When we enter the theater, we see seated at center stage Daniel J. Watts, head bowed and looking as if he is a shackled prisoner. After he finally moves when the play is underway, he is shown fighting a burden. A heavy watermelon is placed on his lap, symbolic of the racist caricature attached to black men and women. Other cast members are also seen carrying watermelons.
Suzan-Lori Parks has written a play heavy on symbolism but ultra light on plot. This production, directed starkly by Lileana Blain-Cruz and presented by the Signature Theatre, is basically a poetic pageant and impressionistic tour through the state of discrimination that has befallen blacks throughout history. Repeatedly characters intone the title of the play as a thematic link.
The point of centuries-old abuse is emphasized visually. In addition to the watermelons as racist props, we see an electric chair on stage, first empty, then occupied as electricity charges dramatically. There are ropes around necks to remind us of the lynchings that have made victims of thousands.
The author’s prose, as delivered in turn by the various impressive cast members, has a rhythm that builds to moments of pronouncements, sometimes reflecting wisdom, sometimes rage.
If you look for a traditional plot, you will be bewildered. The strength of the play is its dynamic flow of image-evoking statements provided by the acting ensemble as members interpret the text. The play’s force also comes from its strength as spectacle. However, one can criticize it as being too esoteric, even as one appreciates the author’s creative take in trying to make her points in a manner very different from customary approaches. Despite the gloom of the play’s title, the ultimate message, as I take it to be, is survival.
The cast is an impressive one, including, in addition to Watts, William Demeritt, Nike Kadri, Patrena Murray, Reynaldo Piniella, Julian Rozzell, Roslyn Ruff, Mirirai Sithole, David Ryan Smith, Jamar Williams and Amelia Workman.
The production certainly continues to establish Parks as a most unusual author unafraid to be daring and challenging. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed November 16, 2016.