Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and Women of a Certain Age

Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
In very dark times, I'm always telling my students, people crave the comfort-food version of mass entertainment: breezy movies, bubbly Broadway shows, silly TV sit-coms, trashy romance novels. But lately, I've been disproving my own axiom. For the first time I can think of, at least in my life, the news has been so relentlessly, sloggingly bad, and the state of the country so brutally disillusioning, that somehow, easy escapism just isn't doing it for me. A very large portion of the country is going through in a period of collective mourning that I somehow feel the need to remain ever alert and connected to. Tuning out completely, while certainly tempting, feels cheap, at least for right now. I'm envious of those who can do it, but I haven't felt completely safe in totally blotting the world out. Somehow, remaining connected to the problems plaguing the country, while at the same time seeking solace in diversions that allow me to sort of tune out halfway, is where it's at for me these days. So I thought I'd weigh in about two shows that recently worked for me, despite--or perhaps because--of their heavy themes and underlying sadness.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is a nonnarrative piece that has been described as a "riotous theatrical event", both "hypnotic" and akin to a "fever dream" in its strange, repetitious construction. An early piece by Suzan-Lori Parks that is in sharp revival right now at Signature, it has been extended through the first half of December, which makes me think a whole lot of New Yorkers also feel the desire to sleep with one eye open lately. A purposely disorienting exploration of black collective memory and the many ways it has been steadily erased, The Death is at once enormously confusing, satisfying, bitterly funny, and mournful--kinda like the world beyond it, right this very minute. Performed by a committed and deftly directed ensemble, the show uses repetition, recorded sound, a host of black characatures and stereotypes, and many recurring, racially loaded symbols to drive home the ways that black culture is simultaneously fetishized, abused, ridiculed, emulated and taken for granted. This is the kind of piece you allow to wash over you as you absorb it, even when you fail to fully understand what's happening from moment to moment. My only disappointment in seeing the show was in myself: The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World challenged me to step up and focus in order to fully comprehend, and I found that I was only just beginning to grasp its depth and its nuances by the very end. This, however, is perhaps justification for a close reading of the play or a repeat visit to Signature before it closes.

Meanwhile, over at the Public, the final play in Richard Nelson's cycle The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family is about to come to the end of its run. Women of a Certain Age takes place on election night, and once again is set entirely around the Gabriel family kitchen table, where shepherd's pie and painted cookies are being prepared for dinner. Talk of the election comes up frequently (I saw the show soon enough after it that the audience still sighed audibly at Hannah's line about how Trump's win is simply not an option for her). But as usual, this talk interspersed chat about with the same domestic issues the Gabriels have been coping with since spring: mom, who recently has had a stroke, needs to leave her rest home for both financial and personal reasons; work is scarce enough that a few family members have taken second jobs; the neighborhood is being overrun by wealthy weekenders from New York City; their beloved homestead is about to go on the market. Women of a Certain Age is at once deeply sad and weirdly reassuring. Near the end of the play, Mary, who hasn't forgiven herself for letting her medical license lapse after she retired years back, is asked bluntly what she's planning to do once the house is sold out from under her. Her response--that she's going to serve dinner, then clean up, then move on to the next task that lies immediately before her--is a reminder that even in the hardest of times, life goes on, at least in some ways, just as it always does.

It was hard to say goodbye to the Gabriels. I feel I've gotten to know them all so well over the course of this very frustrating past year that I'll miss dropping in occasionally to learn about what becomes of them all going forward. But I suppose they, like all of us, will cope as well as they can with the hand they've been dealt. Like the lot of us, the Gabriels will surely have their fair share of ups and downs, joys and disappointments, stretches where they feel the need to sleep with one eye open and, one hopes, stretches where a simple junky novel, dumb tv show, or ridiculously trashy movie becomes easier to sink into without a second thought.

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