In Mosaic Theater’s ‘Monumental Travesties,’ playwright Psalmayene 24 critiques D.C.’s controversial Emancipation Memorial
By Celia Wren for The Washington Post
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.
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.
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.
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.
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993, ext. 501. mosaictheater.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 8.
Out of the Vineyard
Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Rd., Mount Rainier. joesmovement.org.
Dates: Through Sept. 24.