A woman ascends a staircase next to the audience, a noose hung loosely around her neck. At the same time, a man descends the same staircase, approaching her with a watermelon in his arms.
The woman stops face-to-face with the man and lifts the noose from her neck. Delicately, as if it were a laurel wreath, she places the noose over his head.
Leaning forward on her tiptoes, the woman kisses the man on the forehead and continues up the stairs. While her time comes to a close, the man takes center stage.
The woman, Sarah, played by Lauren Marissa Smith, and the man, Black Man with Watermelon, played by Freddie Fulton, are characters in two one-act plays that came face-to-face as one play transitioned to the next without intermission.
In synchronicity with Black History Month, “Funnyhouse of a Negro” by Adrienne Kennedy and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead” by Suzan-Lori Parks were performed as two one-act plays at the Lenfest Center for the Arts Feb. 13-16. The show was a class of 2019 directing thesis production, directed by MFA student and Emmy-nominated choreographer, Jeffrey Page, and set-designed by Ramaj Jamar.
Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro” narrates the final hours of Sarah, a young black woman suffocated both spatially in her confined apartment and mentally by her conflicted thoughts on identity.
Parks’ “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead” follows the character Black Man with Watermelon, who is interrupted in his limbo state between life and death by characters representing both stereotypes and archetypes of African Americans.
When spliced together as a single performance, these two plays—saturated by symbolism, dominated by linguistic permutations, and filled with tongue-twistingly head-spinning turns of phrase—are as challenging, and yet fulfilling, as trying to understand a Kandinsky.
A jewel of insight was placed into the show’s program by Anne Bogart, the head of the graduate directing program at Columbia, on how one might interpret the esoteric direction of Page.
“Directors provide the keys for the journey of actors and audiences,” Bogart wrote. “They coordinate the medium through which a playwright might to us through time.”
The concept of time for Page was at the heart of his production—language in time, narratives through time. Carved into the back wall of the stage were the dead that history has been so quick to forget, recalling Emmett Till (1941-1955), Eric Garner (1970-2014), Trayvon Martin (1995-2012), and Korryn Gaines (1992-2016) among many others. Even the characters on the stage were walking allusions to historical figures, such as Ann Petry and Richard Wright.
While memories and the past pervaded the stage, the most powerful scene occurred at the midpoint of the production, the moment of the splice.
As Sarah from “Funnyhouse of a Negro” placed the noose around the neck of the Black Man with Watermelon in Parks’ play, a baton of responsibility was passed—the baton that demands its carrier to ensure history is not written by those on the thrones of the world.
“You should write it down, because if you don’t write it down, then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist,” said Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread, played by David Glover.
The handing over of the noose was more than a stage direction within the Lenfest playhouse. It was a moment that encapsulated not only the reverence of Black History Month but also the significance of black playwrights.
To end the performance, stage lights dimmed and “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar began to play. With the actors cutting shapes to the lyrics “we gon’ be alright,” Page’s production finished on a casually confident ray of hope.