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

Suzan-Lori Parks

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Parks was born in 1963 in Kentucky. An “Army brat,” she lived in six states and went to high school in Germany before earning degrees from Mount Holyoke College and the Yale School of Drama. In 1989, when Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom was performed at Brooklyn Arts Council Association (BACA) Downtown in Brooklyn, The New York Times named her the year’s most promising new playwright. In 1990, while BACA was producing The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Parks received the Obie for Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. She has continued to write and to win awards, most notably the 1996 Obie for Venus, a MacArthur Fellowship (2001), and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog (pr., pb. 2001).

Parks has refused to be predictable, but her plays share a variety of influences. She and others have noted connections to James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, but African and African American influences seem central to her plays, especially to The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Parks herself has referred to that play as a musical in which no one sings, and many note the influence of music, especially jazz and the blues, on her form, including her rhythmic use of language and improvisation. Louise Bernard points to the use of African Kuntu drama with its emphasis on continuum, and the play clearly is reminiscent of the American minstrelsy tradition in its use of African American stereotypes. Moreover, its emphasis on the double consciousness of African Americans relates to W. E. B. Du Bois, and Parks’s forging of connections between folklore and literature is reminiscent of the work of Zora Neale Hurston. A closer influence, perhaps, is the work of contemporary African American female playwrights, especially Adrienne Kennedy’s surreal and fragmented settings and characters and Ntozake Shange’s use of African American speech patterns and stereotypes.