The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World

by Louise Bernard
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Title:
The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World
Author:
Louise Bernard
Year: 
1997
Publication: 
African American Review
Volume: 
31
Issue: 
4
Start Page: 
687
End Page: 
698
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English
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Abstract:

The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in
Suzan-Lori P&'S The Death of the Last Black Man

in the Whole Entire World

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his The Signi&mg Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988), states that the black vernacular tradition stahds as a metaphoric signpost at the "lirninal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa and Afro-America meet" (4).However, the concept of liminality within Afro-diasporic experiences, and more specifically within the (African-)American context, is itself a slippery signifier. As a transitional or marginal state, the term also suggests fixedness, or a stopping point-a condition of stasis, or non-movement. This, in turn, places in question the possibili- ties of both voice (the power of enunciation) and agency. At the same time, though, the historical legacy of slavery and the contin- ued experience of racial oppression mean that peoples of African descent are often socially, economically, and politically posi- tioned at the "margins" of the dominant culture, the Africanist presence remains central to the foundation of America. Although the democratic ideal, in material terms, has not been realized, just as the Founding Fathers did not recognize the direct contribu- tions of black people in the building of the American nation, American culture remains (always already) the product of black style and innovation. While black cultural production itself con- tinues to endure the problems of cross-over invention, freedom movements (particularly white women's and gay liberation movements), music, language use, sports, and fashion are indebt- ed to the cultural experiences of African peoples in ~merica.~ Similarly, while contemporary identity politics suggests that the (monolithic) subject is now "decentered," such a reconfiguration of History proposes, paradoxically, that the condition of the "dis- persed" and the "fragmented" is the representational modem experience. Indeed, "what the discourse of the postmodern has produced is not something new but a kind of recognition of where identity always was at" (Hall 114,115), and as a result "de margin and de center," to use Mercer and Julien's phrase, is for- ever a convergence of the twain. The crossroads of culture is at once both liminal and "polymorphous and multidirectional," for the juncture represents the possibilities of movement (as opposed to confinement or stasis); it is the paradigmatic "scene of arrivals and departures" (Baker 7). 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)~~

The "death" of the play's title, howev- er, 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,

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 4 O 1997 Louise Bernard

therefore, in musical terms, a quintes- sential 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 iust as the blues are

I

"the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural dis- course is inscribed" (Baker 4), so Parks's play is an intricate riff on the complexities of identity and subjectivi- tv within the context of an African- American cultural realm.

The play's "protagonist," Black Man With Watermelon (like his signifi- cant "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 (post- modern slave) narrative. Black Man with Watermelon is able to voice his (true) Self through the personal pro- noun I, 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 pro- vides a counter-discourse to the domi- nant 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 ironical- ly 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 folk- loric 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 no where. 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, the- atre, 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 play- wright 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 natu- ralism and the constraints of kitchen- sink protest drama, Parks returns instead to the "greater, infinite, incredi- ble possibilities" of the musical form (qtd. in Pearce 26). By collapsing the "narrow borders" of time, space, and definition (Jones 50), Parks reconfig- ures 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:

688 AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

Music is one of the most effective modes of unifying the black cornrnuni- ty: 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: irrespec- tive 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, expound- ing upon Stephen ~enderson'snotion of "mascon images" ("a massive con- cen tra tion of Black experiential energy

which powerfully affects the meaning of Black speech, Black song, and Black poetry" [44]) asserts to be the textual possibilities of the "black hole" as a metaphor for black experience3:

Transliterated in letters of Afro-America, the black hole assumes the subsurface force of the black under- ground. 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 com- munity in which desire recollects expe- rience 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 concen- trated, underground singularity of experience that results in a blues desire's expressive fullness . . . . The symbolic content of Afro-American expressive culture can thus be formu- lated in terms of the black hole con- ceived as a subcultural (underground, marginal, or liminal) region in which a dominant, white culture's representa- tions are squeezed to zero volume, producing a new expressive order. (Baker 151-52)

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 pro- duce "meaning" that is itself unstable and misleading, Parks's historical dis- course, projected through the perfor- mative space of theatre, can be read in the context of the "Soul Fieldu- Henderson's paradigm for "the com- plex 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 pro- duces an "archaeology of knowledge" wherein the gaps and fissures that rup- ture the dominant record are parodied and laid bare. In essence, Parks "writes over" the palimpsest of Western thought and discipline, thereby negat- ing 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 lit- tered 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 understandf or 'to appreciate' some- thing. In turn, the riff of jazz improvi- sation, or the "heterophony of vari- ants" (Jahn 220), represents the syncret- ic relationship between African/ American cultural experiences and suggests, expanding further the metaphor of (collapsed) space, an ele- ment 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 sug- gests the importance of understanding its form and content within the frame- work of "modalityu-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/andn 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

REDEFINING HISTORY IN SUZAN-LORI PARKS'S DEATH OF THE LASTBLACK MAN

integrated environment where all spiri- Guyanese writer Wilson Harris terms tual forces interact" and that it is music the "womb of space." that "provides images strong enough to Parks begins her introductory give back that power that renews" (Jones essays to 73e America Play and Other 54). Within the African Continuum, man Works with a reference to the experi- is essentially spirit; there is no "finish," ence of "possession," a cultural signifi- "end," or "death," for the spirit's er for the potent force of vodun and its immortality is as constant as the cos- various incarnations throughout the mos (Jackson x). In terms African diaspora4:

of modality, I propose, Parks's play is therefore, that Death of the

an intricate riff

Last Black Man can be interpreted as a part of an on the African Continuum, as a

complexities of

form of Kuntu drama:

The Kuntu is given shape by identity and an instrumental ensemble, a chorus/communit~ that des- subject ivify ignates the physical space/ images through initiating within the call/response changes, estab- context of an lishing polyrhythms/meters, and at times, transforming African-into specific musical instru- mental tone /characters to American take fours with the principal

cultural realm.

character who, due to the nature of his[/her] scat/riff,
assumes the ~ersonaee/aual-
ity of a lead cocalist &&ing the myriad col-
ors 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 indispens- able to the word: rhythm activates the word; it is its procreative component" Uahn 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 [1964]), Parks's monumental stage figures operate within an oneiric sphere, what the

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 posses-

sion also suggests a meta- critical discourse on the act of writing itself. The phrase "YOU should write that down", which is re~eated

I

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 tran- scribing 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 flu- idity of Time and Space, the modalities of an interwoven and overlapping Past, Present, and Future: Black Woman With Fried Drumstick says that "yes- terday 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 some

AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

thing. Some things go on and on till turn their palm up and that is an event" they dont stop" (112). Here, ritual (qtd. in Solomon 79), and as the writer meets the African-American cultural William Demby also asserts, "It must realm of the Christian church, for in the be the small movements [of people] words of Ecclesiastes the Preacher that give any movement to, for exam-

(who, as a black cultural signifier, is the ple, a revolutionary movement. Not the example par excellence of the infinite big gestures. The big gestures must be

improvisational, musical possibilities the fruit and the tool of many millions of black speech patterns) says, "The of gestures" (qtd. in O'Brien 45). thing that hath been, it is that which The play is divided into seven sec- shall be done; and that which is done is

tions (including the Overture) which that which shall be done; and there is represent a series of "panels," includ- no new thingunder the sun" (I: 9).

ing 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, The opening section of the play with the Choruses the gaps, (Parks does not adhere to the tra- Spaces, "holes" between the three pan- ditional form of scenes and acts) is enti-

~-,~~~hels, while at the same time propelling

tied the the fig- the the play forwardures are ostensibly limited by the retro-

and Elam 457). Parks has observed that

Choruses are the spaces between those

imagery. Figures such as Lots Of

tableaux-if you've seen those Stations

Grease And Lots Of Pork and Yes And

hanging in a church you know

Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread riff between them hangs nothing, A blank on the culturally-specific, folkloric res- space. So the Choruses are figuring the onances of Southern soul food, while blank space between. That's why the

Choruses are so weird. They're coming

myth and counter-history are voiced

out of that blank, unspoken, unfigured

through the "ghosts" of Ham and

space and all eleven figures are on Before Columbus, respectively. stage. (qtd. in Rayner and Elam 452-53)Similarly, And Bigger And Bigger And

The "Chorus" is also a central presence

Bigger and Prunes And Prisms (a phrase taken fromjoycefs ulysses) within the Kuntu drama of the African

Continuum. As a collective force, the

reflect the intertextual, ~i~if~i~(~) possibilities of African-American cul- chorus often personifies community, tural productions~ The musical frame both living and "dead." AS in Death of

and the opening refrain of Black Man the Last Black Man, "the chorus may

With Watermelon-"The black man be otherworldly, emanating from that moves his hands" (101) and, later, "The place where the ancestors reside, com- black man moves his hands.-He mitting itself to the security of a com-

REDEFINING HISTORY IN SUZAN-LORI PARKS'S DEATH OF THE LASTBLACK MAN 691

Language, within the Afro-dias- poric conteit, remains a site of contes- tation. The linguistic hegemony of the dominant culture means that the spo- ken word signifies both the oppression of subjugation, the symbolic ripping out of the native ton ue (language as a foreign "l/anguish ff! ), and the innova- tion of the creolizing, revitalizing pres- ence of black American sveech. Parks

I

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 historicallv 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 tradi- tions, 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(@. (qtd. in Solomon 75-

76)

Death of the Last Black Man, then, is a meditation on the discourse of lan- guage, a "play" on semantics that explores the inherent and paradoxical- ly empowering tension between the spokedwritten word as a tool for both oppression and expression. The con- trolling nature of the dominant tongue does not bring about symbolic closure, but on the contrary provides the frame- work for a subversive voicing of resis- tance. As Baker suggests, the "Soul Field" is inextricably tied to the infinite possibilities of a counter-poetics and the defining elements of a (sub)cul- ture's mode of expression and interpre- tation: "Henderson's 'Soul Field' is . . . similar to J. Trier's Sinnfeld, or concep- tual field: the area of a culture's lin- guistic system that contains the ency- clopedia or mappings of various 'sens- es' of lexical items drawn from the same culture's Wortfeld, or lexicon" (79). Parks's use of a jazz improvisa- tional framework, or meter, as a syn- onym for troping and revision (Gates 105), establishes a double-voiced meta- discourse on the politics of self-defini- tion: 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 spon- taneity 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 affec- tive communication in jazz" (Taylor, qtd. in Jones 80), Parks produces a vari- ation on the Russian Formalist concept 3f Skaz, the term applied to texts that resemble oral tradition and which, zoincidently, sounds like a combina- tion of the scat and jazz paradigms that

692 AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

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 A ~ ~ ~ ~

experience (135). In African music,

. . . words and their meanings are relat- ed 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 135)

In Death of the Last Black Man, the actor becomes the instrument as Parks experiments with the rhythmic com- plexity that is the foundation of scat, be-bop, or free jazz. As Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane chose to "ignore bar lines, chord-based improvi- sation and even tonality in their explo- rations" (Suhor 136), so Parks constant- ly violates syntactic rules, her dialogue becoming the spoken equivalent of "suprasegmenta1s"-the variations in pitch, stress, and dynamics (Suhor 138). The innovations of "free improvi- sation," the pushing against the bound- aries 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 liv- ing Negro man in the whole entire known world-is dead . . . . News of

Major's death sparked controlled dis-
plays of jubilation in all corners of the
world. (110)
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

&-A~~~~~~~

hisself uh chaiter-tooth babble "?a-oh-
may/chuh-naw" dribblin down his
lips tuh puddle in his lap . . . . Started
ojf with \h 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 iefrain, "creates space for- metaphor . . . . characters refigure their words and through a refiguring of lan- guage show that they are experiencing their situations anew" (9).6 For exam- ple, 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 lin- eage 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 Significa- tion, or tropological revision-i.e., the way in which a specific trope is repeat- ed 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 rendi- tion 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 neck- ked. From that seed came Allyall"

REDEFINING HISTORY IN SUZAN-LORI PARKS'S DEATH OF THE LASTBLACKMAN 693

(122), thus Signifyin@ on the biblical tradition that was used to sanction

slavery, while simultaneously extend-

ing 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 his- self 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! allyal19 not tuh be confused w/allu~~~

joined w/allthem3 in from that union comed forth wasshisnameZ1 SOLD wassername19 still by thuh rep- utation uh thistree one uh thuh 2 twins loses her sight through fiddlin n falls w/ugly old yuhfathuh4 given shes SOLD ~hodat~~

pairs w/you23 (still polite) of which nothinmuch comes . . . . (124)

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 interwo- ven 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, sub- versive 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 resound- ing, 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 con- struction of her own musically derived

694 AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

lexicon, glossary 1'Foreign words and Phrases"- a ref- t3rence perhaps to the alienating (ideo- I.ogical reversal) effect of her vernacu- I.ar-based word invention:

do in diddly dip didded thuh drop,

meaning unclear. Perhaps an elaborat- ed 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 breathlessness.

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 Caw!"gaw gaw gaw eeeee-uh." (Parks 17-18)

The glottal stop and the huh sound I2ermeate the text. The first, gaw, a :Signifyin(g) revision of the "G-a-w-d" ()f the preacher in full, ecstatic motion, (:omplements the huh-a sound that 1iterally emanates from the gut, thus czvoking both the grunts and groans of t.he ancestors in Middle Passage and t.he downright funkiness of the contem- I>orary Soul Brother James Brown. As I3lack Woman With Fried Drumstick Iaemarks, expanding on the metaphor ()f movement: "We getting some- T heres. We getting down" (104).

Within the framework of black 5signification, Gates suggests that "to I.evise the received sign (quotient) liter- iilly accounted for in the relationship I.epresented by the signified/signifier iit its most apparently denotative level is to critique the nature of (white) Ineaning itself, to challenge through a 1iteral critique of the sign the meaning ()f meaning" (47). The concept of 1'meaning," however, remains a com- I>lex issue, for Parks's work denies the I.eader/audience easy access to defini- tive "answers." Parks aims not to "tor- t.ure" her reader/audience but to pro- 7~ideimages and ideas of and about t,lack experiences that challenge the 1~istorical and contemporary "mis- I.ecognitionU that is perpetuated not ()nly by the written word but, in the age of postmodemity, 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 pre- fer 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-ihe larger frame- work of European colonialism and the ideological drive of imperial thought- the obsessive need to conquer, claim, and ultimatelv name the "Other." Parks reinser(s 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 modemit Queen-Then Pharoah Hatshepsut Y. 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 spimin 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 col- lectively call and respond to the need to take control of one's history and rep- resentation, a call that is made concrete by the very foundations of Parks's play:

Though Parks explodes the land- scape of racial memory-this is the death of the last black man in the whole, entire world-the play is "wholly" ~merican~:

Black Man With Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick are prototypical fig- ments of the American Imagination. Though both are trapped within limi- nal spaces, their plight reflecting "the current dislocation, fragmentation, and disillusionment that Cornel West terms the 'postmodern condition' of contem- porary black America" (Rayner and Elam 451), Parks's discourse on dou- ble-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 sub- ject," Black Man With Watermelon refuses to recognize him-Self 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 ques- tions,

Who gave birth tuh this I wonder . . . .
This does not belong tuh me.

REDEFINING HISTORY IN SUZAN-LORI PARKS'S DEATH OF THELASTBLACK MAN 695

Somebody planted this on me . . . . This thing bonlt look like me! . . . Melon mines?-. Don't look like me. . . . Was we green and stripedly when we first camed out? (105-07)

His relationship with Black Woman

With Fried Drumstick enables him to better understand his existence through a continuing process of re- membering. 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 ritu- al 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" [118]) 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 SOME- BODY 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 significa- tion is curiously mixed and split, poly- morphous and perverse, an articula- tion 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 manipdator 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-pre- sented at what Frantz Fanon termed the "genital levelu-the black man as penis; the penis as weapon, or a threat that must be negated by the "emascu- lating" act of lynching and castration.

In terms of representation, howev- er, 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 manip- ulates 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" (Dramaxiv). 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 per- sonal and the political into a prophetic ourney that acts as a libation to the mcestors 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.

AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

1. Ralph Ellison, ~n his 1970 essay "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks," states that Notes
"mater~ally,psychologically, and culturally, part of the nation's heritage is Negro American, and what-  
ever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro's presence" (Going 11 1). 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" (1 59).  
Albert, Richard. "The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues.' " College Literature 11.2 Works
(1984): 178-85. Cited
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): 2-1 1.  
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 99-1 31.  
-. 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.  
REDEFINING HISTORY IN SUZAN-LORI PARKS'S DEATH OF THELAST BLACK MAN 697

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 (1 990): 73-

80. Suhor, Charles. "Jazz Improvisation and Language Performance: Parallel Competencies." Et Cetera 43 (1 986): 133-39.

Williams, Sherley A. "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry." Chant of Saints: A Gathering ofAfro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. 123-35.

"What is striking about this collection is Walker's unrelenting human- ism in the face of what she labels the insanity of the twentieth cen- tury. Refusing to become reconciled to war, racism, sexism, or domi- neering technology, Walker is optimistic about young people and their potential to transform the twenty-first century. The honest, unflinch- ing, at times surprising ways in which Walker writes about topics as wide-ranging as humanities programming, poetry, and the political career of Jesse Jackson shatter any expectations of what a black south- ern writer and 'proper lady teacher' should be."

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)

-Trudier Harris, Emory University

272 pages, ISBN 0-87049-980-7, $32.00 cloth ISBN 0-87049-981-5, $16.00 paper

Shipping & handling: $3.50for first book; $.75 for each additional book.

698 AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

moves his hands round. Back. Back. munity member who dialogues with Back thuh that. . . When thuh worl his[/herl race memory" (Harrison, usta be roun. Thuh worl usta be roun" Kuntu 19). Form and content remain (102)--operate as a leitmotif under- interdependent as Parks revisits and girding the play's progression and sug- revises the slave narrative as "master" gest the fluidity and circular move- text of the African-American literary ment of the figures who otherwise canon, while the non-linear, multi-lev- stand fixed and fetishized at the mar- eled structure of the play embodies the gins of discourse. As Parks suggests, larger trope of Signification, and vice "In the theatre, someone can simply versa.

grade connotation of stereotype, Parks's "freeing of the voice" essential- the idea of this comes partly from the ly deconstructs and thus subverts the Stations of the Cross-the tableaux of cultural, historical weight of racist Christ which hang in churches. The

Louise Bernard holds master's degrees in Theatre and Drama and in English lit- erature 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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