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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.)

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