Theater artists and audiences will return to the brilliant dark eventually, but it’ll be a different world by then. Acclaimed playwright and director Psalmayene 24 is already busy imagining that post-pandemic future, as it relates to both his art and his life as an artist. “Now that the present has been so dramatically transformed, I’m looking at the future in a much different way,” says the Helen Hayes Award-nominated talent, whose spring production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Studio Theatre was suspended due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I think we were only open for like a week and a half, and then we had to shut down,” he says. “And then I had another play that was running, Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. That was in the middle of its run. Had to close that. And then I was getting ready to open another show at Theater Alliance — a new musical that I’m writing called The Blackest Battle that was going to open in May.”
The Blackest Battle — a musical that, according to the playwright, “explores so-called black-on-black violence through two warring hip-hop groups” — was postponed. But, as artists are wont to do, Psalmayene 24 saw an opportunity in the setback. He decided that Battle, set in the future, should reflect the life-changing effects of our strange here and now. “So it’s more about looking ahead and trying to create a world that is somehow connected to this new reality, which is so starkly different than anything we could have ever imagined. In some ways, real life has written a rich and compelling backstory to the play that I’m going to write.”
By real life, Psalmayene means not just the pandemic, but the almost equally transformative Black Lives Matter protest movement that’s sparked what he calls “a new awakening.”
“A lot of people are all of a sudden realizing that Black people’s lives have been in jeopardy in a very severe way in this country for a long time,” he says. “And for many of us, this is nothing new. So I’m really thinking about how my work now responds to the response of this moment, because my work has always been infused with a level of consciousness about the struggles and the obstacles that Black people have had to overcome and endure in this country.”
Psalmayene brings these issues and more to the fore as host of Psalm’s Salons at Studio, a virtual venue that allows Studio Theatre’s Artist-in-Residence to connect with the audience, and with guests like actor Justin Weaks, Galvanize DC founders J.J. Johnson and Jefferson A. Russell, and Jjana Valentiner, executive producer of the Making Space to Breathe/Gathering to Grieve vigil. Joined by frequent collaborator DJ Nick tha 1da spinning original music, Psalmayene 24 bills the Salon as a space for artists to discuss their craft, for the community to share their experiences, and for audiences to kick back and enjoy the party. “The whole idea was to create this jubilant vibe,” he says, “and create an energy of celebration even in the midst of all this chaos.”
Psalm’s Salon at Studio streams on Thursday, July 23 at 5 p.m., and on Thursday, August 20 at 5 p.m. Visit www.studiotheatre.org/psalm-salons.
Article by Andre Hereford for Metro Weekly.