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

by Suzan-Lori Parks

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

Themes and Meanings (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The central theme in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World is the erasure of African Americans and their history from the record of the Western world. Parks includes a wide sweep of history—for example, the Old Testament figure of Ham and the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut—but this is primarily an American play. Parks has called it an epic play in the sense that one character—Black Man with Watermelon—stands for many. His deaths represent events associated with the oppression of black people in the United States: jumping from a slave ship on the Middle Passage, lynching, electrocution, and suicide. The greatest “death,” however, is being excluded from history.

Parks refuses to accept this exclusion, and her Black Man, considered by some scholars to be a revision of the trickster figure of African American folklore, keeps coming back. Although confused, he and Black Woman work with the other characters to explore the complexity of African American identity and ultimately, through the repetition and revision that is central to the form of this play, get things written down, and moves are made (small moves, but these are the important ones in Parks’s universe.)

Parks has compared the form of her play to the Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross, with the choruses representing the spaces between the stations, where there is “nothing.” The play deconstructs this structure, confronting and subverting stereotypes through a ritualized reality that finally acknowledges the central place of what Toni Morrison has called the Africanist presence in American history.