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. mosaictheater.org.

Dates: Through Oct. 8.

Prices: $42-$70.

Out of the Vineyard

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

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. brookfieldproperties.com

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 Playbill.com

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 OffBroadway.VenueTix.com.

“The Happiest Man on Earth,” by Mark St. Germain, is an Eloquent Tale of Brutality Turning to Love of Life

Kenneth Tiger in The Happiest Man on Earth

There are some stories so brutal and emotionally draining that you fear hearing them.

The thing about such painful memories is that when expressed as art they can become tales that are so eloquent you are not only thrilled that you experienced it, but you want everyone to share in the experience.

That is how I felt leaving the world premiere performance of “The Happiest Man on Earth” playing at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. I hope the play has a long life after it closes here on June 17.

And, if it does, I hope it stars Kenneth Tigar who gives one of those performances in which actor and character merge to the point where you cannot tell one from another. Rarely have I seen an actor so inhabit a character than Tigar does with Eddie Jaku.

“The Happiest Man on Earth” is adapted from the memoir of the same name telling the story of Jaku’s experience in Nazi concentration camps.

Though those experiences take up the bulk of the play, the take away is how Jaku could let go of his hatred of so many people who thrived on committing horrid inhumane acts, as well as exterminating 6-million Jews.

By the way, the biography was published when Jaku was 100 years old.

Because Tigar, directed by Ron Lagomarsino, tells of Jaku’s beatings in such an articulate manner, the loss of his parents, his many attempts to escape and the soul crushing betrayals and other in unimaginable experiences become real when he speaks.

Certainly you are affected by the horrors he experienced. But even as you are often in despair wondering how human beings can be so cruel to each other, you also are in awe at the tenacity and will-to-live exhibited by Jaku, and others like him.

You are also in awe of the devotion and love of family and friends that Jaku experienced. His courage and generosity of spirit makes his story inspirational on many levels.

However, if there is a disappointment in the work, it is that we learn little of Jaku’s post-war life. He tells us he became the happiest man on earth, and we believe it. Yet, it seems to come like a bolt from the blue when his first son was born.

What is missing is how the man used the rest of his life as a philosopher of peace, love and happiness.

The play by Mark St. Germain is simply brilliant. He is a familiar voice at Barrington Stage having had 14 of his plays staged there. This, to me, is his finest play. He condensed years into a speedy 90-minutes, which likely explains the omission of Jacu’s later day accomplishments.

Again, condensing might explain moments which seem confusing and lacking in detail. One minute he’s naked and ill, the next he has money for bathing. However, what is important is the playwright never loses the essence of Jaku’s torturous life or his indomitable spirit.

St. Germain not only makes vivid the attempted extermination of a culture, he emphasizes the reason such atrocities could happen.

While condemning the specific actions of the Nazis, St. Germain makes it clear that the regime was successful because it bred fear and distrust among friends and neighbors while giving the populace a common enemy to hate.

It should go without saying the Holocaust must never be forgotten. St. Germain and Tigar make it clear the economic and social problems that permitted the Holocaust to happen seem dangerously contemporary.

In the play, a world-wide distrust of other nationalities is shown when Belgians refuse to help the escapee because he is German and possibly a spy.

Jaku realizes he is rejected in Belgium because he is German. But in his native country the Germans deny his origins and define him as a Jew. This taught him that any reason for cultural hatred is artificial.

For the rest of his life Jaku lived by his father’s guide to life. “Family first. Family second, and last. And everyone is family.”

“The Happiest Man on Earth” plays at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA through June 17. For tickets and schedule go to barringtonstageco.org

Read the full article by Bob Goepfert here.

Broadway-Bound The Wiz Finds Its Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow

A Strange Loop‘s Kyle Ramar Freeman will “Be a Lion” in Schele Williams’ new production of the ’70s musical.

By Logan Culwell-Block for Playbill.com

Kyle Freeman, Phillip Johnson Richardson, and Avery Wilson

The upcoming Broadway-bound touring revival of Charlie Smalls’ The Wiz has found its Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow. Kyle Ramar Freeman, soon to be starring in A Strange Loop in London, will be the mean ole Lion opposite Sharper star Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tinman and The Voice‘s Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow. More casting will be announced in the coming weeks.

Schele Williams is directing the new production, set to launch at Baltimore, Maryland’s Hippodrome Theatre September 26. 2023 Tony Award nominee Amber Ruffin will provide additional material to William F. Brown’s original book. The gig is Ruffin’s second theatrical outing, following her work co-writing the Tony-nominated book to Broadway’s current Some Like It Hot with Matthew López. Joseph Joubert will provide music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements, with scenic design by Hannah Beachler, costume design by Sharen Davis, lighting design by Ryan J. O’Gara, and wig design by Mia Neal. Casting is by Tara Rubin Casting.

Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson, Brian Anthony Moreland, Ambassador Theatre Group, and, as recently announced, Kandi Burruss and Todd Tucker are producing.

The Wiz premiered on Broadway in 1975, transforming L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel into an all-Black “super soul musical,” as it was originally billed. A surprise hit of the season, the musical won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score, Featured Actor in a Musical (Ted Ross), Featured Actress in a Musical (Dee Dee Bridgewater), Choreography (George Faison), and Direction of a Musical and Costume Design (both Geoffrey Holder). The score’s “Ease On Down the Road” and “Home” became breakout hits, and original star Stephanie Mills was propelled into stardom. The musical made the jump to the big screen in 1978 with a film adaptation starring Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, and, reprising his Broadway performance as the Cowardly Lion, Ross.

The musical got the live TV treatment via NBC in 2015, a production that was initially announced as being Broadway bound following the television premiere. That revival, which would have been produced by Neil Meron and the late Craig Zadan, never materialized.

For a full itinerary of the upcoming tour, visit WizMusical.com.