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 playwright, Psalmayene 24, takes down a problematic memorial, with comedy

In Mosaic Theater’s ‘Monumental Travesties,’ playwright Psalmayene 24 critiques D.C.’s controversial Emancipation Memorial

By Celia Wren for The Washington Post

From left: Louis E. Davis, Jonathan Feuer and Renee Elizabeth Wilson in Mosaic Theater’s production of “Monumental Travesties.” (Chris Banks)

The new play “Monumental Travesties” is a comedy, but the perception that sparked it was no laughing matter.

“The seeds of it started with my disdain for the monument,” says playwright Psalmayene 24, speaking just yards from the controversial Emancipation Memorial in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park. In his opinion and that of others, the sculpture, dedicated in 1876, demeans the Black man it portrays as kneeling at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, who is holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the monument was commissioned and paid for by African Americans, including people who had been enslaved, an all-White committee oversaw the design. Some detractors — including protesters during the social justice activism of 2020 — have called for the monument’s removal.

Perspective: Yes, D.C.’s Emancipation Memorial advances white supremacy

Psalmayene 24, who goes by Psalm, says he wanted to “alchemize” his contempt for the memorial into something positive. The result is the first comedy the local writer, director and actor has written. A tale of a protester’s irreverent caper, which offs the Lincoln statue’s head, “Monumental Travesties” runs through Oct. 1, mounted by Mosaic Theater Company, where Psalm is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation playwright-in-residence. The show is performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, about a mile from the memorial.

“Monumental Travesties” playwright Psalmayene 24. (Darrow Montgomery)

Mosaic Artistic Director Reginald L. Douglas, who is staging the play, says he wanted to open the company’s season with a work that was joyful, if substantive. “Psalm uses laughter to allow audiences to lean in, which is one of the best gifts of theater,” he says. “We’re all sharing a joke about something quite serious: Conversations around race. Around local and national history. Who gets the opportunity to see themselves represented in monuments, and who does not? And how do we, as neighbors of different races and political affiliations, come together in a dialogue about where we go next?”

Debuting one play that touches on race and history is a notable milestone; Psalmayene 24 is premiering two this month. Running at Joe’s Movement Emporium through Sept. 24 is his interview-based play “Out of the Vineyard,” about legal actions filed against enslavers by enslaved people. Tony Thomas directs and choreographs.

Psalm, age 50 — “the same age as hip-hop,” he jokes — discussed both new works while sitting on a bench near the memorial one mild morning.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

From left: “Monumental Travesties” cast members Jonathan Feuer, Renee Elizabeth Wilson and Louis E. Davis; playwright Psalmayene 24; and director Reginald L. Douglas at the Emancipation Memorial in D.C. (Chris Banks)

Q: When did you first become aware of the Emancipation Memorial?

A: When I came to Howard University. I don’t remember the exact moment I saw it, but it troubled me ever since.

Q: What about it do you disdain?

A: This is a piece of art, and all art is subjective. But to me, it’s pretty unambiguous in terms of the demeaning representation of the Black man. You can see him kneeling in front of Lincoln, and he’s practically nude — he’s only wearing a loincloth — and Lincoln is in this paternalistic superior pose above him. This monument is supposed to be in honor of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, but I think the artist got it wrong. The Black man kneeling is supposed to be free, but he doesn’t look free. This is a prime example of the type of representation that my work aims to dismantle. My work is all about elevating and uplifting representations of Black people.

Q: Tell me about deciding to write a comedy.

A: I feel it has to be a comedy, because the subject matter is so heavy and can be so polarizing. With the pandemic hopefully in our rearview mirror, I think audiences really want to laugh and want joy. Comedy is a form that I hadn’t written, so this was a formal challenge to myself. I’m making fun of people on both sides of the “woke” aisle. I’m on a certain side of that aisle, too, but I think we’re all ridiculous and absurd.

Q: You have a strong reaction to the statue. Was it difficult to present the other side of the issue?

A: No, because within the boundaries of a comedy, everyone is fair game. No matter what you think should be done with the statue — if you think it should be melted down and poured into the Potomac, if you think it needs to stay up or go to a museum — there is humor that can be mined from that.

Q: Did you do research for “Monumental Travesties”?

A: I did. But a lot of my research actually consisted of coming to this park and observing people. Like right now, there’s a woman walking by. She happens to be looking at the monument. A lot of people don’t even look up at it.

Q: “Out of the Vineyard” is another play that touches on American history.

A: That play is in conversation with “Monumental Travesties.” Brooke Kidd [executive director at Joe’s Movement Emporium] approached me about adapting a book called “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery From the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War” [by William G. Thomas III]. I did not want to do a period piece. So I interviewed people who in some way are connected to the history of freedom suits: lawsuits, basically, that enslaved people waged pre-Emancipation Proclamation. Many were waged by families in Prince George’s County. Knowing about this history really emphasizes the fact that enslaved peoples were always fighting for their freedom. Which brings me back to the representation [in the Emancipation Memorial]. The statue, for me, represents a fallacy. “Out of the Vineyard” aims to correct that fallacy and bring light to a hidden chapter in America’s history.


Q: The fallacy being that freedom came from the White savior bestowing it.

A: Exactly. Freedom, as I understand it, is not something that comes from another human being giving it. It is a right that you are born with.

Monumental Travesties

Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993, ext. 501.

Dates: Through Oct. 8.

Prices: $42-$70.

Out of the Vineyard

Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Rd., Mount Rainier.

Dates: Through Sept. 24.

Prices: $25-$40.

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.

How Director Dawn Monique Williams 11’G is Removing Barriers of Access to Theater

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Dawn Monique Williams

Dawn Monique Williams 11’G is a freelance director, choreographer, educator, leader, creator, and self-described lover of language, musical theater, and Shakespeare. She also recently became a two-time UMass Amherst alumna, where she serves on the College of Humanities & Fine Arts Dean’s Advisory Council.  

She earned her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) through the Department of Theater’s Directing Program in 2011, and she recently completed an online certificate in Film Studies through the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration program.  

But long before either of those programs, there was a little girl who loved theater.   

The Performance That Blew Her Away 

Williams was raised in California—first in Oakland, then Berkley—by parents she describes as both working class. Though they weren’t really a “theater family,” she remembers dancing and singing from around the time she was six years old.  

“I knew from an early age that I wanted to do theater. I feel very fortunate in that,” she says.  

Growing up, her mother worked at a radio station that would often give away promotional tickets to upcoming plays, performances, and concerts. If the prize winners didn’t retrieve their prize, the items were then given to staff, including Williams’s mother. 

That’s how she got her first taste for live theater.  

Particularly memorable was a touring performance of “The Wiz,” the hugely successful 1974 Broadway musical that reimagined the classic 1900 children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” At the time, “The Wiz” was touring with R&B singer-songwriter Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, a role for which she would go on to win seven Tony Awards. 

The show blew Williams away. 

“I really just remember thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ I didn’t even know what ‘that’ was,” she says. “But there was singing and dancing, and there were people dressed in costumes playing the yellow brick road. And all the people were Black. That was the wildest thing.” 

Her love of theater blossomed through elementary school, where she acted in plays, and in junior high, when she enrolled in her first acting class. By high school, Williams was a dedicated drama kid, as well as an active member of the Berkley High cheer team, which offered her ample opportunities to dance and perform.  

“I did all the plays and musicals. I hung out with other drama kids,” she recalls. “I just knew all throughout high school that that’s what I wanted to do.”  

From West Coast Actor to East Coast Director 

Following graduation from Cal State, Williams began to build a robust theater career. She also became a mother to her daughter, Jordan, and earned her master’s degree in dramatic literature from San Francisco State University. Next, she hoped to become a director.  

To do so, Williams briefly considered pursuing a PhD, until she realized there were MFA programs for directing—like the one at UMass Amherst.  

By this time, Williams was already familiar with the university. She had worked with alumnus Ulises Alcala ’94G at Cal State, and knew of Priscilla Page, assistant professor of dramaturgy in the UMass Amherst Department of Theater. 

“Because I had a small child at the time, it put parameters on what I could do,” she explains. “What felt important to me, as someone who was already in their thirties with a small child, was that I wasn’t uprooting my life for any old thing. It was important for me that the faculty wherever I went would include people of color or women directing. At the time, there were only seven schools on my list, and UMass was one of them.” 

So, she began to discuss the UMass Amherst MFA Directing Program with Graduate Program Director and Professor Gilbert “Gil” McCauley. 

Once professional theater director Gina Kaufmann joined the university’s faculty, the program seemed to suit all of Williams’s needs.  

“I had the great benefit of having [Gil] as my mentor. I can’t say enough about what it means to have had my thesis advisor to be another Black theater director. Gina made it so that the feminine was also present,” Williams says. “I had applied to Yale, Brown—top conservatories—and I got into a couple of places. But I really chose UMass because of Gil and Gina; because it was a fully funded program; and because it was in an area where my daughter could still live a regular life.” 

Williams and her daughter packed up and moved from the sunny Bay Area to rural Amherst, Mass., to embark on the next phase of life.  

Williams had a chance to flex her directing skills almost immediately.  

“In some of the bigger programs, you may be directing but you’re directing studio projects and you may not get resources,” Williams explains. “At UMass, most of the shows I was directing were fully resourced. I think it’s because UMass serves an undergrad population, so the undergrads and grad students have a symbiotic relationship. With UMass, I had so many opportunities.” 

She grew as a director, graduated with a portfolio of work that made her proud, and even created meaningful connections with faculty who are still very much a part of her life.  

“Gil, Gina, and [Professor] Harley [Erdman] continue to be references for me, well into my career now, while Dr. Priscilla Page is like family,” Williams says. “It was everything.” 

Removing Barriers of Access in Theater 

As Williams transitioned from the acting to directing space, she returned to an early love: Shakespeare. 

Though she admits she wasn’t always a fan of the famed playwright, she became “avaricious about Shakespeare” in college after being cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

She says she loves how “muscular” his texts are, how dense the language can be, the poetic diction, the messiness, and how each play feels open to interpretation. Williams reimagines these well-known plays—which she notes have been historically white, cis, and male—to create contemporary versions that invite audiences in and ultimately make them feel more inclusive and accessible.  

To achieve this, Williams makes use of pop music (80s hits are a favorite), costumes, and set designs that feel familiar—effectively “relying on our own iconography,” she explains. “It removes barriers of access. It helps us see ourselves more readily in the work.” 

Though she acknowledges some Shakespeare purists might not appreciate her perspective, Williams argues Shakespeare would.  

“Shakespeare didn’t care about historicity. He was appealing to his contemporary audience through topical references, inside jokes, low-brow humor,” she says. “I think he would approve of us taking these plays and creating them in ways that resonate with new audiences. So, I ask myself: What can I offer to a fifteen-year-old Black girl in English class who is not getting Henry III as it’s written?”  

The Road Back to UMass 

By 2020, Williams had done a little of everything in the theater world. She had directed a wide range of plays, such as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, and Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Stark; had representative credits in the English language premiere of Gracia Morales’ NN12, Othello, Twelfth Night, In the Blood, Steel Magnolias, Children of Eden, The 25th Annual Spelling Bee, Little Shop of Horrors, Burial at Thebes, Medea, and La Ronde; and earned honors such as the Theater Communications Group Leadership U Participant, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Killian Directing Fellow, and Drama League Directing Fellow. 

Then the pandemic hit. The theater world shut down. Williams was furloughed, and she could no longer make plays.  

“I had that existential crisis,” she says. “There was a period of time where I just thought it was over.” 

In time, Williams found new ways to present her work, directing productions virtually, and even filming one of her plays, which introduced her into the film world. 

“I had never considered myself a filmmaker. But, as the director of a play that was being filmed, I had to work with a cinematographer and think about things differently. I had to consider ‘the shot’ and think of the cameras, the virtual backgrounds,” Williams explains. “I thought, ‘I need to know this vocabulary so I can have these conversations with greater fluency and ease.’” 

That thought lingered in the back of Williams’s mind when, in fall 2021, she was invited back to UMass Amherst to direct the theater department’s production of Dance Nation by Clare Barron. She flew out to Amherst to direct—and teach—her first live audience since before the pandemic.  

“I was back in the UMass community, and I was feeling good. It was a homecoming in so many ways,” she says. 

When Williams learned of the university’s online Film Studies certificate program from one of her students, everything seemed to click into place.  

“The classes were asynchronous so I could do that on my own time. I said, ‘Let me take this one class during the winter term,’” she explains.  

One class became two, and soon, Williams was learning from accomplished filmmakers from across the world—all while juggling her own national theater gigs and teaching in California as an adjunct professor.  

“I’m having a really good time,” she says. “Because of this film certificate, I have learned that vocabulary like I wanted to do, and I’ve made a couple of short, experimental pieces. . . . I’ve grown a lot in having to do my own personal research.” 

Now, Williams says, she’s interested in continuing her education in film.  

“UMass, once again, just opened the door for me,” she says. “To start with one UMass class and then have that experience and build on it has been really incredible.”  

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