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‘Death of the Last Black Man’ review: A Suzan-Lori Parks gem

Suzan-Lori Parks'

Suzan-Lori Parks' "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World" is at the Signature Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead”

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $30; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Tough, prescient Parks revival — historical pageant and poetry slam

A dozen years before Suzan-Lori Parks earned her Pulitzer Prize for “Topdog / Underdog” and went to Broadway, she already was uncompromising, strenuous and stylistically daring. She also was eerily prophetic.

We know this now, thanks to the Signature Theatre’s expert revival of her little-known 1990 dance-theater poem, “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead.”

The pageant — think poetry slam, folk art and centuries of still-modern black history — runs 70 minutes. But time collapses as the Black Man With Watermelon (the dynamically sensitive Daniel J. Watts) and the Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (the wrenching Roslyn Ruff) sit on their porch beneath a crooked raked stage with the ominous hanging tree.

The Black Man is slumped in his chair before the action begins — dead but not for long. The Black Woman seems unwilling to accept his death and keeps trying to get him to eat. Above them is a parade of nine archetypes, including a dandy from a minstrel show, a Queen of Sheba and a Voice on Thuh Tee V (that is, a black anchorman). There also is a young man in a street-ninja hoodie and red sneakers, who keeps getting murdered, electrocuted, hanged, as characters keep saying it’s the death of the last black man. Of course, it is not.

None of this is as remotely linear as it sounds in director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s self-mocking and serious production, as much of an ordeal as an enchantment. Projections indicate chapters, here called “panels,” verses overlap, and lines get repeated into gibberish with the musical unpredictability of jazz. A man actually chokes out the words “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” a scene that seems to step directly from today’s headlines. “Write it down,” urges a young woman with pigtail bows all over her head. And in 1990, Parks — in residence this year at the Signature — wrote it down.

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