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.
‘’You should write it down because if you don’t write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist,” says Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Niki Kadri), another of the symbolic characters that drift in and around Riccardo Hernandez’ off-kilter, otherworldly set. Yi Zhao’s lighting, Montana Blanco’s costumes and Palmer Hefferan’s sound design also add to this eerie existential void.
Here Parks creates a kind of wake for the dead — with periods of mourning, remembering, sharing and chronicling. Parks’ characters testify on their own behalf, too, revealing glimpses of the person behind the pose. It’s all done in spare and idiomatic language, using repetition, refrains, and call-and-response to create a dreamy alt-reality.
The play-as-requiem does not follow a traditional linear narrative, but rather creates a meditative collage that mixes the lyrical, the shocking and the playful with a fair amount of abstruseness. The charismatic presence of the acting company and the hypnotic precision of Blain-Cruz’ direction help in the beguilement, but it’s can still be a challenge for the talented company to create an emotional bond longer than lasts longer than an impulse.
When a sustained emotional scene finally occurs at the play’s end with Black Woman with Fred Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff), also born of slavery — it’s a heartbreaking revelation as the play steps away from the lyrical abstract and engages in the deeply personal as the loving couple at the heart of the play speak to each other in separate dimensions, aching to be remembered.
Even at 75 minutes, “Death of the Last Black Man” may still be challenging for some audiences as they try to make connections among the words, the relationships and the ideas. But others will find the experience resonating down to their bones, rich with meaning of their own making.