieces from which the audience must reconstruct the past. Nothing less than an attempt to tell the histories of Africans and African Americans and to recount the difficulties of reassociating with one's past, Parks's work uses a variety of historical and folkloric figures to recall slavery, discrimination, and the world of Africa before colonialism.

The characters in this play sit at the back of the stage with watermelons in front of them as individuals stand up to recall fragments of history. A man in chains and straps pleads with the others to remove his shackles so he can move his hands. A woman recites the words "prunes and prisms" over and over so that her "big lips" won't get in the way of her ability to pronounce words as white men tell her she's supposed to. An African queen recalls the regal history of blacks in Africa, while a television reporter speaking into a microphone made of pencils continually tells the audience to write down everything they've heard so they won't forget it and history will be preserved. All the while a figure named Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork holds a newspaper aloft whose headline informs us that we're about to witness the "death of the last black man in the whole entire world."

These disparate words and images form a framework around scenes of Black Woman With Fried Drumstick carrying on conversations with Black Man With Watermelon, who has been lynched and carries around the tree and the rope with which he was hung, begging people to loosen his collar. He recalls swinging back and forth from the tree while people with picnic baskets watched. He decries the indignity of hanging from a tree instead of a scaffold. "Trees come cheaper," we're told. Meanwhile the woman hurls eggs into a bowl, counting them as they splat, and when she makes a sour face and says "Oh, whiff it" she could be referring to the smell of the eggs, the smell of the dead man beside her, or the smell of the death of history itself. Most likely she's referring to all three.

It's a tribute to Parks's command of language that many of the statements in her play can be interpreted on a variety of levels. When some of the figures tell us "Something's turning--the page," we're faced with the literal meaning and with an image of something that's changing, with a new consciousness of history. When Black Woman With Fried Drumstick tells Black Man With Watermelon she will "plant him" in the ground, Parks allows us to see images of both death and rebirth. The death of the last black man in the whole entire world is both literal and metaphorical; it refers to the man we see wandering with the noose around his neck, and it also refers to the death of history.

The superb Chicago Actors Ensemble cast and energetic direction by David K. Smith bring the richness and power of Parks's work to life. Though the ideas in the play are sometimes disjointed and repeated too often, this is so imaginatively written, so well performed, and so filled with compelling lessons and intriguing metaphors that it will reward those patient and open-minded enough to listen to what it has to say.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Martin.


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