Les Deux Noirs ~ Notes on Notes of a Native Son ~ Mosaic Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 19, 2019 

When two famous writers – one heterosexual, one homosexual, both controversial – square off in a Paris café there are bound to be fireworks.  Set in the intellectual cosmos that was Paris in 1953, Les Deux Noirs is playwright Psalmayene 24’s imagined conversation between notable novelist, Richard Wright of Native Son fame, and writer and activist James Baldwin, known for his semi-autographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (or whatever your favorite one is).

(l-r) Musa Gurnis as (Ludivine) and Jeremy Hunter as (James Baldwin) ~ Photo Stan Barough

It opens with their meeting at Les Deux Magots after provocateur and enfant terrible Baldwin had written a scathing review of Native Son, calling Wright a racist.  Wright demands the younger writer recant his critiques in a public forum.  “You’ve insulted my legacy,” Wright rages.  “Sociology is not literature,” Baldwin counters.  It doesn’t go well.  They verbally spar.  Then it gets physical.  Thrust and parry.  Rinse and repeat.

(l) James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) (c) RJ Pavel as Jean-Claude (r) Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

Interwoven with rap and rhyme, Psalmayene 24 gifts us with a spellbinding interpretation of their relationship by creating imagined exchanges laced with political diatribes and withering barbs.  But there are plenty of funny bits too, as when Baldwin flirts with Jean-Claude the waiter star struck by the literary luminaries who frequent the legendary café, and Wright who charms Ludivine, a pretty waitress who falls for him.  For Baldwin, who is broke, it’s a chance at a free meal, though Wright refuses to pick up the tab.  For Wright, it’s a chance to disparage the young upstart and redeem himself.

(l-r) Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) and James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

Wright had his own problems.  He’d come out as a Communist – it was very au courant among intellectuals of the period – and he feared his movements were being monitored.  Nonetheless they both felt that by living in Paris they were safe from persecution.  “Paris is freedom.  America is prison.”  They both agreed on that.

(l-r) James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

James J. Johnson who plays Wright and Jeremy Hunter who plays Baldwin are well-matched and prove exceptionally appealing in these challenging roles.  I am more familiar with Hunter, a chameleon of a performer I recently reviewed in Top Dog/Underdog from Avant Bard, who is superb.  It was mind-boggling to see him morph from a tough guy grifter to a sashaying, pinky-out, ascot-sporting intellectual.  He is extraordinarily versatile.

(l-r) James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

Director Raymond O. Caldwell (Artistic Director of Theatre Alliance) finds the perfect pitch to highlight the men’s differences, ratcheting up their machismo by perching them on chairs and tabletops where they can eloquently rap out their sociological viewpoints while cruising the local talent.

With RJ Pavel as Jean-Claude and Musa Gurnis as Ludivine.  Isaiah M. Wooden, Dramaturg; Amy MacDonald, Costume Design; Brandi Martin, Projections; Tiffany Quinn, Choreographer.

Electrifying, imaginative and compelling.

Originally part of Mosaic’s Season Four Workshop Reading Series, Les Deux Noirs has become a fully developed, world premiere production that is currently being performed in repertory with Native Son through April 27th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  (Parking lot at 1360 H Street, NE.)

Native Son ~ Mosaic Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 31, 2019 

Written in the early 1940’s, Richard Wright’s novel became a play only a year after its literary success.  Native Son, is grim reminder of a nation at a crossroads during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations and the communist scare.  Its theme of a country in conflict shares equal space with the issues of race in America.  It reminds us how generations of poverty and the lack of education and decent employment can lead young men into crime.  It introduces us to the central character, Bigger, a young man with a flimsy conscience, who destroy both himself and those around him when both his love life and employment crumble overnight.

Clayton Pelham and Vaughn Ryan Midder ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

W. E. B. Du Bois defines it as “[A] peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Fine words, but is Bigger really a good-guy-with-a-soul whose sociological condition takes him on a murderous path? That’s not really the whole of it.  Wright would have us accept that anyone with a life fraught with poverty and racism cannot overcome their condition.  We know that is not true and yet this play is based on a two-time murderer and man-without-a-soul.  It is intriguing to consider how Bigger’s condition could affect his choices, even though it’s not necessarily so that one’s lack of opportunity follows their poor choices.  Remember.

Clayton Pelham, Jr. and Madeline Joey Rose ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Much has changed since this was penned nearly 80 years ago during the days of Malcolm X’s brand of Black Nationalism.  Though we’ve had an African American President, dozens of African Americans in Congress and several in the Senate, a culture of racism exists worldwide.  We still jail African Americans in far greater proportion to whites, and underserved neighborhoods still suffer disadvantages both in education and opportunity.  So, is this drama still relevant? It certainly is a grim reminder that some things do not change.

Nevertheless, I found it hard to sympathize with a character who, notwithstanding the obstacles in his life, violently murders two people he professes to care about and threatens to kill another, Buddy, who is his closest friend.  In any case, it affords us the opportunity to see how situations can overtake one’s judgement and to remind us that the treatment of people of color by prosecutors and police remains an ever-constant fear.

Native Son Cast ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s adaption along with Psalmayene 24’s direction plays out in a sort of Greek chorus of characters who remain on stage, sometimes changing roles and swirling around Bigger like limpet mines on a drowning man.  Whether young Mary and Mary’s mother, the well-heeled Mrs. Dalton who proudly donates to the NAACP, and Mary’s communist boyfriend, Jan, sympathize with the plight of the Black man, or not, the conflict still exists as to how to prove it without being patronizing.  P. S. They appear to try.  She hires Bigger as her chauffeur though he has a record as a thief, but the gap is too great to bridge.

Clayton Pelham, Jr., Vaughn Ryan Midder, and Tendo Nsubuguga ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Kelley invents The Black Rat – an onstage character who follows Bigger around like a shadow, sometimes whispering better options to counter his violent temper, other times urging him to be more manly.  It’s unsettling to witness how easily a man can ignore his better self and choose a more destructive path.  As The Rat explains, referring to how blacks can respond differently, “We all got two minds.  How we see them seeing us, and how we see ourselves.”

Well-acted all around by Clayton Pelham, Jr. as Bigger; Vaughan Ryan Midder as Black Rat; Madeline Joey Rose as Mary; Melissa Flaim as Mrs. Dalton; Lolita Marie as Bigger’s mother, Hannah; Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Vera and Bessie; Tendo Nsubuga as Bigger’s young friend, Buddy; Drew Kopas as Jan; and Stephen F. Schmidt as Detective Britten.

With violence and adult themes. 

Sets by Ethan Sinnott, Lighting by William K. D’Eugenio, Costumes by Katie Touart, and Projections by Dylan Uremovich.

Native Son will run in repertory with Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son starring Jeremy Keith Hunter as James Baldwin and James J. Johnson as Richard Wright.  It opens April 7th and runs through April 27th.

Through April 28th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

Oh, God ~ A Divine Comedy ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC

Jordan Wright
December 20, 2018 

Kimberly Schraf (left) and Mitchell Hebert (right) – Photo credit Stan Barouh

When God arrives to your office dressed as Orson Welles, you had better take him seriously.  In Anat Gov’s comedic tale God takes on the persona of a distressed patient seeking advice from Ella, a Jewish psychologist with an autistic son, Lior.  Ella has only 60 minutes to set God straight before he destroys the world and she’s already fed up with his overactive ego.  As part of the company’s 18th annual Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, this is the first comedy Artistic Director Ari Roth has produced and it’s sharp, witty and searingly funny.

Ella finds God at his wit’s end with humankind, wishing he’d stopped creating the heaven and earth on the fifth day before Adam and Eve’s apple mishap which started all the earthly miseries.  I was grateful that some of my rudimentary religious training stuck since the questions Ella poses to God are plucked straight from the chapters of the bible.

Mitchell Hebert (left) and Kimberly Schraf (right) – Photo credit Stan Barouh

Ella, suspicious that God would come to her with his problems, tries to put him off, “I’m non-secular.  I eat shrimp wrapped in bacon.”  When he persists in his claim to be the all-powerful, she reminds him, “You didn’t have a mother, so who can we blame for everything you’ve done?”

Their back-and-forth banter is clever and incisive.  What would God really say?  How would he explain why he did such terrible things? Why did he turn his back on Job?  She suggests he has been looking for love even though he gets it more than anyone else. And when she brings up the first commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, she claims that it came from his fear of abandonment.

(l to r) Sean McCoy, Kimberly Schraf, and Mitchel Hebert ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Ella is a tough inquisitor posing questions that have gone unexplained for millennia.  We are just as curious as she is to hear his answers, but he bobs and weaves around the truth causing Ella to diagnose him as abusive and infantile.  By the time they come to some sort of détente – when God accepts his diagnosis and Ella returns to her faith – we have melted into pools of laughter.

(l to r) Sean MCoy and Kimberly Schraf – Photo credit Stan Barouh

Recommended for those that are searching for God sunny side up.  A seasoned cast captures the funny bone from the get-go.

With Kimberly Schraf as Ella, Mitchell Hébert as God and Cameron Sean McCoy as Lior.

Translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Margalit Rodgers and directed by Michael Bloom with set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson and lighting design by Brittany Shemuga.

Through January 13th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

The Agitators ~ Mosaic Theater Company

Jordan Wright
October 30, 2018 

People may forget who America’s early activists were, but in their day, women’s rights suffragist and Quaker, Susan B. Anthony, and African American abolitionist, Frederik Douglass, changed the course of history in this nation.  What do we know of their personal lives, their 45-year friendship, or their struggles to assure the freedom to vote for all Americans regardless of race or gender?  Through the lens of Mat Smart’s historically topical play I learned of the constant threats to their lives, the beatings, the shootings and the riots that ensued when they spoke about social justice and equality.  They were The Agitators and speaking out about injustice was their inspiration.  To this day, we hear the echoes of their struggle for justice.

Marni Penning as Susan B Anthony and Ro Boddie as Frederik Douglass – Photo credit Mosaics Stock.

Smart follows their friendship as they crisscross the country, often speaking at lecture halls on the same program.  Anthony, who fought fiercely for women’s rights to vote, and Douglass, who emerged from a life of slavery as one of the nation’s foremost abolitionists securing the right to vote for African-Americans.  Today, with the closure of numerous polling places in predominantly African-American districts and the discounting of their votes in Georgia and other states, it is clear that the fight for equality at the voting booth is far from over.

The play opens in 1849 at the Anthony family farm in Rochester, NY where the Anthony family welcomes Douglass into their sphere of influence.  The farm was a haven for abolitionists to share ideas and strategies for the movement and it’s where Douglass and Anthony solidified their friendship and their goals and where their collegial competition begins.  Over the decades they shared ideas and strategies, but the play’s drama is in the who will get to the finish line first.  Will it be Douglass in his struggle to end slavery and get Blacks the vote? Or Anthony, working with other suffragists to secure the vote for women?  Despite their victories, we are still fighting these same issues.

Marni Penning as Anthony and Ro Boddie as Douglass ~ Adanna Paul and Josh Adams ~ Photo credit Mosaic Stock

Director KenYatta Rogers takes us on their fraught journey with moments of raw tension juxtaposed with the power of faith guided by the ghosts of past injustices.  But it is the outstanding performances by Marni Penning as Anthony and Ro Boddie as Douglass as both allies and agitators that carry us borne aloft through a half-century of friendship based on mutual admiration and respect.

Costume Designer, Amy MacDonald, dresses Anthony in her signature red shawl (See the original at the National Museum of American History) with her iconic alligator handbag, and Douglass in his top hat is seen not far from his precious violin which gave him solace.  These important historical elements employed in both props and costumes are crucial emblems lending gravitas to every scene.

Timely and highly recommended.

With ensemble members Adanna Paul and Josh Adams.

Lighting by Alberto Segarra, Sound Design by David Lamont Wilson, Projections Design by James Morrison and Property Design by Emily Boisseau.

Through November 25th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

Marie and Rosetta ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC ~ At The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
August 28, 2018

Celebrating the start of their fourth season under the artistic direction of Ari Roth, Mosaic Theatre gifts us with a standout DC premiere of Marie and Rosetta, the story of a unique collaboration between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her younger protégée, Marie Knight. 

Ayana Reed (Marie) and Roz White (Rosetta) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

The drama and hilarity focus on a period when Rosetta’s meteoric Gospel career had gone off track.  After years of pioneering a Gospel sound with a strong back beat, she fell from the church’s good graces, and that of her fans, for straying outside the strict lines of Black Gospel music.  Her hope is that Marie, a younger, prettier singer, can revive her earlier successes and challenge her rival, Mahalia Jackson, another Gospel singer of enormous fame. 

Director Sandra L. Holloway brings out the extraordinary relationship between the two women which later developed into an abiding love.  And Set Designer, Andrew R. Cohen places the scene in Mississippi amidst satin-lined coffins in the reception area of a funeral home – an incongruous place where many African Americans were forced to sleep and eat in the racially-divided Jim Crow South where Rosetta was often compelled to perform in front of a plantation backdrop in black face.  Yes, shockingly, Blacks were often made to wear blackface too.

Marie is a prudish, preacher-raised girl who won’t abide by no hip-shakin’ or blasphemy.   Raised to sing with a church quartet she is reluctant to be a featured performer with the likes of a woman who performs in warehouses and barns and sings with her whole body and soul rattling the rafters. “When they clamped down on my hips, they’d be stopping my metronome,” Rosetta admits.  It takes all of Rosetta’s sly manipulations to loosen up Marie’s parochial notions, but when she does the duo tear the house down.  “God don’t want the devil to have all the music!” she exults.

From left: Ayana Reed (Marie), Ronnette F. Harrison (Piano), Roz White (Rosetta), and Barbara Roy Gaskins (Guitar) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Roz White, a hugely successful and mesmerizing actor with a formidable, soul-shaking voice, plays Rosetta.  White has been featured in numerous MetroStage productions Cool Papa’s Party, Ella Fitzgerald – First Lady of Song, Blackberry Daze, Gee’s Bend (Helen Hayes Award), Josephine Tonight and more.  And if you’ve been following these reviews we have raved about her fierce talent for years.  We discovered the joys of Ayana Reed (Marie) in the aforementioned Blackberry Daze and Master Class, both at MetroStage, as well as in The Gospel at Colonus at WSC Avant Bard.

Legendary singer and guitarist, Barbara Roy Gaskins, fills in for Rosetta’s guitar playing as it moves from Gospel into Rock and Roll – a genre Tharpe is credited with creating and which was later copied by Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.  The multi award-winning Blues and Gospel artist, Ronnette F. Harrison, plays the piano – and shows it a thing or two about a hip-shakin’ back beat.

Roz White (Rosetta) and Ayana Reed (Marie) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Filled with the sounds of Blues, Gospel, Boogie-woogie and Swing, with a little funky chicken thrown in for good measure (Rosetta worked with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club), playwright George Brant’s feel-good, musical journey is a panacea for the soul as well as the spirit with unforgettable performances by both White and Reed. 

Highly recommended.

Musical Direction by e’Marcus Harper-Short, Lighting Design by Jonathan Alexander, and Costume Design by Michael A. Murray.

Through September 30th at The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and information call 202 399-7993 ext. 2 or visit www.MosaicTheater.org.