In a new D.C. play, Lincoln’s head goes missing. Cue the laugh track.

‘Monumental Travesties’ at Mosaic Theater Company makes the vandalism of a controversial statue a source of comedy

Review by Peter Marks for The Washington Post

From left, Louis E. Davis, Jonathan Feuer and Renee Elizabeth Wilson in the world premiere of Psalmayene 24’s “Monumental Travesties,” by Mosaic Theater Company. (Chris Banks)

What says ally-ship quite like a White man with Black Lives Matter emblazoned on his tighty whities? It’s a question you’ve probably never thought of asking. But playwright Psalmayene 24 nevertheless seeks to answer it — er, cheekily — in “Monumental Travesties,” the entertainingly transgressive comedy getting a world premiere by D.C.’s Mosaic Theater Company.

Psalmayene 24 (nee Gregory Morrison) has written an absurdist three-character satire poking fun at all the pieties about race, especially as espoused by White liberals looking for absolution from their Black friends and associates. The subject is as ripe for ribbing today as was sending up Archie Bunker’s bigotry on “All in the Family” in the 1970s. Some of Psalmayene’s plot contrivances, in fact, reflect the blatantly cringe-making pivots of vintage sitcoms.

But the conventions of bygone TV comedy provide a surprisingly safe space for a subject around which thoughtful people still tread lightly (even if Psalmayene and Reginald L. Douglas, his skillful director at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, might rethink the 90-minute play’s ending, which lands with a confusing thud).

“I grew up in a house that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad!” protests Jonathan Feuer’s Adam, the overbearing White neighbor desperate to establish his worthiness to the Black couple (Louis E. Davis and Renee Elizabeth Wilson) next door. It is in the becoming D.C. home of Davis’s Chance and Wilson’s Brenda — brightly rendered by set designer Andrew R. Cohen — that “Monumental Travesties” takes place. And that’s where the story begins when Chance, a local activist/performance artist, bursts in the front door, bearing the head of Abraham Lincoln.

A real-life controversy inspires the mechanics of “Monumental Travesties”: Chance has severed Lincoln’s head from the Emancipation Statue in D.C.’s Lincoln Park, a monument dedicated in 1876 that in recent years has been decried as a humiliating depiction of White savior mentality. (Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate in Congress, has introduced legislation to have it removed.) The statue features a godlike Lincoln astride a kneeling, formerly enslaved man in a loincloth — his servile gratitude could not be more apparent.

Renee Elizabeth Wilson and Louis E. Davis in Mosaic Theater Company’s “Monumental Travesties,” directed by Reginald L. Douglas. (Chris Banks)

The giant head, by props designer Deb Thomas, sits on Chance and Brenda’s coffee table like an emblem of history’s ossified portrait of slavery from a White perspective; Chance’s vandalism is part of his campaign to “deconstruct symbols of White supremacy.” At one point, he enlists the compliant Adam in reversing the postures of the statue, having Adam prostrate himself before Chance in his living room. “So this is what it feels like, huh,” Chance remarks, “being White in America?”

The sharpest junctures of “Monumental Travesties” involve Chance and Brenda bearing witness to Adam’s outrageously self-serving platitudes. He’s so evolved, he insists, that he considers himself “un-White,” whatever that means, and so attuned to the injustices against people of color that he can recite from memory testaments to the indigenous Anacostan people on whose land his pricey townhouse sits. Chance and Brenda are not, for their part, above using Black victimhood to gain social and economic advantage: Brenda, for instance, concocts for Adam a shameful lie about a relative’s murder to explain the money she got to buy the house. (The truth, Psalmayene 24 implies, would be harder for a White person to believe.)

What’s also implicit in “Monumental Travesties” is the notion that conscientious people both Black and White still have to “act” for each other, that what they say in each other’s presence is a varnished version of what they really think. (Although the dramatist also points out that Brenda and Chance harbor problems and secrets, too, that they’re not willing to confront.) Chance’s absconding with Lincoln’s detached head is, in a sense, a cut to the chase about race: Talk isn’t good enough, he’s declaring, not even about the father of emancipation. Only action matters.

Davis, Wilson and Feuer demonstrate their acumen concerning broad comedy; their roles are archetypes, somewhat short of three dimensions, much the way sitcom characters are defined by a single trait recycled in one episode after another. Costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka gives pleasing pizazz to Brenda’s outfits, particularly the historic garb devised for the play’s final movement, when Brenda introduces another factual detail that complicates Chance’s facile rationale for his crime.

Under Douglas’s guidance, the actors amiably navigate the plot turns, which become ever crazier. The dramatist packs in so many curveballs that some are inevitably going to be wild pitches. (“Monumental Travesties” has to be the first play to use the brain fog resulting from long covid as a pivotal narrative point.) But even with some bumps, Psalmayene has paved a way for comedy to be another dramatic tool for understanding.

Monumental Travesties, by Psalmayene 24. Directed by Reginald L. Douglas. Set, Andrew R. Cohen; lighting, Alberto Segarra; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; sound Nick “the 1da” Hernandez. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 8 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.

A winning new opera grows in Brooklyn Commons

By George Grella for New York Classical Review

On Site Opera presented the world premiere of Lisa DeSpain’s Song of the Nightingale Friday in Brooklyn Commons. Pictured are Bernard Holcomb (The Curator), Hannah Cho (The Nightingale) and Chrystal E. Williams (The Collector). Photo: Fadi Kheir/Brookfield Properties

The grandiosity of opera culture—the stars, the spectacle, the stage machinery—often obscures the form itself, which depends on the fine details of things like harmony, dynamics, and individual performances to succeed. 

The great value in small opera companies like On Site Opera is in their smaller scale, and how chamber sized productions are all about intimate details and nuances. With On Site Opera, those all take on a greater significance because the company’s purpose is not to bring audiences into an opera house, but to bring opera to people, wherever they might be able to stage a performance. 

On Site got their new season started early Friday afternoon in just such a fashion: their latest production, the world premiere of Lisa DeSpain’s Song of the Nightingale, debuted in the outdoor public courtyard at Brooklyn Commons, the first in a series of free performances open to the public (and the elements). The opera was commissioned and produced by On Site Opera and Brookfield Properties Arts & Culture.

The results were impressive all around. DeSpain’s opera is a graceful, elegantly crafted piece for a cast of five singers, a modern fairy tale about the collision between contemporary materialism and nature. It bears no relation to Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignol other than sharing the songbird as a subject and being full of melodies. Outdoor performances are already difficult, so the energy, concentration, and skill of the singers when it was 89º (with dense humidity), and the five-piece ensemble conducted by Geoffrey McDonald was near unbelievable.

The opera, with a libretto by Melisa Tien, opens with The Collector (mezzo Chrystal E. Williams) and The Curator (tenor Bernard Holcomb), discussing her desires. She relies on him for taste, he relies on her for money—the sweetness of the music belies their toxic codependency. The music is highly lyrical throughout, so even when the Williams sang lines like “Everything wants to be gathered,” the sound of it makes her nearly sympathetic.

But this is a fairy tale, after all. The two head out to the woods in search of a “famous performer,” enchanted by the sounds of nature. They run into the Frog (soprano Nicole Haslett, in costume designer Kara Harmon’s smart outfit of green hiking vest and backpack canteen) and the Cow (bass-baritone Eliam Ramos), and eventually find The Nightingale (soprano Hannah Cho). They convince the Nightingale to come to the Collector’s home as a featured performer. As beautifully as she sings—and Cho was ringing and expressive in the character’s two enchanting arias—the city is not for her.

She is rescued by Frog and Cow, the former disguising herself as a mechanical, singing statue, who with the press of a button delivers “I sing for you / I sing for me / I sing this tune / For all eternity.” This ditty is one of the subtle strengths of the opera, it’s pretty but it eventually, and convincingly, grows jejune for the Collector, who realizes the emptiness of her pursuit (the Curator himself leaves the city for the woods, and happiness).

Photo: Fadi Kheir

DeSpain’s new opera hit all the marks with a fine shape and pace, and a chorus at the end that wrapped it all up in satisfying fashion. Performing in the round, all the singers were terrific, projecting through the elements via Beth Lake’s fine sound design, with excellent articulation and an unflagging feeling of fun and joy. This all happens at close quarters, and director Katherine M. Carter had the cast moving fluidly about and around the crushed gravel circle and the central tree (McDonald himself was peeking around the trees to throw cues to the singers).

This was a winning combination of a score that was a pleasure because of its modesty and direct communication, a skillful cast that brought out every last bit of feeling and loveliness in the music, and On Site Opera’s intelligence, flexibility, and commitment to engage the public.

Song of the Nightingale will be repeated 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Brooklyn Commons; September 21-23 at Manhattan West; and September 28-30 at Brookfield Place.

PAY THE WRITER, by Tawni O’Dell, Starring Ron Canada, Marcia Cross, Bryan Batt, More, Opens Off-Broadway August 21

The timely new play began its run with a benefit performance supporting the Writers Guild of America.

By Margaret Hall, Logan Culwell-Block for

Ron Canada, Marcia Cross, and Bryan Batt

Pay the Writer, a timely new play from Tawni O’Dell (Back Roads), officially opens Off-Broadway August 21, after beginning performances August 13. The production plays through September 30 at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center with Karen Carpenter (Love, Loss, and What I Wore) at the helm.

The new play follows the friendship between a white, gay literary agent and his best friend and most successful client, a gifted Black writer. The sold-out first preview performance served as a benefit in support of the Writers Guild of America, which is currently on strike. Additional benefit performances were added August 14 and 20 to meet demand.

The cast features Ron Canada (Network) as writer Cyrus Holt, Marcia Cross (Desperate Housewives) as Lana Holt, Bryan Batt (Mad Men) as literary agent Bruston Fischer, Steven Hauck (The Velocity of Autumn) as Jean Luc, Miles G. Jackson (Chicken & Biscuits) as Young Bruston and Taz, Garrett Turner (Tina – The Tina Turner Musical) as Young Cyrus, Danielle J. Summons (Baby) as Gigi, and Stephen Payne (Straight White Men) as Homeless Man.

The production also features scenic design by David Gallo, costume design by David C. Woolard, lighting design by Chistopher Akerlind, sound design by Bill Toles, and props by Yuki Nakamura.

The limited run is produced by Alexander “Sandy” Marshall, Mitchell Maxwell, Giles Cole, and MarMaxMedia.

Tickets are available at

Barrington Stage bringing back ‘Happiest Man on Earth’ by Mark St. Germain

Stage and screen veteran Kenneth Tigar is the sole actor in “The Happiest Man on Earth,” based on the bestselling 2020 memoir by then-100-year-old Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku.

Season-opening show returning for performances from Sept. 22 to Oct. 8

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Longtime TV and film actor Kenneth Tigar will return to the role of a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor in Barrington Stage Company’s production of the one-character play “The Happiest Man on Earth,” running Sept. 22 to Oct. 8 on BSC’s intimate the St. Germain Stage.

Tigar created the role for the production’s season-opening run from May 24 to June 17. Of the the 27 performances, a dozen were sold out, and reviews were universally positive

“The Happiest Man on Earth” was written by Barrington Stage’s longtime close associate Mark St. Germain, who has had 14 plays produced by the company. It is is based on a bestselling 2020 memoir of the same name, published when its author, Eddie Jaku, was 100 years old. Born in Leipzig in 1920, Eddie was the son of Polish-immigrant parents who were proud German Jews until the rise of the Nazis destroyed their lives.

During the 80-minute play, Tigar alternates between playing Eddie as a centenarian, finally telling his story to a synagogue audience in his adopted homeland of Australia, and multiple characters, from family to friends to fellow prisoners and Nazis. The play was commissioned by BSC from St. Germain through the Sydelle Blatt New Works Commission Fund. The stage named after St. Germain is in a building endowed by philanthropists Sydelle and Lee Blatt.

Performances from Sept. 22 to Oct. 8 will be at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, with Saturday matinees at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and Oct. 7. Tickets, at $60 for adults and $25 for youth, are available online at or by calling 413-236-8888.   

Article by Steve Barnes for the Times Union.


Trio of free Staged Readings directed by Tony F. Sias of Karamu House held at Oberlin College’s  Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater on June 23, 24, and 25  

As communities across the country, and in Northeast Ohio begin the many celebrations  surrounding Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved  African Americans, nationally acclaimed playwright, and novelist Ifa Bayeza is currently writing  a drama, The Rescue of John Price, and will premiere free staged readings with an accomplished cast and crew at the Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater at 67 Main Street on the  campus of Oberlin College, June 23, 24,25, 2023 at 7:00 pm. 

Bayeza has been commissioned by The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Theater Project founded by  Pat Spitzer and her husband automotive business leader Alan Spitzer to complete the play in  2024. Based on historical events, The Rescue of John Price is about a runaway slave who in  1858 traveled from Kentucky to the abolitionist sanctuary and utopian college town of Oberlin,  at the height of the frenzy over the Fugitive Slave Act. When slave catchers threatened to  kidnap John back into slavery, hundreds of Oberlin and Wellington citizens led by a  revolutionary group of rescuers prevented his capture and helped him on his quest for true  freedom.  

“Through this distilled dramatization of the rescue of this one man from the ravages of slavery,  I hope that audiences will ponder today, the pivotal role, the essential role, that African  Americans have played in the making of this nation and the fulfillment of its promise,” said  Bayeza. “That journey, from enslavement to freedom, which has been hard-fought and is  ongoing, has brought benefit to all lovers of democracy.”  

Tony F. Sias, the CEO & President of the Karamu Performing Arts Center in Cleveland is the  director of the anticipated drama and the staged readings. “The Rescue of John Price is not just entertainment,” said Sias. “It’s about educating the community about this historically seminal  moment in time.”

Bayeza is also educating the community by conducting several workshops, discussions,  interviews, and a host of other activities, She also hopes to get feedback about her work thus  far. On Monday, June 19, the official Juneteenth Holiday, there will be a “Conversation with Ifa” at the Burrell House in Sheffield, Ohio Metroparks. This landmark is the last known location  where John Price stayed before being whisked to freedom in Canada.  

The event is hosted by The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Theater Project and the Lorain County  Racial Equity Center and the African American Fund, an affiliate fund of the Community  Foundation of Lorain County. 

Considering our current cultural climate, Bayeza added that we can all learn from The Rescue of  John Price. “The respectful and earnest collaboration of Oberliners, white and black, men and  women, old and young in creating what was almost a utopia, one that we struggle to envision  even today, is central to this story – people of all backgrounds, persuasions, and experiences,  living and working together for the progress of all.” 

Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Theater Project Co-Founder Pat Spitzer conceived the idea of  creating a play about a historic event even 30 years ago and is thrilled Bayeza is bringing that  vision to life. “For progress to be made, we must work together. I think people want to walk the  walk with this history. I would just like to see the day when everybody wants to help  everybody. That’s the ultimate goal.” 

This summer’s staged readings of The Rescue of John Price are made possible by a  generous legacy gift from the Fischer Family (Michael and Susann), in honor of the late Gay  Fischer, who cherished her years at Oberlin College in the 1950s. Ifa’s community events are  thanks to support from the Community Foundation of Lorain County. Free tickets for the  staged readings are available on the website,, or through Eventbrite. For other  community events, go to: 


Ifa Bayeza is an award-winning playwright, director, novelist, and educator. Plays include THE  TILL TRILOGY (The Ballad of Emmett Till, That Summer in Sumner and Benevolence); String  Theory; Welcome to Wandaland; Infants of the Spring; the musicals Charleston Olio, Bunk  Johnson … a blues poem and KID ZERO and the novel, Some Sing, Some Cry, co-authored with  her sister Ntozake Shange. A finalist for the 2020 Herb Alpert Award in Theatre and for the 2020  Francesca Primus Prize, Bayeza is the recipient of two commissions from the National Trust for  Historic Preservation and a 2022 MacDowell fellowship. Bayeza holds an MFA in Theater from  UMass Amherst and is a graduate of Harvard University. The TILL TRILOGY (The Ballad of  Emmett Till, That Summer in Sumner, and Benevolence) made its world premiere, in rotating  repertory, at Mosaic Theatre Company of DC in October 2022.