06 December 2016

A Note About 'Hamilton'

by Kirk Woodward

[I’m envious that Kirk has seen Hamilton because I haven’t yet.  On the other hand, though, I'm mighty glad, his having seen the hottest ticket in town, that he’s elected o share some of his conclusions with ROT and its readers.  I would feel that way even if Kirk had merely written an ordinary report on the performance as he’s done before on occasion (see “An American in Paris (Part 2),” 13 November 2015, and “Something Rotten! 1,” 11 May 2016—not that they’re really ordinary).  But Kirk has carved out a notion concerning the hip-hop musical which he says he hasn’t seen covered before and has devoted “A Note About Hamilton” to discussing a fascinating angle on the play and the production.  In addition to being an analysis of one aspect of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Note” serves as a suggestion for playwrights of both musicals and straight plays about freedom of expressive form.

[While reading his article, a certain parallel to Kirk’s idea occurred to me, and following his discussion, I’ll have a few thoughts to express myself.  If you can manage to wait till then, consider Kirk Woodward’s thoughtful examination of one element of Hamilton, albeit a central one, and see what you think.]

One cold day in November 2015 I walked from work to the box office of the Broadway musical Hamilton and asked for the next available tickets. I saw the show on that next available date, October 12, 2016.

Eleven months isn’t all that long a time to wait to see a musical as good as Hamilton. It doesn’t need any more praise from me; it’s gotten plenty already. It opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway on August 6, 2015, after an initial sold out run at the Joseph Papp Public Theater (January 20–May 3,  2015), and seems likely to run forever. It has won an astonishing number of prizes, including eleven Tony Awards.

So the show doesn’t need any help from me, but I do have one observation I haven’t seen made elsewhere, although, considering the amount written about the show, it probably has been made someplace. It’s difficult to describe, but I think it’s worthwhile to consider.

As everyone knows, Hamilton uses hip hop musical styles, including extensive sections of rap music, as it tells the story of the life of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. It’s not the first show to employ hip hop music; notably, Lin-Manuel Miranda (b. 1980), the author and composer of the musical Hamilton, used rap extensively in his score for the musical In the Heights, which ran successfully on Broadway from 2008 to 2011.

Rap, Salsa, and similar forms of music are appropriate musical forms for In the Heights, which takes place in the largely Latino-populated Washington Heights area of Manhattan. However, hip hop music was unknown during the lifetime of Alexander Hamilton, and for quite a while afterward. Why is its use in Hamilton so successful?

One answer involves a theatrical phenomenon seldom seen and highly prized: the show is embodied in an approach so surprising and yet so appropriate that it might be described as a new theatrical language.

Instances of this phenomenon are few and far between. The first of which I am aware is Peter Brook’s unforgettable production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970) for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Brook used international circus techniques to embody the magical elements of the play. (An example, a video of a few moments that I’ve remembered since I originally saw the production, can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-XdfK0ntHwn.)

Brook did not just come up with a “concept” for his production of the play; he embodied the play in an entirely new “world” with its own “language.” Although Shakespeare could not possibly have had Brook’s idea in mind, Brook’s production seemed integral to the play, as though the story could hardly exist without it.

The same is true of Hamilton. One can imagine other plays about the first Treasury Secretary’s life. In the musical, however, hip hop sensibility and Hamilton’s sensibility seem to be one and the same. That unity of presentation seems to me to be the factor that links an “interpreted” work like Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and an “original” work like Hamilton: both seem to spring from the very essences of the characters, instead of being imposed on them.

Directors often come up with “concepts” for their productions. Frequently these end up being nothing much more than new settings for the plays. That is not what happens in Hamilton, which creates a whole “world” in which its story exists.

The difference between a “concept production” and a “new theatrical language” can be seen in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Jon Jory directed at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) in 1971, shortly after Brook’s production opened.

Whereas Brook invented, in effect, an entirely new context for Shakespeare’s play through the use of international circus techniques, Jory set his production in a circus. This kind of “concept,” described by the critic Eric Bentley as a “Bright Idea,” imposes a setting on a play, and seldom feels organic. Examples abound in opera, with, for example, Wagner’s Ring Cycle playing host to Nazis, hippies, industrialists, and so on.

Jory’s “concept” was imposed on Shakespeare’s play instead of seeming to inhabit it, and the result was comic, as when, in the first act, the lion tamer of the circus pleaded with the ringmaster to put his daughter to death for falling in love with a roustabout – surely a first in circus history.

Jory is a fine director, but at least with that production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream he fell into a trap that regularly presents itself to directors in our time – to do something to, in effect, “make a play interesting,” as though that were necessary for a play that is interesting, or possible to do with a play that is not.

Still, extraordinary artists do extraordinary things in theater. Julie Taymor (b. 1952) has demonstrated in her production of The Lion King, which opened on Broadway in 1997, that she is one of them. So is Peter Brook, and so without a doubt, at least in the case of Hamilton, is Lin-Manuel Miranda, a fact that may go a long way toward explaining that musical’s popularity.

[With regard to Kirk’s point, I agree: I don’t recall having read anyone else who’s made this observation about Hamilton.  I want to make a comment on what I think he’s saying, however—in particular about Miranda’s using ”an approach so surprising . . . that it might be described as a new theatrical language.”  

[I ran an article on ROT called “Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage” (18 September 2009) which I followed with the republication of a New York Times article by Robert Brustein called “Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?” (6 November 1988, sec. 2 [“Arts and Leisure”]: 5, 16; posted on ROT on 10 March 2011) on which my post was based.  What Kirk describes as Miranda’s “surprising approach” for Hamilton is encompassed by what I contend Brustein means by theatrical metaphor.  Note particularly Kirk’s paragraph about the “world” Peter Brook created for Midsummer Night’s Dream and Brustein’s definition of theatrical metaphor.  (Brustein even uses Brook’s Midsummer as a prime example of metaphorical theater.)  “Poetic metaphor,” writes Brustein, “attempts to penetrate the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equivalent” through which to generate “provocative theatrical images . . . that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.”

[Kirk’s dismissal of other “concepts” is what Brustein defines as “prosaic simile” productions (and what a teacher of mine at Rutgers disparaged as “Hamlet on roller skates.”)  Brustein asserts that simile directors “assume that because a play’s action is like something from a later period, its environment can be changed accordingly.”  Their “innovations are basically analogical—provid­ing at best a platform for ideas, at worst an occasion for pranks.”  Kirk’s subsequent comparison of “concept” and “new language” seems exactly parallel to Brustein’s distinction between “simile” and “metaphor”: Brustein writes that “simile productions are rarely as powerful as those that try to capture the imaginative life of a classic through radical leaps into its hidden, sometimes invisible, depths.”  (Kirk’s description of Jon Jory’s Midsummer at ATL reminds me of an Arturo Ui directed by Carl Weber I saw at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 1974 that was also set in a circus.   I distinctly recall Givola—played by Stanley Anderson—in a swing.)

[Now, both Brustein’s and my articles are about adaptations and interpretations of classical plays, not original works, but I think the concept’s the same.  The difference between Miranda and the examples Kirk cites is that Brook and Jory were all (re)interpreting someone else’s existing work while Miranda’s creating his own with the “new language” built in.  Julie Taymor’s Lion King is a hybrid: she reinvented the Disney cartoon, but her stage version’s original; she even “reinvented” (that is, “Africanized”) the music.  Kirk’s view of Hamilton is an extension of Robert Brustein’s view of reinterpretations of classics: it’s an application of the same principle to original work.  If Tennessee Williams is right to call on playwrights to incorporate all the levers of playmaking into their scripts—this is his “plastic theater” concept, on which I blogged in “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” 9 May 2012—then Lin-Manuel Miranda’s on the same theatrical track as Peter Brook and the metaphorical auteur director—Brustein named other great examples: Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertolt Brecht (also himself a playwright), Ingmar Bergman, Liviu Ciulei. Lucian Pintilie, and Andrei Serban (I would add filmmaker Akira Kurosawa on the basis of his Shakespearean adaptations Throne of Blood [Macbeth] and Ran [King Lear])—who, he explains, “‘authors’ the production much as the au­thor writes the text.”  Miranda—and others who may follow his example—simply integrated his stylistic metaphor, in this instance, the hip-hop medium for telling Alexander Hamilton’s story—into his dramaturgy, just as Williams proposed, instead of turning the task over to a director.] 

01 December 2016

'The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World'

[I’ve always reserved the privilege of writing my play reports in a way that spotlights an aspect of the performance that caught my attention.  I don’t write reviews, in any case, so I’m not bound to a standard format or outline.  I haven’t exercised my self-proclaimed privilege often, but Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is an extraordinary occasion, reportorially speaking.  So what you’ll find below is not the kind of performance report I’ve been posting.  Furthermore, as lengthy as it is, I don’t come even close to saying all I would have liked about the play, the writer, or the production.  Nevertheless, I hope you’ll find my report useful, informative, and even revealing.  If you need a conventional evaluation, there are plenty of reviews on line—and I’ve surveyed a selection (some things don’t change).  Considering how fascinating academic writers have found Suzan-Lori Parks and her work, there are also quite a number of scholarly pieces, including both numerous essays and a few books, that analyze and purport to explain Last Black Man and other Parks plays.  (Some are even readable!)  ~Rick]

Last month, following an incident at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in which the cast of Hamilton addressed a statement to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence in the audience, President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted, “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”  Well, special, yes—but safe?  Most theater people, including most veteran theatergoers, wouldn’t accept that.  Certainly playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wouldn’t, not for a New York second.  Her entire career is proof that she’s in it to challenge people’s complacencies, invade their comfort zones—and no better illustration of this fact is on display right now at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre.  Believe you me, safety is the last thing Parks is there for.  “Since the early 1990s,” writes Jenna Clark Embrey, Signature Theatre Company’s literary manager, “Parks has incited a revolution in the American theatre with plays that remix history, truth, fantasy, and fables; the worlds that she creates are built on controlled chaos.”

Parks is this season’s Residency One playwright at STC.  This program affords each writer-in-residence multiple productions over a year’s period and the first of Parks’s plays for her Signature residency is her 1990 composition, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, an expressionistic, jazz-influenced stage poem that’s about the history of black America.  Or, more precisely, the eradication of African Americans and their history from the record.  In the words of Nicole Hodges Persley, a scholar of African-American theater, Parks’s history plays (please, don’t think Shakespeare), of which Last Black Man is one, “both exhilarate and confound audiences and critics.”  My companion, Diana, for example, dismissed the performance curtly as “a complete waste of time.”  She was almost angry and couldn’t understand why I found it intriguing.  (I’ll get to that later.)  As the playwright herself says: “Don’t go in there expecting to be served a meal from your mommy’s spoon.  We don’t do that in this show. . . .  Go in there expecting to see the stories come at you from all sides.  It is confusing, like the world is.” 

Parks wrote Last Black Man in 1989 (she says she started it in 1987 or ’88) and the New York Theatre Workshop held a reading of the script in its east Village home on 2 October directed by Beth A. Schachter.  The play premièred at BACA (Brooklyn Arts and Culture Association) Downtown on 13 September 1990 under Schachter’s direction and later was produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre’s WinterFest in New Haven, Connecticut, from 22 January to 7 March 1992, staged by Liz Diamond.  The current Signature revival is the first in New York City since the NYTW reading and the BACA début over a quarter of a century ago—and the first full, professional staging of the work in Manhattan.

Billed at STC as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead, the revival, staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s War, Lincoln Center Theater; Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, NYTW; both 2016) in the 191-seat Griffin, started performances on 25 October and opened on 13 November; it’s currently scheduled to close on 18 December (after two extensions from 4 and 11 December).  Diana and I met at Signature’s Theatre Row home for the 7:30 performance on Wednesday evening, 16 November.  (I’d never seen that subtitle used for any publication or production of Last Black Man before, but Parks explained that it was added for the STC production because when she needed to clarify the title for the actors, she realized “that it needed an addition.”  In an e-mail, Signature’s associate artistic director added that Parks appended the subtitle in September and affirms “that the addition is now part of the complete title.”)

Last Black Man is non-linear in structure, and largely non-narrative.  (Parks’s earliest plays, which include 1987’s Betting on the Dust Commander, 1989’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, and Last Black Man, are her most experimental and challenging in form.)   Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem, “Kubla Khan,” The Death of the Last Black Man, says Parks, came to her as a result of a dream.  Waking from a nap, the playwright

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,” so I went over to my desk and wrote it down.  Those words and my reaction to them became a play.

But it’s more than just a dream.  This description is recounted in an essay called “Possession” (published in the same volume, The America Play and Other Works, in which The Death of the Last Black Man appears) and as an epigram to the piece, Parks provides a pair of definitions:

possession.  1. the action or fact of possessing, or the condition of being possessed.  2. the holding or having of something as one’s own, or being inhabited and controlled by a demon or spirit.  

The first meaning comes into play, but for now, it’s the second part of definition 2 that’s important.  Last Black Man is about reclaiming history and the figures—what Parks prefers to call the dramatis personæ—are from the past, from literature, from folk culture, from the Bible—and Parks seems to feel she’s been possessed by these spirits of African-American life, demanding that she tell their story.  “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,” says a figure called Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread.  As Parks sees it:

A pay is a blueprint of an event: a way of creating and rewriting history through the medium of literature.  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—through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life—locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.

Indeed, Parks did write it down.  What she sees herself doing in plays like Last Black Man is “re-membering,” which means both reclaiming lost history or putting African-Americans back into the historical record from which they’ve been erased and putting back together the black man who’s been systematically dismembered, both metaphorically and even actually. 

This is also where definition 1 above for ‘possession’ applies.  For most of African history in North America, the black man and woman has been a possession; a thing, an object that could be owned by someone else.  They were non-persons, and even after legal emancipation, hardly more than that.  Non-persons have no place in history.  They can’t make accomplishments or contributions.  They have no standing (the 1856-1857 Dred Scott case essentially declared that a slave had no right to bring suit in a U.S. court).  They leave no impression, even—or perhaps especially—when they die.  The question Parks asks is If a black man dies and no one bothers to record it, does his life make an impression on history?  The first half of definition 2 also returns to African Americans the right to their own possessions, including the power to create and own their own stories.  (Are we still in safe territory?)

This is the foundation of Parks’s themes.  With respect to form, the dramatist realizes “that my writing is very influenced by music; how much I employ its methods.”  Parks has explained, “When I wrote [Last Black Man] I was listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman [jazz composer-musician, 1930-2015], The Shape of Jazz to Come, which is a brilliant, brilliant album—and it very much has some jazz motifs in it.  So the play does as well.”  One of the play’s most prominent jazz techniques is “Repetition & Revision,” which Parks defines as “a concept integral to the Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised.”  The playwright continues:

“Rep & Rev” as I call it is a central element in my work; through its use I’m working to create a dramatic text that departs from the traditional linear narrative style to look and sound more like a musical score . . . [.]  How does this “Rep & Rev”—a literal incorporation of the past—impact on the creation of a theatrical experience?

Coleman, whose musicianship was, to say the least, unorthodox, unusual, and unstructured, was a controversial figure in jazz.  (He played a plastic saxophone in his early career!)  He’s considered one of the principal innovators of free jazz, a form of the music that essentially broke the rules of the genre and generally pushed the envelope.  (The term itself was invented by Coleman as the title of a 1960 album, and he never completely accepted it as a label for a type of jazz music, or that his own music should be called “free jazz.”)  My friend Kirk Woodward, who’s been a frequent guest-blogger on ROT, saw Coleman perform (he gets a mention in Kirk’s “Some Of That Jazz,” posted on 7 June 2015) and says of the sax-player that “he’s one of those pioneers that many people detested but then found he’d changed their way of experiencing an art forever.”  (Kirk has also blogged on Parks twice for ROT: “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009—which includes references to Last Black Man—and “A Playwright of Importance,” 31 January 2011.)  Music critic Steve Huey said of the album to which Parks was listening when she wrote Last Black Man, 1959’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, that it “was a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with.  The record shattered traditional concepts of harmony in jazz . . . .”  Huey wrote that “Coleman’s ideals of freedom in jazz made him a feared radical in some quarters.”  That’s a little like Parks’s position in theater—and, like Parks, Coleman was a Pulitzer Prize-winner (for music in 2007) and a MacArthur (“genius”) Fellow (1994). 

In plays like Last Black Man that are structured around Rep & Rev, explains Parks, “we are not moving from A à B but rather, for example, from A à à A à B à A.  Through such movement we refigure A.”  This effect is very audible in Blain-Cruz’s production.  Rep & Rev, however, has other applications in Last Black Man in addition to the lines the figures speak.  First, for example, the titular black man dies repeatedly and not always in the same way, so elements of Parks’s story are repeated and revised.  On the macro level, furthermore, the whole theme of The Death of the Last Black Man is a repetition and revision as the history—or non-history—of Africans in America is repeatedly rewritten until it’s eradicated.  Now it’s being revised again and restored.  So Rep & Rev isn’t just a playwriting technique in Last Black Man, it’s the structural foundation and the conceptual rationale. 

In combination with Rep & Rev, Parks also uses call and response, an element of both African and African-American public discourse and music.  This is defined as a “spontaneous verbal non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener.”  Along with African-American worship (grounded in African ceremonials), it is an integral element of jazz, blues, and hip hop, as well as political rallies and street demonstrations. 

On top of Parks’s musical structure and linguistic legerdemain, the writer roils the text with several other non-linear elements.  One of these is the temporality of Last Black Man.  Time in the play doesn’t move in a straight line—in fact, it twists around and folds back on itself; the play takes place simultaneously in the distant past, the more recent past, today: “Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 . . . .”  Parks enhances the confusion of time by mixing up the verb tenses and even composing some forms that defy tense parsing altogether.  In addition, time isn’t the only aspect of Last Black Man  that’s obscured: the play’s location is indeterminate and undecipherable.  At times were in ancient Egypt, 1492, the ante-bellum South, Jim Crow America, more-or-less contemporary U.S. (circa 1990 or 2016, take your pick), outer space, and the hereafter.  If you try to sort this out rationally, it’ll make you crazy and the play will be totally meaningless.  If you accept that Last Black Man takes place in all times and all places at once and just go with that, it works a lot better.  But it’s hardly simple. . . or comfortable.

One of Parks’s influences and models was Ntozake Shange (b. 1948), from whom the younger writer learned to compose in a poetic medium.  (Parks had written songs before turning to playwriting.)  Shange called her 1976 play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf a “choreopoem,” and the same descriptor could be applied accurately to Last Black Man.  Another literary influence on Parks’s work was playwright Adrienne Kennedy (b. 1931) who showed her the power of writing in contemporary street vernacular—what Parks refers to as “hip-hop, Ebonics, jazz speak.”  (I saw Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, another abstract performance piece that employs Rep & Rev, at STC last spring and reported on it in “Signature Plays” on 3 June.  I also saw a production of for colored girls directed by Shange in 1995, but it predates ROT and there is no report on it.) 

During the performance, I was very taken with Parks’s use of language, and the physical and verbal imagery she evoked—though some of that, of course, is also creditable to director Blain-Cruz, designers Riccardo Hernandez (set) and Montana Blanco (costumes), and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly.  In fact, Parks eschews stage directions and leaves the movements and placements of the actors “mostly to the director.”  Nonetheless, she takes responsibility for the physical life in her plays:

95 percent of the action, in all of my plays, is in the line of text.  So you don’t get a lot of parenthetical stage direction.  I’ve written, within the text, specific directions to them, to guide their breathing, to guide the way they walk, whether or not they walk, whether or not they walk with a limp, whatever.  They know what to do from what they say and how they say it.  The specifics of it are left up to the actor and the director.  The internals are in the line, the externals are left up to them. 

In the program for Last Black Man, Parks quotes another literary figure who had some impact on her art as well, a few lines from “Dolorous Echo,” a 1965 poem by Beat poet Bob Kaufman (1925-86): “When I die, / I won’t stay / Dead.,” which can be seen as a capsule statement of Last Black Man‘s theme.  Known in France, where his work is still popular, as the “black American Rimbaud,” Kaufman was also a surrealist inspired, like Parks, by jazz music.  So, at least on a superficial level, so far we have a play drawing on jazz—not to mention avant-garde jazz—African-American street speech, Beat poetry, call and response, history and culture as it’s been distorted by popular stereotyping, a temporal Möbius strip, an evanescent location, and stunning (literally) movement and visual imagery.  Oh, and all this is packed into a swift 75 minutes.  It’s certainly not easy going—and, I wouldn’t imagine, what someone looking for an evening’s entertainment would find “safe.”  As Tina Turner memorably proclaimed: “. . . we never ever do nothing nice and easy.  We always do it nice and rough.”

Suzan-Lori Parks was born in 1963 in Fort Knox, Kentucky (“where they keep the gold”), but as the daughter of a career military officer, “grew up all over,” including “quite a while” in Germany, where she went to local schools and became fluent in German.  “We were moving around every year.  So I’m from all over,” says Parks, but “I consider myself a Texan, because my mom’s a West Texan, and we spent a lot of time hanging out in far west Texas.”  After high school in Germany and, while her father was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, at a prep school near Baltimore, Parks attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, one of of the Seven Sisters colleges (the women’s counterpart to the then largely all-male Ivy League), graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in English and German literature in 1985.  Having at first been steered away from studying literature, Parks took up an interest in chemistry, but returned to the writing that had marked her earliest childhood focus, when she wrote poetry and songs.  At Mount Holyoke, the incipient playwright studied under novelist James Baldwin (1924-87) in his first writing course, and he encouraged her to consider writing for the stage. 

When the young writer started with Baldwin, she was writing novels, short stories, and songs, but when she read her stories aloud in class, she says, “I was very animated.  Like I would do what the stupid theatre people did, like ‘Laaa Laaaa Leyy!  And Read Alouddd!  And tell the characters and then paint the scene!  And do all this stuff!’”  So her teacher said to her, “‘Ms. Parks, have you ever thought about writing for the theatre?’  And gave me that look . . . [.]  I started writing for the theatre that day, that very day.”  After Mount Holyoke, the young writer studied acting for a year at the Drama Studio London in order to understand the stage better.  Since her stage début (The Sinner's Place, written at Mount Holyoke in 1984, while she was still a student), Parks (whose given name is spelled with a ‘z’ due to a misprint in an early show flyer—which she just kept) has so far written 18 plays (plus a revision of the book for George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess, but not counting all 365 plays of 2006-07’s 365 Days/365 Plays), two screenplays, a novel, and numerous essays; she has several projects in the works, according to her own account, including a series for Amazon and a musicalization of the 1972 Jamaican reggae film, The Harder They Come, for the stage.  She continues (since 2011) weekly to perform (and live-stream) Watch Me Work, a meditation on the artistic process and an actual work session during which Parks works on her latest project in the lobby of the Joseph Papp Public Theater before a live audience who get to ask questions during the last 15 minutes of the piece. 

In 2001, Parks received a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”) and the following year became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog (Public Theater, 2001; Broadway, 2002).  Topdog/Underdog also won the 2002 Drama Desk Award and the 2002 Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award and was nominated for a best-play Tony; Parks was nominated for two additional Pulitzers: in 2000 for In the Blood and in 2015 for Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, 3).  Off-Broadway, the playwright received a nomination for the 2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play for Father Comes Home and won the 1995-1996 OBIE Award for Playwriting for Venus.  (Venus, which I saw at the Public in 1996 before I wrote regular reports, will be seen at Signature in the spring of 2017.  I also saw the Broadway production of Topdog, but there’s no report on that, either.)  To date, the dramatist has garnered over a dozen awards, honors, and nominations during her career, including the Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2007), the NAACP Theatre Award for Ray Charles Live! (2008), and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History for Father Comes Home (2015).  Parks teaches playwriting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Rita & Burton Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing and is the first holder of the Master Writer Chair at the Public Theater in New York City. 

Parks loved to write even as a child, though she points out that no one in her family was a writer; her brother and sister would be playing outside, she recounts, while she’d be hanging out inside, “writing my novel.”  She says she doesn’t write so much because she has something she has to say (though from the evidence of her plays I’d dispute that as a categorical denial), but rather because the act of writing “is so . . . like it’s a funnel.  And it pulls my energy.”  When she’s inspired, she says to herself, “‘Wow, I just gahh, oh yo, I gotta write this!’  Because there’s a funnel of energy, a cone of energy that’s like pulling me toward it.” 

The Death of the Last Black Man, says Parks, is

about a man and his wife, and the man is dying. . . .  This man is dead and his wife is basically trying to find his final resting place.  There’s a reoccurring question in the play: “Where’s he gonna go now that he done dieded?”  And what they find at the end is that his final resting place is a play called The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.  It’s like a funeral mass in a way.

This is where the lines from Kaufman’s poem apply (“When I die, / I won’t stay / Dead”).  The figure around whom the play revolves, Black Man With Watermelon, essentially the title character insofar as Last Black Man has one, suffers serial deaths throughout history; on stage he’s hanged/strangled and electrocuted.  The Black Woman With Fried Drumstick, the black man’s partner, describes his death(s):

Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in thuh whole entire world.  Uh!  Oh.  Don’t be uhlarmed.  Do not be afeared.  It was painless.  Uh painless passin.  He falls twenty-three floors to his death.

Just as the black man’s life has been erased from the public and historical record, his contributions discounted and ignored, his death(s) is (are) deemed inconsequential. 

But as far as the dramaturgy goes, the author suggests that we “think of jazz music first of all, think of like free jazz—it moves like that.  It’s not like a tidy, well-made play that we’re accustomed to seeing in traditional theatre.  Think of poet’s theatre, slam poetry, hiphop, like a poetry slam.”  The jazz medium “dovetails very much with current language today.  This street language, urban language, creative language that we use.”  It’s not just in the form, however, where Last Black Man resonates, but in its content as well—which is why I suspect that Parks is being modest when she says she doesn’t write because she has something to say.  (The writer’s said that she considers form and content the same thing.)  The playwright continues with her explanation of Last Black Man:

But it’s also dovetailing with some of the current events, the difficult current events that are going on in our country today.  They weren’t so apparent and on the surface back in 1990.  It was always there, but now it’s kind of on everybody’s Twitter feed. Revisiting this play now felt like, “Wow this is going to be cool, there’s more to this than I remember.  There’s a lot to this.”  It felt very current, it felt like I’d written it a couple of years ago.

Some of the lines in the play seemed so current, I wondered if Parks had done some revising for the Signature remount, but that’s apparently not the case:

Because there’s this part in the play, this thing where the man is talking about how he can’t breathe.  There’s a rope around his neck and he’s dying yet another death, and he says, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”  And I’m just like, “oh, that sounds familiar . . . [.]”

The words “I can’t breathe” clearly echo the 2014 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island at the hands of New York City police who placed him in a choke hold.  No one who hears the lines today can miss the reference, even if Parks wrote them in 1989.  The appearance of Black Man With Watermelon with a noose around his neck, however, may be less obvious in its contemporary allusion. (Of course, the image of lynchings during the Jim Crow era, which is what Parks doubtlessly had in mind in 1989, is unambiguous.  To be sure this allusion is clear, set designer Hernandez dominated the sage with a huge tree branch running diagonally from the down right floor level to the up left fly space.  It’s virtually the only scenery in the Signature revival of Last Black Man.)   In 2007, there was a well-publicized incident on the campus of Columbia University in New York in which a noose was found hanging on the office doorknob of an African-American faculty member; and last year, a student hung a noose from a tree in front of the student center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  The noose, like the burning cross and the Ku Klux Klan hood, remains a potent symbol of intimidation and subjugation of African Americans and a tool of rendering black Americans non-persons, and many other incidents in the past dozen years have made the news.

There are also frequent references to Black Man’s hands being bound, which call to mind not only the leather straps used to secure the hands of a condemned man in an electric chair, which figures prominently in Last Black Man, or the rope with which a black man’s hands were bound behind him when he was lynched, but also slave shackles and, with a current connection, police handcuffs—such as those which Freddie Gray was wearing while in custody when he died in the back of the police van in Baltimore last year.

Of course, the very theme of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, the repeated and serial deaths suffered by African Americans, their apparent expendability both in the historical record and in life itself, is one of the most current topics in our society right now.  It’s Sanford, Florida (the figure And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger, an incarnation of Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son—and Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son—but also a reflection of the white fear of the big, strong black “buck,” wears a black hoodie, a design element that points to the 21s century); Ferguson; Cleveland; Baltimore; Staten Island; and other cities where unarmed black people, including several women, were killed by police or other authorities—or in the case of Charlotte, a homegrown terrorist.  It’s  Back Lives Matter. 

Even a repeated line by Black Man With Watermelon has resonance that probably didn’t ring with an audience in 1990: “The black man moves his hands.”  What resonated now, at least for me, is the implication that this action is the excuse police officers have used for those shootings of unarmed black men: they were reaching for something presumed to be a gun.  It’s not what Parks intended the words to mean, but that’s what I heard. 

In a “Playwright Letter” published in Signature’s Study Guide for The Death of Last Black Man, Parks even asks, “Are there any things going on stage that reminded you of current events?”  Isn’t that what good plays, good art, does?  It refers to our lives today even if the play was written years, decades, even centuries ago.  I don’t think you can legitimately dismiss a play that can do that.  Not if you’re honest . . . and paying attention.  (Sorry, Diana.)  And I also don’t think you can take refuge in a theater where that kind of play is on stage.  That’s not a safe, comfortable, or unchallenging place.  And it never should be.  (Sorry, Donald.)

Actually, I’m not in the least sorry.  It’s what I love about theater and art.  It’s why I go to the theater and art museums, and read books and essays.  It’s why I have this blog.  And it’s why I’m a First Amendment absolutist.  But that’s an argument for another day.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is a peculiar play, to say the least.  I can’t do a standard description and evaluation, so I’ll sketch it out very broadly and say only that I found it exhilarating as a theater piece.  (To quote the reviewer of another revival some years ago, “To call ‘Death’ a play is like calling a Jackson Pollock painting a landscape.”)  The stage of the little Griffin Theatre is raked and at preset, there’s no curtain.  As I noted earlier, the main set piece of Hernandez’s scenic design is the huge tree limb that bisects the stage.  A vintage wooden electric chair sits up left beneath the branch.  A hangman’s noose drops from the branch ominously.  Yi Zhao’s lighting is stark, as if the sun were directly overhead; nothing is obscured—or softened—by shadow. The floor of the sloped portion of the stage is covered with sand or loose dirt, like a huge sandbox or parched landscape—reminiscent, perhaps, of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s; below this is a narrow strip of level stage at the front of the playing area.  Two chairs are down front, slightly right of center; in the one farther right sits Black Man With Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts), dressed in coveralls like a sharecropper of the ’30s, barefoot and holding an immense green watermelon in his lap.  He looks dead.  In a rocking chair to his left sits Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff), dressed in a work shift of the same period as her counterpart.  She wears a knotted kerchief on her head “Aunt Jemima” style.

The performance begins with what Parks labels in the script an Overture, like a symphony or musical theater, and all the figures of the play identify themselves themselves and preview a little of their signature lines we’ll be hearing more of later: Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams), Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman), And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella), Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole), Ham (Patrena Murray), Voice on Thuh Tee V (William DeMeritt), Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell), Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri), and Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith).  (Each of these figures, as suggested by their names, is an archetype of some aspect of lost black history, black stereotyping, and black pop-culture imagery and there’s so much to say about them that it just won’t fit here.)  They move in highly rhythmic choreography from Raja Feather Kelly, clothed in evocatively stylized costumes by Montana Blanco (one stand-out example: DeMeritt as “Broad Caster,” the TV news anchor, is dressed to look like Malcolm X) as they speak Parks’s idiosyncratic vernacular poetry based on stereotypical (and exaggerated) black English, a travesty of 19th- and early 20th-century minstrelsy.  The New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote that Parks’s words “suggest tragedy told as a joke.”

It’s not visible (or audible) in the performance, but Last Black Man proceeds not by traditional scenes, but what Parks calls panels and choruses, each of which is a Rep & Rev of the one that went before.  Thus, the playwright deconstructs and then reconstructs the story of black people in America, showing both how they’ve been portrayed in popular culture and how absurd that portrayal has been.  Even as the panels repeat themselves in slightly altered ways, the figures, especially Black Man, resist the prescribed roles—Black Man refuses to stay dead, after all—and Parks resists a conclusive ending.  (Black Man’s repeated dying and returning surely suggests Jesus Christ, especially since Parks, who went to a Catholic prep school for high school, equates the play’s panels with the Stations of the Cross.)  The last line, “Hold it. Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it.  Hold it,” plays as if all the figures don’t accept the final action—the death yet again of the last black man—and are about to rewind and go again.  Will it break the cycle and change this time?  Or will it play out yet again in the same way?  We don’t know. 

Even at only an hour and a quarter, Last Black Man is so dense and packed full of shiny moments of theater, meaning, symbolism, imagery, wisdom, and admonition that I can’t come near doing it justice in a blog report—even one that’s bound to go long.  I’ll add, too, that it stayed with me for weeks after I saw it, leaving me to go over it again and again in my mind and continue to try to sort it out long after I left the theater.  I can’t even do right by the excellent production here; the kaleidoscope of staging, performance, design, and language often left me in sensory overload—and I mean that in the best possible way.  (The best way to experience this play is to see it once and just let the presentation wash over you like some kind of hyper-aroma therapy, and then go back again, maybe a few days or a week later, and try to observe the details.)  So, in lieu of assessing the performances and the tech as I usually do, let me just capsulize: the acting ensemble was startling from first to last (Variety’s Frank Rizzo proclaimed the cast “charismatic”), Blain-Cruz guided them superbly and imaginatively at every turn, and the designers pulled out all the stops and made a visually dazzling show that paralleled both the acting and the writing.  What’s more, it all worked together like a perfect symbiosis.  The Death of the Last Black Man may not be a play in the conventional sense—but it damn sure is theater!

As of 30 November, Show-Score has surveyed 25 reviews for an average score of 75.  The tally included 76% positive notices (high score: 95 – websites Theatre is Easy and Front Row Center; four 90’s), 4% negative (low score: 35 - Hollywood Reporter), and 20% mixed.  (My round-up includes 19 reviews.)

Joe Dziemianowicz of New York’s Daily News characterized Signature’s Last Black Man as “bold and striking, but frustrating,” explaining, “One is left to grapple and wonder, What's going on?”  The Newsman added, “Then again, maybe that’s [Parks’s] point.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” was: “Tough, prescient Parks revival—historical pageant and poetry slam.”  On the evidence of Last Black Man, she called Parks “uncompromising, strenuous and stylistically daring,” adding, “She also was eerily prophetic.”  Dubbing the STC revival “expert,” thanks to director Blain-Cruz’s “self-mocking and serious production, as much of an ordeal as an enchantment.”

Calling the play “dark and forbidding,” the Times’ Brantley wrote that the STC revival of Parks’s “phantasmagorical theater piece” is “a sepulchral parade of images:  Saying that the play “sometimes feels like a senior semiotics project,” Brantley described it as a “combination of willful opacity and obvious symbolism” which “can feel tedious if you strain to make sense of it.”   His suggestion was to “give yourself over to the sensory flow of Ms. Blain-Cruz’s production” so that “the play acquires the eerie inevitability of a fever dream from which there is truly no waking.”  The Timesman reported that Blain-Cruz’s staging is “hypnotic,” Blanco’s “bright, cartoonish” costumes “might have stepped out of a child’s illustrated history book from the mid-20th-century,” and Hernandez’s set is a “shadowland” lit by Zhao “with the dark starkness of a bad dream.”

The Death of the Last Black Man “feels like a bad dream,” declared Max McGuinness in the U.S. edition of the Financial Times.  “Frequently it’s difficult to make out quite what is going on,” McGuinness continued, but then added, “And yet certain grim themes come into sharper relief.”  “Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s precise direction,” the FT reviewer reported, the actors “bring that dark vision to haunting life” with “exquisitely restrained movement.”  McGuinness suggested “a little more variety” in the cast’s delivery, and he found too much monologue over dialogue, “but all this is never less than engaging,” he concluded.  His final judgement was: “This revival offers a powerful tonic at a time when America’s divisions seem starker than ever.”  In the New Yorker, Hilton Als characterized Last Black Man as an “exceptional production” directed by a “great new talent.”

In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky called STC’s Last Black Man “an exquisite production” of “a surreal, poetic meditation” in which “[h]istory repeats itself . . . directly—and more heartbreakingly.”  While Last Black Man “evoke[s] music and painting more than drama, the play riffs on language and remixes racial stereotypes with boldness and grace,” observed Felton-Dansky, “creating an experience that is both revelatory and irresistibly watchable.”  The Voice reviewer asserted of the content of the play, “These histories are bleak, but watching Parks's play is not” as Parks transforms “history into disturbing, evocative ritual.”  “Sometimes, with a good-enough playwright, it’s good to have no idea what’s going on,” observed Jesse Green at the top of his New York magazine review.  “That was the case for me with Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.”  He confirmed that the Signature revival is “a stupendous staging” which has been “superbly directed” by Blain-Cruz “and designed” by Hernandez, Blanco, and Zhao.  Green concluded that “it may not be pretty, or even coherent, but it’s beautiful.”

Surreal doesn’t begin to describe watching Suzan-Lori Parks’s postmodern vaudeville of African-American stereotypes the day after Trump was elected,” declared David Cote in Time Out New York.. The man from TONY called the play a “jazzy, poetic fever dream” which warps “temporality and dialect to create music and noise.”  Cote warned that Last Black Man, ”a jagged, angry, weird text,” “is not an easy play to dissect or digest,” but director Blain-Cruz “stages it in high style, with a skin-prickling soundscape by Palmer Hefferan . . . and a raft of brave in-your-face performances.”  Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter lamented in his “Bottom Line,” “Despite an excellent production, this frustratingly oblique and elliptical play never comes into focus.”  He explained that he had resorted to consulting the text to “decipher” the play, but he acknowledged, “Sadly, even going to the printed page left me flummoxed.”  The HR reviewer proclaimed, “Dense, abstruse and elliptical, the piece is virtually incomprehensible,” though he allows that “theatergoers who prefer [Coleman’s style of free] jazz . . . may be more receptive to its challenges.”  The “endless repetition” of the language may provide “the linguistic equivalent of jazz improvisations,” however, “a little of it goes a long way” and the play’s “70 minutes . . . feels like an eternity.”  Scheck declared that “when the evening is over you’ll be longing for regression therapy,” adding as a final complaint, ‘The energetic dance sequences, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly and frequently performed to deafening electronic music, don't help.”  Although the cast “go through their demanding physical and verbal paces with admirable energy” and the “production elements are also first-rate,”  Scheck’s final assessment was that though “the piece works on a certain visceral level, its failure to communicate its intellectual themes in remotely coherent fashion diminishes its intended power.”

In Variety, Rizzo characterized Last Black Man as a “symbol-laden, language-rich, ritualistic play” with “many powerful images” that generate a “dramatic and haunting effect in this handsomely staged, evocative revival” at STC.  With her “stylized, fragmented and elliptical” language, Parks “weaves a woozy spell.”  Rizzo warned, “Your response to the work might parallel how you feel about a free-form jazz session, one filled with meditative riffs and theatrical flourishes.”  Even Blain-Cruz’s “hypnotic” direction and the “talented” acting company, however, have trouble creating “an emotional bond [that] lasts longer than an impulse.”  When they do, though, such as in the play’s final scene, “it’s a heartbreaking revelation.”  In the end, the Variety review-writer warned that “‘Death of the Last Black Man’ may still be challenging for some audiences as they try to make connections,” though “others will find the experience resonating down to their bones, rich with meaning of their own making.” 

Charles Nechamkin of Stage Buddy contended that, like the other actors in Last Black Man, “Black Man With Watermelon . . . doesn’t seem to understand the part he’s been cast in.”  Nechamkin also determined that “the audience struggles to break through these stereotypes to the people underneath” (apparently the reviewer took a survey) and even claimed that Parks “struggles with us.”  The play’s dialogue, said our Stage Buddy, is “a jumble of words: lyrical, emotional, tautological,” yet he labeled the show “compelling.”  The Signature revival is an “energetic production,” but “it’s the relationship between Black Man With Watermelon and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick . . . that anchors us and gives us something human to hold onto.”  The “other characters . . . aren’t characters at all, they’re refrains.”  It’s as if, said Nechamkin, we’d “stumbled upon the funeral procession of a stranger”: “We’re overwhelmed by a vague but familiar sense of loss.”  The SB reviewer posited, “It makes for a challenging and abstruse piece of theater, one that may not be satisfying to those seeking a neat and moralizing social drama,”  adding that “even the most patient and open-minded audience member will come away with more questions than answers.”  Still, he concluded, “Even so, there’s something valuable and vital here.”

On New York Theatre Guide, Margret Echeverria decided that Last Black Man “is one of these pieces of art” that “turn themselves over and over living actively in our memories for a very long time to reveal new truths, new beauty, new troublesome anomalies.”  Echeverria admitted, however, that she may not be “qualified to write this review” because she’s white and feels ignorant about much of the history in Parks’s play.  So she proceeded to describe “what I experienced.”  (I’ve done that, too, under similar circumstances.)  She praised the performances lavishly and reported that Blain-Cruz “directs an ensemble that pulls our back off our seat cushion to listen and watch closely.”  In the end, Echeverria confessed, “I enjoyed the whole painful thing” and “I turn it over and over again in my memory discovering more truths.”  Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway called the Signature production of Last Black Man “a credible but not quite electrifying” revival of a “fascinating but scattershot play.”  The TB review-writer described Hernandez’s set as “bleak,” Blanco’s costumes as running “a wide fantasy gamut.” Zhao’s lights as “piercing,” and Hefferan’s sound as “eerie, cathedral-like.”  Though Murray found Parks’s point “powerful,” he felt “a little of it does go a long way,” and as short as it is, Last Black Man  “feels overlong” to the reviewer.  Murray felt that “this isn't a play that much develops or focuses on finely honing its statements,” and that “the archetypal characters” are limited in their scope.  He also deemed “the performances . . . closer to library-tome dusty than . . . theatrically vivid.” 

Jonathan Mandell, calling Last Black Man “striking,” dubbed Parks’s play “surreal and cryptic” on New York Theatre.  The play “offers searing imagery mixed with repetitive auditory gibberish,” said Mandell, suggesting that “for most of us, I suspect, the appeal of ‘Last Black Man’ rests largely with the production values.”  In CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer declared that Last Black Man represents “Parks at her most inaccessible,” naming among its negatives, “the hard to get a handle on . . . narrative with at times undecipherable dialogue.”  The “ensemble is excellent,” the costumes are “witty,” and the set is “simple but effective.”  Though well produced, felt Sommer, Blain-Cruz’s “handsome, music-infused production isn’t enough to offset the inaccessibility of the experience.”  She found the repeated aspects of the production “all too often come across as just plain repetitious,” but the “vivacious performances and staging keep the audience engaged—even when more than a little confused.”  Describing the play as a “free-form dramatic riff,”  Michael Dale  asserted on Broadway World that Blain-Cruz’s “mock-celebratory pageant-like production is performed by a fine ensemble whose tongues are nimbly set within their cheeks.”  Dale suggested that “the exact intention of the piece may not be easy to grasp, but it's still to be admired as an uninhibited abstract collage.” 

David Roberts of Theatre Reviews Limited reported (rather floridly) that Last Black Man “captures the attention of the audience and holds captive its aching heart and sin-sick soul for a powerfully unforgettable seventy minutes of cathartic ghoulish disquietude.”  At STC, Blain-Cruz’s direction is “meticulous,” Hernandez’s set  is “looming,” Blanco’s costumes are “surreal” and “compress history and its archetypes into a collage of color and form,” and Zhao’s lighting is “imaginative” and “brings [the play] into an alarmingly sharp focus that sears the memory of the audience.”  On TheaterMania, Hayley Levitt warned that Last Black Man “is not the mindless escapism audiences are likely to be craving right now.”  Levitt continued, “Instead of letting you off the hook, it holds your feet right to the fire” and “if you’re up for a mental and emotional challenge, Parks’ poetic one-act is worth meditating on at this unsettled social and political juncture.”  The TM reviewer likens Parks’s poetic monologues to “a spoken-word symphony” and the physical environment is enhanced by Hernandez’s “sparse set” and projection designer Hannah Wasileski’s “haunting shadows.”  She warned theatergoers, however, that “Parks’ text is doubly abstract and is likely to lose you along the way.”  Levitt found, though, that the “tender relationship between Watts and Ruff’s characters [Black Man and Black Woman] is the only accessible element of the play and succeeds in bringing out the human emotion that the other noncharacters lack.” 

Proclaiming Last Black Man “eerily prescient,” Jennifer Vanasco of WNYC, a National Public Radio station in New York City, calls it a “fever dream of a play” which “has a timeless quality.”  The production is “more like a dance piece or a symphony than a traditional narrative story.”  The times have caught up with Last Black Man, Vanasco asserted, making it seem more relevant today than in 1990; the WNYC reviewer stated, “Few works have ever seemed more relevant in our political moment—or as worth seeing.”

26 November 2016

Ragamuffin Day

[At the beginning of this month, I posted a tribute to my late mother, who died in May 2015 at 92.  (See “Mom,” 1 November.)  I wrote about some of the things we did together for fun, from my childhood when we still did things as a family to the more recent years when my mother and I were alone to amuse ourselves.  About a month ago, an article in the New York Times reminded me of another connection to my mom—not something we had done together, but something we talked about.  The coincidence was a little too strong for me to overlook, so I’ve written about the connection and the historical background the Times article revealed.  You may find it interesting, especially if you have a link to New York City through someone in your past.]

Years ago, my mother told me about something she remembered from her childhood that she couldn’t explain.  Mom was a native New Yorker but moved to New Jersey with her family when she was very young—about 7, I think, which would make it around 1930.  But there was still a lot of family in New York City—my grandfather, for instance, had three sisters who all had daughters around my mother’s age with whom Mom was very close—so my grandparents and their two daughters used to drive into the city often for visits, family events, and holidays.

One of those holidays was Thanksgiving and my mother’s family drove in via lower Manhattan, presumably through the Holland Tunnel (the Lincoln didn’t open until Mom was 14).  Mom said she remembered seeing kids downtown—in the lower Village, it seemed—all dressed in costumes like Halloween, except on Thanksgiving, but she couldn’t remember what it was for.  I questioned her to be sure she wasn’t confusing two memories (we were talking about what may have been an 80-year-old memory from when she was very young).  She insisted she remembered just what she told me.

I had no idea what Mom could have been recalling.  Obviously, nothing like that has gone on since I’ve lived here.  I also had no idea how to look up something like that, but I wrote to the New York Times.  As some readers may know, the Sunday paper has a column called “F.Y.I.” (now published occasionally in the “Metropolitan” section, but which previously appeared weekly in that section’s predecessors) that fields questions from readers about the New York metro area just like this one.  Unfortunately, the Times never ran the query and I never followed up.

As it happens, when I was at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the Village with my friend Diana early last month, we walked over to Hudson Street-8th Avenue to catch a cab back up to my neighborhood where she left her car.  The location prompted me to tell her Mom’s story—but even though Diana’s a New Yorker, too, and older than I, she hadn’t ever heard of kids dressing up in costumes at Thanksgiving.

Well, I was reading the Times on Saturday night, 22 October, including the parts of the Sunday edition that come with the Saturday paper.  Among those was the “Metropolitan” section, which that week contained an “F.Y.I.” column, responding to the question:

Before Halloween trick-or-treating caught on, wasn’t there a different holiday in New York in which costumed children went around asking for treats?  

Lo and behold! the answer was all about Ragamuffin Day.  Observed on Thanksgiving Day, kids dressed as thieves, beggars, bums, and hobos and went door to door asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?”  Neighbors handed out pennies and other swag.  In some communities, there were even ragamuffin parades, precursors of today’s Thanksgiving Day parades.  Ragamuffin Day was popular in New York City—a few other places also had it—from before the turn of the 20th century until about 1941, when Congress formally established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November and Halloween became a popular unofficial celebration of ghosts and goblins when kids got dressed up.  That’s the exact time-frame Mom was talking about in her recollection!

It’s terrific that entirely by accident—though synchronicity and serendipity played a part, I think—Mom’s vague memory that I could never confirm or even identify has been documented.  I did a quick search of the New York Times archive and there are plenty of old articles referencing ragamuffins and Google Images has photos from the 1900s through the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s of kids in costume for Ragamuffin Day. 

The story of Ragamuffin Day seems to be as follows (I’ve had to piece this account together from numerous sources and there are some, mostly inconsequential, discrepancies):

Thanksgiving had always been a traditional holiday, even during colonial times.  It’s basic purpose was the same as today: celebrate the harvest, honor the first settlers who braved harsh conditions and uncertainty, and make a gesture of gratitude and friendship to the American natives the Europeans displaced.  But it was observed on different days as local traditions arose and with many different rituals and practices—often a meal of some kind, but not always.  Customs ranged from elaborate feasts to displays of charity to religious observations to parades and pageants to games and athletic competitions (a forerunner, perhaps, of the football bowl games today’s celebrants like to watch).

In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father” and set the day of observance as the last Thursday of November.  The proclamation, however, had the force of an executive order and had to be reissued by each succeeding president—who could, although any seldom did, change the particulars of the day or date of the observance.  Then in 1941, both houses of Congress passed a resolution setting the date for the official Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November (which occasionally has five Thursdays) every year.

Though Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, was a Christian holiday since the Middle Ages (it may have been a Christianized pagan celebration that predates even that, but that origin’s disputed), it was not an important holiday in America until the mid-19th century when large numbers of Irish, who had been observing All Hallow’s Eve  for centuries, and Scottish immigrants arrived.  Other immigrant groups, such as Germans and later Africans, added their national traditions as well, making Halloween in the United States a uniquely American celebration.  Observance was confined to the immigrant community until the late 19th century, however, and wasn’t assimilated into the mainstream society until the 20th century.  By the first decade of the new century, Halloween had become a popular celebration among all strata of U.S. society across the whole country, irrespective of ethnicity or faith.  Civic organizations and schools even got into the act, transforming what had really been an ad hoc festival into an unofficial but universally sanctioned holiday.  By the 1920s and ’30s, Halloween parties for adults as well as children became fashionable and the religious, occult, and superstitious aspects of the holiday fell away, making it about secular fun, community, and enjoyment.  It was at this time, too, that the practice of trick-or-treating was revived—possibly transferred from the waning observance of Ragamuffin Day. 

According to one report, the ragamuffin tradition stemmed from the late 18th century, “when grown homeless men, during the holidays, would dress in women’s clothing and beg for food and money.”  Some believe that its origins are in the immigrant communities in the cities who brought their folk traditions to America with them but no longer had a celebration onto which to graft them.  So they borrowed Thanksgiving for their carnival masquerade.  The mummery became popular among the native-born who spread the practice throughout New York City.

From about 1870, however, children in New York City and some other cities and towns dressed up as “ragamuffins” (shabbily clothed, dirty children, according to the American Heritage Dictionary) in exaggerated rags and cast-offs too big for them (often their parents’ old duds), generally wearing masks or face-paint (charcoal or burnt cork was commonly used as “make-up”), and went from house to house asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?”  On Friday, 1 December 1899, the day after Thanksgiving was celebrated in New York that year, a Times article reported:

The chief feature of the day was the street charivari, not only of the girls and boys, but of young men and women.  Thanksgiving masquerading has never been more universal.  Fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city.  Not a few of the maskers and mummers wore disguises that were recognized as typifying a well-known character or myth.  There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits, Deweys, and Columbines that well supported their roles.  The mummery, as a rule, was limited to boys in women’s skirts or in masks.  In the poorer quarters a smear of burnt cork and a dab of vermillion sufficed for babbling celebrants.  Some of the masqueraders were on bicycles. others on horseback, a few in vehicles.  All had a great time.  The good-humored crowd abroad was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business.

(Note that November of 1899 was one, the last Thursday of which was the fifth one.  A charivari, or shivaree, is a “loud, cacophonous noise or hubbub,” according to Wiktionary.  The “vehicles” some maskers rode were probably horse-drawn carriages or carts, but the horseless carriage, though not yet common on the streets—and quite expensive—was invented more than 20 yeas earlier.  Columbine is a stock character in Renaissance Italian commedia dell’Arte and the English harlequinades or pantomimes, popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, derived from them.  She’s depicted as a lovely young woman, dressed as a serving girl, to whom Harlequin is romantically attracted.  Dewey seems to be the philosopher John Dewey, 1859-1952, though I don’t understand why New York ragamuffins would want to dress like him; somehow I doubt it’s a reference to Melvil Dewey, 1851-1931, the librarian who invented the Dewey Decimal System of cataloguing books; New York State Governor Thomas E. Dewey, 1902-71, wasn’t even born when the article above was written.  If anyone has a more likely idea, I’d love to hear it!  I can’t begin to guess why children would dress like Filipinos—except that the United States had annexed the archipelago the year before as booty from the Spanish-American War and then the hard-fought and bloody Philippine-American War, 1898-1902.  Why any of that history would inspire Ragamuffin Day costumes, I don’t see.)

One Virginia reporter in 1911 described the scene in the streets of New York:

On that one day at least the children literally take possession of the streets, ride all over the street cars, even on the fenders; impersonate Uncle Sam, George Washington and other characters that suit their fancy; dress in all sorts of costumes, that of the ragamuffin having the preference; mask, black their faces, parade, blow horns, ride sorry horses, prance astride of broomsticks and generally enjoy themselves to the limit of their temporary liberty.

It wasn’t uncommon for boys to dress in travesties of their mothers’ attire, as noted by John J. O’Leary (b. 1932) in Playing It Well (Trafford Publishing, 2011): “[W]e would dress up in . . . Mother’s old clothes, make up our faces with . . . Mother’s face powder, lipstick and rouge to go from door to door in the neighborhood.”  Even in her beloved 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith writes that her main character’s brother, Neely Nolan, dressed in

one of mama’s discarded dresses hacked off ankle length in the front to enable him to walk.  The uncut back made a dirty dragging train.  He stuffed wadded newspapers in the front to make an enormous bust.  His broken-out brass-tipped shoes stuck out in front of the dress.  Lest he freeze, he wore a ragged sweater over the ensemble.  With this costume, he wore the death mask and one of papa’s discarded derbies cocked on his head.  Only it was too big and wouldn’t cock and rested on his ears.

The treats that the ragamuffins (also known as Thanksgiving Maskers) collected were generally pennies, fruit, and candy.  In a 1909 sermon, the Rev. James M. Farrar, a minister and the former president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, advised children on the best way to amass the most swag:

On Thanksgiving morning put on old, patched but warm shoes; old, ragged but warm clothes; paint your face or put on masks and then go out into the crisp morning for an hour[’]s fun.  Collect all the pennies the people will give; get dimes and dollars if you can.  Tell the people the money is for the poor.  Then scamper home.

(Reverend Farrar then counseled his young parishioners to bring the money to the church when they came for Thanksgiving services and put it in the offering plate.) 

Later, as the practice became more widespread and popular, the costumes became more diverse, beginning to resemble those worn later in the 20th century at Halloween, such as Indians, devils, Uncle Sams, harlequins, bandits, sailors, and characters from cartoons and popular children’s fiction such as Huck Finn, Tiger Lilly, and Long John Silver; eventually Disney characters and even objects and figures like alarm clocks and Michelangelo joined the throng.  During the Great Depression (approximately 1929-39), as you might imagine, Ragamuffin Day was especially popular—and the phenomenon drew to an end at about the same time that the economic crisis did.  By then, Thanksgiving Day had become formalized and circumspect and the ragamuffin parades had morphed into an organized and regulated Thanksgiving Day parade (the one in New York City sponsored by R. H. Macy & Co. began in 1924, the year the Herald Square store opened) and dressing up for Halloween and going trick-or-treating became the popular (and slightly anarchic) phenomenon we know today.  (In New York there’s also famously a less-regulated parade through Greenwich Village on Halloween night since 1974.)

It would have been during the Depression years, essentially between about 1930 and and the end of the practice in the early 1940s, when my mother and her family would have driven into Manhattan and up through the Village, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen (now known as Clinton) to the Upper West Side, where Mom’s aunts and cousins all lived.  Given the popularity of Ragamuffin Day, it’s hardly surprising that an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old girl would have noticed the clutches of children her own age costumed and engaging in what we now call “trick-or-treating” around their neighborhoods.  (Mom never said that she and her sister, four years younger, or the cousins who were Mom’s playmates had gone out on Thanksgiving dressed as ragamuffins.  She may therefore also have been a little envious.)

The practice was accepted by many, like Reverend Farrar (who actually encouraged it) and others were simply resigned to its continuation; but a few decades later, some New Yorkers began to call for ending the begging and mocking the poor.  In the words of A Tree Grows, “The street was jammed with masked and costumed children making a deafening din with their penny tin horns,” and storekeepers even sometimes locked their doors “to keep the noisy panhandlers out.”  The get-ups could be truly frightening (think Lon Chaney, Sr., in some of this horror roles) and the ragamuffins occasionally turned dangerous and even violent as rival gangs of ragamuffins pulled weapons on each other.  Bonfires were a common accompaniment to the revelry, too, and, one report noted, tragic results sometimes occurred when the billowing costume of a child dancing around the flames could catch fire. 

Eventually, newspapers, clergy, and city and school officials railed against the footloose ragamuffins and the begging and police cracked down on the rowdy maskers.  The raucous revelry clashed with the more solemn import that Thanksgiving had come to embody: the family gathering and celebration of the harvest bounty.  By about 1930, the New York Times reported, “The ragamuffin is vanishing,” but “persists somewhat . . . tenaciously” in “places where the subway lines end”—such as the south end of Hudson Street on the Lower West Side, where my mother appeared to remembered seeing the “gamins . . . in their mothers’ dresses and with their fathers’ suits hanging limply on them.”  The immense popularity of the Macy’s parade, which became a national event with the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, and the rise in the observance of Halloween began to pare away at the practice of Ragamuffin Day.  The dampening effect of Prohibition, 1920-33, may also have had some bearing.  Alcohol consumption was an impetus to much of the revelry among the adults.  A cop, who seemed to bemoan the passing of the tradition, remarked that groups of men

used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costumes and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells.  And they’d get free drinks in the saloons.  But now—without any be[e]r or anything—

The policeman let his sentence trail off, as if lamenting the loss.

By 1940, the Madison Square Boys Club, which since the 1930s had campaigned against Ragamuffin Day, held its own Thanksgiving parade with over 400 children marching and carrying a banner bearing the slogan “American boys do not beg.”  The last mention of a Thanksgiving Day ragamuffin parade in the Times was in 1956.  (That event was in the Bronx.  The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge still holds a Ragamuffin Parade in late September or early October.)

After reading the New York Times’ “F.Y.I.” column in October, I compiled the facts presented here.  Once I had a viable key phase, it was easy to find loads of information.  I’d love to be able to call my mother and tell her I can now ID her memory and explain what she had seen back in the ’30s.  Unfortunately, the column came out three or four years too late.  Isn’t that remarkable—and yet a little sad?  Mom’s past caring now, of course; but I feel cheated out of a chance to give her this perfect little pleasure.  I know exactly how she’d have reacted, too.  I’ll have to be content with that.