The musicality of language: redefining history in Suzan-Lori Parks's 'The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.'
Such arrivals and departures form the central motif in Suzan-Lori Parks's play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1989-1992).(2) The "death" of the play's title, however, does not represent the end of life as such, for the folkloric Everyman that is the eponymous figure of the drama continues to pass over, and through, Time and Space in a cyclical ritual of adversity and survival. Death of the Last Black Man represents, therefore, in musical terms, a quintessential blues experience: the "impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness" (Ellison, Shadow 78). And just as the blues are "the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural discourse is inscribed" (Baker 4), so Parks's play is an intricate riff on the complexities of identity and subjectivity within the context of an African-American cultural realm.
The play's "protagonist," Black Man With Watermelon (like his significant "Other," Black Woman With Fried Drumstick), is caught betwixt and between "de margin and de center"; he is at once written out of History, yet placed at the center of his own (postmodern slave) narrative. Black Man with Watermelon is able to voice his (true) Self through the personal pronoun 1, yet he is forever trapped within the metaphoric parentheses of the stereotype that transcends (linear) Time as History:
(I bein in uh Now: uh Now bein in uh
Then: I bein, in Now in Then, in I will
be. I was be too but thats uh Then thats
past. That me that was-be is uh me-has-been.
Thuh Then that was-be is uh
has-been-Then too. Thuh me-has-been
sits in thuh be-me: we sit on this porch.
Same porch. Same me ....)(126)
Such theorizing of black identity provides a counter-discourse to the dominant historical record which has served to deny or displace the centrality of the Africanist presence in the Western imagination. In terms of a master/ slave dialectic, the black "Other" is encoded as "Lack," that which ironically serves to define, via its status of antithesis, the narcissistic Self of the imperial order. Parks represents such epistemic violence through the metaphor of the physical, sustained, hyperbolic acts of brutality that Black Man with Watermelon endures: being wrenched from his homeland; falling off a slaveship/twenty-three floors; bursting into flames; being lynched, chased by dogs, and electrocuted. At the same time, however, Parks Signifies on the "tragic" and sacrificial nature of the black subject in literature, and the high black mortality rate in Hollywood film. As a satirical subtext to the play, Black Man with Watermelon is a revision of the folkloric trickster figure--he just keeps on coming back.
Death of the Last Black Man is at once a "dialogic poem" (Solomon 76) and an "historical document," (Parks, qtd. in Pearce 26). Though the setting or "time" of the play is located as the "Present," it might also be read as the "Place" of Parks's later work The America Play (1990-1993): "A great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of the Great Hole of History" (158). The semantic relationship between the hole of History and the need to revise such history to make it whole, leads Parks to consider the metaphoric "black hole" of Time and Space: "Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to `make' history--that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to ... locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down" (Parks, America and Other 4).
Breaking out of the frame of naturalism and the constraints of kitchen-sink protest drama, Parks returns instead to the "greater, infinite, incredible possibilities" of the musical form (qtd. in Pearce 26). By collapsing the "narrow borders" of time, space, and definition (Jones 50), Parks reconfigures the metaphysical landscape of racial memory. The employment of a musical motif, and more specifically the use of the blues/jazz trope, allows Parks to explore in greater depth the ontological resonances of African retentions: Nommo (the power of the Word), orature, spirituality, and the black vernacular. Indeed, as Paul Carter Harrison points out:
Music is one of the most effective
modes of unifying the black community:
it unveils an emotional potency and
spiritual force that is collectively
shared. Black music articulates the
cross-fertilization of African sensibility
and the American experience: irrespective
of the form in which black music
may be expressed, the African roots
have survived the death-grip of
Western acculturation. (Drama 56-57)
"Potency and spiritual force" combine with "infinite, incredible possibilities" within what Houston Baker, expounding upon Stephen Henderson's notion of "mascon images" ("a massive concentration of Black experiential energy which powerfully affects the meaning of Black speech, Black song, and Black poetry" ) asserts to be the textual possibilities of the "black hole" as a metaphor for black experience(3):
Transliterated in letters of Afro-America,
the black hole assumes the
subsurface force of the black underground.
It graphs, that is to say, the
subterranean hole where the trickster
has his ludic, deconstructive being.
Further, in the script of Afro-America,
the hole is the domain of Wholeness,
an achieved relationality of black community
in which desire recollects experience
and sends it forth as blues. To
be Black and (W)hole is to escape
incarcerating restraints of a white
world ... and to engage the concentrated,
underground singularity of
experience that results in a blues
desire's expressive fullness .... The
symbolic content of Afro-American
expressive culture can thus be formulated
in terms of the black hole conceived
as a subcultural (underground,
marginal, or liminal) region in which a
dominant, white culture's representations
are squeezed to zero volume,
producing a new expressive order.
The metaphors of Time and Space rework, therefore, our understanding of the "inner life" of the folk, and while the "facts" of History are filtered through language and ideology to produce "meaning" that is itself unstable and misleading, Parks's historical discourse, projected through the performative space of theatre, can be read in the context of the "Soul Field--"Henderson's paradigm for "the complex galaxy" of thoughts, ideas, and experiences that shape the "common heritage" of Afro-diasporic peoples (Baker 79).
Though Parks is not concerned with origins as such, she excavates the great hole of History and thus produces an "archaeology of knowledge" wherein the gaps and fissures that rupture the dominant record are parodied and laid bare. In essence, Parks "writes over" the palimpsest of Western thought and discipline, thereby negating the fabricated absence of the (hi)story that begins, "Once upon a time you weren't here. You weren't here and you didn't do shit!" (Parks, qtd. in Drukman 67). (As a recurrent, structuring theme, Parks's oeuvre is littered with references to absences, holes, and gaps.) The use of the jazz/blues motif as an archeological tool simultaneously riffs on the verb to dig, the black vernacular term meaning `to understand' or `to appreciate' something. In turn, the riff of jazz improvisation, or the "heterophony of variants" (Jahn 220), represents the syncretic relationship between African/ American cultural experiences and suggests, expanding further the metaphor of (collapsed) space, an element of "saturation"--the condition of black awareness which is figured "as a sign, like the mathematical symbol for infinity, or the term `Soul'" (Henderson 68).
Reading Death of the Last Black Man as a redefinition of History via its meta-discourse of Signification suggests the importance of understanding its form and content within the framework of "modality"--the play as the ritualized context of reality. Modality proposes a holistic drive, a(n African) continuum that recognizes the coeval, mutually dependent nature of "both/and" rather than the Western dualism of "either/ or"--just as "the jazz soloist works with and against the group at the same time" (Jones 48). Michael S. Harper suggests that the African Continuum as a modal concept understands the cosmos as "a totally integrated environment where all spiritual forces interact" and that it is music that "provides images strong enough to give back that power that renews" (Jones 54). Within the African Continuum, man is essentially spirit; there is no "finish," "end," or "death," for the spirit's immortality is as constant as the cosmos (Jackson x). In terms of modality, I propose, therefore, that Death of the Last Black Man can be interpreted as a part of an African Continuum, as a form of Kuntu drama:
The Kuntu is given shape by
an instrumental ensemble, a
chorus/community that designates
the physical space/
images through initiating
call/response changes, establishing
and at times, transforming
into specific musical instrumental
take fours with the principal
character who, due to the
nature of his[/her] scat/riff,
assumes the personage/quality
of a lead vocalist evoking the myriad colors
of the blues. (Harrison, Kuntu 27)
In Kuntu, what Janheinz Jahn terms the "Immutability of Style" (156), cultural meaning and rhythm are inextricably linked; indeed, "rhythm is indispensable to the word: rhythm activates the word; it is its procreative component" (Jahn 164). In terms of ontology, rhythm, within Senghor's Negritude economy, is the "architecture of being," and it is through the rhythm of the power of the Word (Nommo) that Kuntu drama becomes the theatre of testimony. Though the blues matrix is voiced, ironically "lived" by Black Man With Watermelon, the power of the ancestral, spiritual force is felt through the collective presence of Parks's stage figures--the "ghosts" who refuse to inhabit the confined bodies of realist "characters." Like the phantasmagoric one-act works of avant-garde playwright Adrienne Kennedy (here I am thinking in particular of the hauntingly lyrical Funnyhouse of a Negro ), Parks's monumental stage figures operate within an oneiric sphere, what the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris terms the "womb of space."
Parks begins her introductory essays to The America Play and Other Works with a reference to the experience of "possession," a cultural signifier for the potent force of vodun and its various incarnations throughout the African diaspora(4):
One day I was taking a nap. I
woke up and stared at the
wall: still sort of dreaming.
Written up there between the
window and the wall were
the words, "This is the death
of the last negro man in the
whole entire world." Written
up there in black vapor. I
said to myself, "You should
write that down" .... Those
words and my reaction to
them became a play. (3)
The metaphor of possession also suggests a metacritical discourse on the act of writing itself. The phrase "You should write that down", which is repeated and revised throughout the course of the play, speaks not only to the urgency of History and the need to reclaim experiences and traditions, but also to the complex creative process of transcribing the oral (thought, idea) into the scribal and then into the theatrical space of performance, where sound and movement are joined in sensual union.
Like the fractured "herselves" of Kennedy's Negro-Sarah, Parks's figures are allegorical rather than sociological beings. They reside within the sphere of the African ritual, the ur-theatre of black culture, and so represent the fluidity of Time and Space, the modalities of an interwoven and overlapping Past, Present, and Future: Black Woman With Fried Drumstick says that "yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgo in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in the whole entire world .... Things today is just as they are yesterday cept nothin is familiar cause it was such uh long time uhgo" (102,107). Black Man With Watermelon adds that "some things is all thuh ways gonna be uh continuin sort of uh something. Some things go on and on till they dont stop" (112). Here, ritual meets the African-American cultural realm of the Christian church, for in the words of Ecclesiastes the Preacher (who, as a black cultural signifier, is the example par excellence of the infinite improvisational, musical possibilities of black speech patterns) says, "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be done; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun" (I:9).
The opening section of the play (Parks does not adhere to the traditional form of scenes and acts) is entitled the "Overture." Though the figures are ostensibly limited by the retrograde connotation of stereotype, Parks's "freeing of the voice" essentially deconstructs and thus subverts the cultural, historical weight of racist imagery. Figures such as Lots Of Grease And Lots Of Pork and Yes And Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread riff on the culturally-specific, folkloric resonances of Southern soul food, while myth and counter-history are voiced through the "ghosts" of Ham and Before Columbus, respectively. Similarly, And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger and Prunes And Prisms (a phrase taken from Joyce's Ulysses) reflect the intertextual, Signifyin(g) possibilities of African-American cultural productions. The musical frame and the opening refrain of Black Man With Watermelon--"The black man moves his hands" (101) and, later, "The black man moves his hands.--He moves his hands round. Back. Back. Back thuh that ... When thuh worl usta be roun. Thuh worl usta be roun" (102)--operate as a leitmotif undergirding the play's progression and suggest the fluidity and circular movement of the figures who otherwise stand fixed and fetishized at the margins of discourse. As Parks suggests, "In the theatre, someone can simply turn their palm up and that is an event" (qtd. in Solomon 79), and as the writer William Demby also asserts, "It must be the small movements [of people] that give any movement to, for example, a revolutionary movement. Not the big gestures. The big gestures must be the fruit and the tool of many millions of gestures" (qtd. in O'Brien 45).
The play is divided into seven sections (including the Overture) which represent a series of "Panels," including the First, Second, and Final Choruses: "Thuh. Holy Ghost," "Thuh Lonesome 3Some," and "In Thuh Garden of Hoodoo It." Again, the play is conceptualized in terms of ritual, with the Choruses filling the gaps, spaces, "holes" between the three panels, while at the same time propelling the action of the play forward (Rayner and Elam 457). Parks has observed that
the idea of this comes partly from the
Stations of the Cross--the tableaux of
Christ which hang in churches. The
Choruses are the spaces between those
tableaux--if you've seen those Stations
hanging in a church you know that
between them hangs nothing, A blank
space. So the Choruses are figuring the
blank space between. That's why the
Choruses are so weird. They're coming
out of that blank, unspoken, unfigured
space and all eleven figures are on
stage. (qtd. in Rayner and Elam 452-53)
The "Chorus" is also a central presence within the Kuntu drama of the African Continuum. As a collective force, the chorus often personifies community, both living and "dead." As in Death of the Last Black Man, "the chorus may be otherworldly, emanating from that place where the ancestors reside, committing itself to the security of a community member who dialogues with his[/her] race memory" (Harrison, Kuntu 19). Form and content remain interdependent as Parks revisits and revises the slave narrative as "master" text of the African-American literary canon, while the non-linear, multi-leveled structure of the play embodies the larger trope of Signification, and vice versa.
Language, within the Afro-diasporic context, remains a site of contestation. The linguistic hegemony of the dominant culture means that the spoken word signifies both the oppression of subjugation, the symbolic ripping out of the native tongue (language as a foreign "l/anguish"(5)), and the innovation of the creolizing, revitalizing presence of black American speech. Parks suggests that "words are spells in our mouths ..." (America and Other 11); "language is a physical act .... it's about breathing. It's about teeth and mouth and spit in your mouth and how your jaw works and what your hands are doing" (Parks, qtd. in Hartigan 37). Though the word is always half someone else's, Parks takes authorial control of both the Nommo force and the power of the image and makes them her own. However, the task of adequately representing the complexity of the black vernacular, particularly as such representation stands in the shadow of a historically inscribed racist depiction of dialect, is not an easy endeavor. In pondering the complexities of "blackness" and the multivalent meanings encoded in black speech, a speech that is shaped by a myriad of native tongues, oral traditions, and the denial of literacy during slavery (and beyond) in the U.S., Parks states:
So how do I adequately represent not
merely the speech patterns of a people
oppressed by language (which is the
simple question) but [also] the patterns
of a people whose language use is so
complex and varied and ephemeral
that its daily use not only Signifies on
the non-vernacular language forms,
but on the construct of writing as
well[?] If language is a construct and
writing is a construct and Signifyin(g)
on the double construct is the daily
use, then I have chosen to Signify on
the Signifyin(g). (qtd. in Solomon 75-76)
Death of the Last Black Man, then, is a meditation on the discourse of language, a "play" on semantics that explores the inherent and paradoxically empowering tension between the spoken/written word as a tool for both oppression and expression. The controlling nature of the dominant tongue does not bring about symbolic closure, but on the contrary provides the framework for a subversive voicing of resistance. As Baker suggests, the "Soul Field" is inextricably tied to the infinite possibilities of a counter-poetics and the defining elements of a (sub)culture's mode of expression and interpretation: "Henderson's `Soul Field' is ... similar to J. Trier's Sinnfeld, or conceptual field: the area of a culture's linguistic system that contains the encyclopedia or mappings of various `senses' of lexical items drawn from the same culture's Wortfeld, or lexicon" (79). Parks's use of a jazz improvisational framework, or meter, as a synonym for troping and revision (Gates 105), establishes a double-voiced metadiscourse on the politics of self-definition: the (re)naming ritual (Black Man With Watermelon's rites of [middle] passage) which Parks, as medium to the ancestors' call, transcribes ("write[s]... down") and thus rights, or redefines as a misrepresentation constructed by the dominant historical record.
The dynamic of word and rhythm, the interplay of improvising voices symbolized by the antiphonal pattern of the jam session, means that the jazz motif "offers a metaphor for freedom of movement--spatial, temporal, and imaginative" (Jones 121). As Black Woman With Fried Drumstick says, "... thuh black man he move. He move. He hans" (131). Parks's word-sound choreography evokes the spontaneity of the ritual storytelling of the beauty parlor, juke joint, or barber-shop--the Signifyin(g) musicality of folk wisdom (Harrison, Kuntu 7). Reflecting the dynamics of slang which form "verbal equivalents to the affective communication in jazz" (Taylor, qtd. in Jones 80), Parks produces a variation on the Russian Formalist concept of Skaz, the term applied to texts that resemble oral tradition and which, coincidently, sounds like a combination of the scat and jazz paradigms that permeate the African-American oral tradition (Jones 202). Charles Suhor points to the direct relationship between melody patterns, African speech, and the melodic/tonal features that led to the development of blues and jazz in the African-American experience (135). In African music,
... words and their meanings are related
to musical sound. Instrumental
music independent of verbal functions
... is almost totally unknown to the
African native.... And it is no mere
coincidence that the languages and
dialects of the African Negro are in
themselves a form of music, often to
the extent that certain syllables possess
specific intensities, durations, and even
pitch levels. (Schuller, qtd. in Suhor
In Death of the Last Black Man, the actor becomes the instrument as Parks experiments with the rhythmic complexity that is the foundation of scat, be-bop, or free jazz. As Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane chose to "ignore bar lines, chord-based improvisation and even tonality in their explorations" (Suhor 136), so Parks constantly violates syntactic rules, her dialogue becoming the spoken equivalent of "suprasegmentals"--the variations in pitch, stress, and dynamics (Suhor 138). The innovations of "free improvisation," the pushing against the boundaries of popular music through the development of new and difficult forms--"faster tempos, altered chords, and harmonies that involved greater speeds" (Albert 179-80)--are clearly reflected in Parks's dramaturgy, just as Louis Armstrong's talking and singing paralleled his "phrasing and projection of tone on the trumpet" (Suhor 136). One such example is provided by Old Man River Jordan's narrative of Black Man With Watermelon's escape through the river (the paradigmatic slave narrative scene), which also acts as a response to the satirical call of Voice On Thuh Tee V, who announces:
Headlining tonight: the news: is
Gamble Major, the absolutely last living
Negro man in the whole entire
known world--is dead .... News of
Major's death sparked controlled displays
of jubilation in all comers of the
Old Man River Jordan. Tell you of uh
news. Last news. Last news of thuh
last man. Last man had last words say
hearin it. He spoked uh speech spoked
hisself uh chatter-tooth babble "ya-oh-may/chuh-naw"
dribblin down his
lips tuh puddle in his lap .... Started
off with uh jungle. Started sproutin in
his spittle growin leaves off of his
mines and thuh vines say drippin doin
it .... yo he dripply wet with soppin.
Do drop be dripted? I say "yes." (112)
Parks suggests that the musical motif of Repetition and Revision (Rep & Rev), or refrain, "creates space for metaphor .... characters refigure their. words and through a refiguring of language show that they are experiencing their situations anew" (9).(6) For example, Black Man With Watermelon maintains that "I am in thuh river and in my skin is soppin wet," and a few lines later he remarks, "I jumped in thuh river without uh word. My kin are soppin wet" (113; emphasis added). The cultural signifier skin becomes kin, that which "speaks" to the idea of lineage and ancestry. Once again, the individual, here the figurative "long distance runner," becomes communal and looks not only to the past (History) but to the present and the future. Parks's larger framework of Signification, or tropological revision--i.e., the way in which a specific trope is repeated with difference between two or more texts (Gates xxv)--mirrors the multi-layered equivalents in the jazz composition: (1) Rep & Rev within a given tune; (2) the intertextual dynamic between a (European) standard and a jazz riff (for example, Coltrane's rendition of "My Favorite Things"); and (3) the jazz musician's personal riff on another jazz musician's "standard" (for example, the variations of Ellington's "Caravan").
In Death of the Last Black Man, Parks constructs a clever parody of the Old Testament (Genesis 9: 19-27) myth of Ham. Old Man River Jordan quips that "Ham seed his daddy Noah neckked. From that seed came Allyall" (122), thus Signifyin(g) on the biblical tradition that was used to sanction slavery, while simultaneously extending Zora Neale Hurston's own Signification on the "curse of Ham" in her one-act play The First One. Parks repeats and revises the trope through Ham's densely linguistic monologue, which transforms the comic genealogy of "Ham's Begotten Tree" ("histree") into a brilliantly executed pastiche of the slave auctioneer:
Wassername she finally gave intuh It
and tugether they broughted forth uh
wildish one called simply Yo. Yo gone
be wentin much too long without hisself
uh comb in from thuh frizzly that
resulted comed one called You (polite
form). You (polite) birthed herself
Mister, Miss, Maam and Sir who in his
later years with That brought forth
Yuh Fathuh. (121)
SOLD! allyall(9) not tuh be confused
w/allus(12) joined w/allthem(3) in from
that union comed forth wasshisname(21)
SOLD wassername(19) still by thuh reputation
uh thistree one uh thuh 2 twins
loses her sight through fiddlin n falls
W/ugly old yuhfathuh(4) given she(8)
SOLD whodat(33) pairs w/you(23) (still
polite) of which nothinmuch comes
Rayner and Elam suggest that "the structure of the speech purposefully parodies a `stump speech' from the olio section of a nineteenth century minstrel show. The humor of the minstrel stump speech derived significantly [from] the speaker's use and misuse of language" (459). Parks's Signification therefore operates on several interwoven levels. At the end of the play, Ham steps out of his Past and, through the power of the spoken/written word, asserts his own, doubly conscious, subversive voice: "In thuh future when they came along I meeting them. On thuh coast. Uuuuhh! My Coast! I--was--so--po--lite! But. In thuh rock. I wrote: ha ha," to which the resounding, incantatory voice of All responds: "Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.... HHHHHHHHHHHH. HA!" (131). Signification acts, however, as revision itself, a process that is demonstrated by Parks's construction of her own musically derived lexicon, a glossary which she terms "Foreign Words and Phrases"--a reference perhaps to the alienating (ideological reversal) effect of her vernacular-based word invention:
do in diddly dip didded thuh drop,
meaning unclear. Perhaps an elaborated
confirmation, a fancy "yes!"
Although it could also be used as a
question such as "Yeah?"
uh! or uuh! (Air intake.) Deep quick
breath. Usually denotes drowning or
gaw (This is a glottal stop. No forward
tongue or lip action here. The root of
the tongue snaps or clicks in the back
of the throat.) Possible performance
variations: a click-clock sound where
the tongue tip clicks in the front of the
mouth; or a strangulated articulation
of the word Gaw! "gaw gaw gaw
eeeee-uh." (Parks 17-18)
The glottal stop and the huh sound permeate the text. The first, gaw, a Signifyin(g) revision of the "G-a-w-d" of the preacher in full, ecstatic motion, complements the huh--a sound that literally emanates from the gut, thus evoking both the grunts and groans of the ancestors in Middle Passage and the downright funkiness of the contemporary Soul Brother James Brown. As Black Woman With Fried Drumstick remarks, expanding on the metaphor of movement: "We getting somewheres. We getting down" (104).
Within the framework of black Signification, Gates suggests that "to revise the received sign (quotient) literally accounted for in the relationship represented by the signified/signifier at its most apparently denotative level is to critique the nature of (white) meaning itself, to challenge through a literal critique of the sign the meaning of meaning" (47). The concept of "meaning," however, remains a complex issue, for Parks's work denies the reader/audience easy access to definitive "answers." Parks aims not to "torture" her reader/audience but to provide images and ideas of and about black experiences that challenge the historical and contemporary "misrecognition" that is perpetuated not only by the written word but, in the age of postmodernity, by the voice on our tv's. Parks suggests that "plays should have the half-life of plutonium" (3) for "plutonium moves .... it's deadly" (qtd. in Drukman 63). In terms of fluidity, therefore, Parks would prefer to "talk about the `reading' of my plays [rather] than the `meaning'" (qtd. in Drukman 63), thereby keeping in motion the multivalent possibilities of the creative process--the two-way dynamic between the play and its "interpreters."
Parks's desire to keep ideas in motion is indicated by the "historical" context of the play--the larger framework of European colonialism and the ideological drive of imperial thought--the obsessive need to conquer, claim, and ultimately name the "Other." Parks reinserts the displaced voices of History, thus filling in the "hole" while subverting the Hegelian idea that Africa (to which we might add the Americas) was an anachronistic space out of time with modernity. Queen- Then Pharoah Hatshepsut(7) states, with repetition and revision, throughout the play:
Before Columbus thuh worl usta be roun
they put uh /d/ on thuh end of roun
makin round. Thusly they set in motion
thuh end. Without that /d/ we coulda
gone on spinnin forever. Thuh /d/ thing
ended things ended. (102)
to which Before Columbus replies:
... Them thinking the world was flat
kept it roun. Them thinking the sun
revolved around the earth kept them
satellite-like. They figured out the truth
and scurried out. Figuring out the truth
put them in their place and they scurried
out to put us in ours. (103)
Thus, the ensemble of stage figures collectively call and respond to the need to take control of one"s history and representation, a call that is made concrete by the very foundations of Parks's play:
Yes And Greens And Black-Eyed
Peas Cornbread. You should write it
down because if you dont write it down
then they will come along and tell the
future that we did not exist. You
should write it down and you should hide
it under a rock. You should write down
the past and you should write down the
present and in what in the future you
should write it down. (104)
Though Parks explodes the landscape of racial memory--this is the death of the last black man in the whole, entire world--the play is "wholly" American(8): Black Man With Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick are prototypical figments of the American Imagination. Though both are trapped within liminal spaces, their plight reflecting "the current dislocation, fragmentation, and disillusionment that Cornel West terms the `postmodern condition' of contemporary black America" (Rayner and Elam 451), Parks's discourse on double-consciousness is indeed one of "doubleness." Black Man With Watermelon as stereotype represents the divided, dis-embodied Self. Like Kin-Seer in "Part 2: Third Kingdom" of Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1986-1989), who stands at the edge of the water "wavin at my uther me who I could barely see" (38), Black Man With Watermelon begins by referring to himself in the third person. Black Woman With Fried Drumstick states,
He have a head he been keepin under
thuh Tee V. On his bottom pantry shelf.
He have uh head that hurts. Dont fit
right. Put it on tuh go tuh thuh store in
it pinched him when he walks his
thoughts dont got room. (102)
The ritual of Black Man With Watermelon's passage throughout the play becomes, therefore, one of Self-recognition, the desire to become "Whole." However, in terms of Althusser's "interpellation of the subject," Black Man With Watermelon refuses to recognize himSelf as the subject being hailed, and while he has been inducted into the language of the oppressor, such a refusal is an act of Self-conscious defiance. Staring at the watermelon that labels him, he questions,
Who gave birth tuh this I wonder .... This does
not belong tuh me.
Somebody planted this on me .... This
thing don't look like me! ... Melon
mines?-. Don't look like me. ... Was we
green and stripedly when we first camed
His relationship with Black Woman With Fried Drumstick enables him to better understand his existence through a continuing process of remembering. Only after passing on his history to her can he be laid to "rest."
Similarly, Parks Signifies on the act of recognition through a meta-critical discourse on the text itself. And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger, escalated descendent of Richard Wright's "Native Son" (like Stowe's Topsy, he "jessgrew"), wishes only to return to the fictional world from which he has come: "Rise up out uh made-up story in grown Bigger and Bigger. Too big for my own name .... I am grown too big for the words that's me" (115-16). Indeed, Black Man With Watermelon's symbolic lynching, the day-to-day ritual of cultural asphyxiation ("Your days work," quips Black Woman With Fried Drumstick, "aint like any others day work: you bring your tree branch home. Let me loosen thuh tie let me loosen thuh neck-lace let me loosen thuh noose that stringed him up let me leave the tree branch be" ) mirrors And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger's textual suffocation. Unlike Black Man With Watermelon's attempt to "move he hans," And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger is caught within the grotesque world of the stereotype: "WILL SOMEBODY WILL THIS ROPE FROM ROUND MY NECK GOD DAMN I WOULD LIKE THUH TAKE MY BREATH BY RIGHTS GAW GAW" (120).
And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger is the alter ego split of the colonially ambivalent, male-defined stereotype:
... the chain of stereotypical
signification is curiously mixed and
split, polymorphous and perverse, an
articulation of multiple belief. The
black is both savage (cannibal) and yet
the most obedient and dignified of
servants (the bearer of food); he is the
embodiment of rampant sexuality and
yet innocent as a child; he is mystical,
primitive, simple-minded and yet the
most worldly and accomplished liar, and
manipulator of social forces. In each
case what is being dramatized is a
separation--between races, cultures,
histories, within histories--a separation
between before and after that repeats
obsessively the mythical moment of
disjunction. (Bhabha 82)
While Black Man With Watermelon is constructed as "passive," or "docile," reduced to a mere fruit that is fixed in time, severed from its socioeconomic and cultural history, And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger is re-read, re-presented at what Frantz Fanon termed the "genital level"--the black man as penis; the penis as weapon, or a threat that must be negated by the "emasculating" act of lynching and castration.
In terms of representation, however, the Final Chorus of the play (the "burial" rite) is an act of celebration. The stage figures have all asserted their spoken/written presence. While the final call of All: "Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it" (131) is ambivalent, Black Man With Watermelon's parting is not fixed in Time, for he has passed (hi)story on in motion. Lots Of Grease And Lots Of Pork remarks, "This is the death of the last black man in the whole entire worl" (131; emphasis mine); "thuh page" (of History) will keep on "turnin." Harrison asserts that "the Nigguh reveals to us the power of the word, that Nommo force which manipulates all forms of raw life and conjures images that not only represent his[/her] biological place in Time and Space, but his[/her] spiritual existence as well" (Drama xiv). Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World revises the historical trope of "fabricated absence" and so synthesizes the personal and the political into a prophetic journey that acts as a libation to the ancestors and a call to present/future generations to carve out their histories, restore knowledge, and take their rightful place in the eternal struggle for representation.
(1.) Ralph Ellison, in his 1970 essay "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks," states that "materially, psychologically, and culturally, part of the nation's heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro's presence" (Going 111). Toni Morrison expands upon the idea of the Africanist presence in her collection of essays Playing in the Dark.
(2.) Quotations are taken from the version included in The America Play and Other Works (1995). The play was first published in Theater 21.3 (1990): 81-94.
(3.) For a description of the scientific definition of the black hole and Baker's interpretation of it, see his chapter "A Dream of American Form: Fictive Discourse, Black (W)holes, and a Blues Book Most Excellent" (Blues 144-45).
(4.) Parks later riffs on this idea in the section of the play titled "Panel V: In Thuh Garden of Hoodoo It."
(5.) See Marlene Nourbese Philip's poem "Discourse on the Logic of Language" (Nasta xi-xii).
(6.) Parks's notion of Rep & Rev mirrors the idea of "worrying the line" in the blues form. As Sherley Anne Williams explains in "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry," "Repetition in blues is seldom word for word and the definition of worrying the line includes changes in stress and pitch, the addition of exclamatory phrases, changes in word order, repetitions of phrases within the line itself, and the wordless blues cries which often punctuate the performance of the songs" (127).
(7.) Hatshepsut was the only woman to rule in ancient Egypt with power and authority during the Seventeenth Dynasty. Resentful of her rule, her stepson and nephew Thotmes II destroyed most of the effigies, temples, and shrines bearing her name (Rayner and Elam 453).
(8.) At the beginning of The America Play, Parks provides an epigraph from John Locke: "In the beginning, all the world was America" (159).
Albert, Richard. "The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin's `Sonny's Blues. College Literature 11.2 (1984): 178-85.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Drukman, Steven. "Suzan-Lori Parks and Liz Diamond: Doo-a-diddly-dit-dit" [interview]. Drama Review 39.3 (1995): 56-75.
Ellison, Ralph. Going to the Territory. New York: Vintage, 1995.
--. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage, 1972.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Hall, Stuart. "Minimal Selves." Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. 114-19.
Harrison, Paul Carter. The Drama of Nommo: Black Theater in the African Continuum. New York: Grove, 1972.
--, ed. Kuntu Drama: Plays of the African Continuum. New York: Grove, 1982.
Hartigan, Patricia. "Theater's Vibrant New Voice." Boston Globe 14 Feb. 1992: 37-43.
Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music As Poetic References. New York: Morrow, 1973.
Jackson, Oliver. "Preface." Harrison, Kuntu ix-xiii.
Jahn, Janheinz. Muntu: An Outline of the New African Culture. Trans. Marjorie Grene. New York: Grove, 1961.
Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Julien, Isaac, and Kobena Mercer. "De Margin and de Centre." Screen 29.4 (1988): 2-11.
Kennedy, Adrienne. In One Act. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Nasta, Susheila, ed. Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. London: Feminist P, 1991.
O'Brien, John, ed. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. The America Play. America and Other 158-99.
--. The America Play and Other Works. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
--. The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. America and Other 99-131.
--. Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. America and Other 23-71. Pearce, Michele. "Alien Nation: An Interview with the Playwright [Suzan-Lori Parks]." American Theatre 11.3 (1994): 26.
Rayner, Alice, and Harry J. Elam, Jr. "Unfinished Business: Reconfiguring History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World." Theatre Journal 46 (1994): 447-61.
Solomon, Alisa. "Signifying on the Signifin': The Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks." Theater 21.3 (1990): 73-80.
Suhor, Charles. "Jazz Improvisation and Language Performance: Parallel Competencies." Et Cetera 43 (1986): 133-39.
Williams, Sherley A. "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry." Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. 123-35.
Louise Bernard holds master's degrees in Theatre and Drama and in English literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. A version of this paper won the 1995 Randolph Edmonds Young Scholars Award (Graduate Division), from the Black Theatre Network. This paper could not have been written without the generous help and encouragement of Radiclani Clytus.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1997|
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