Monumental Travesties, Mosaic Theater (1333 H St. NE) Sept. 7 – Oct. 1
Psalmayene 24 is standing next to the Emancipation Monument in Lincoln Park (13 Street and East Capitol Streets). The actor, playwright and director has feelings about the statue, which depicts the former president fully erect and making a gesture that resembles benediction over a Black man.
The features of the latter are modeled on Archer Alexander, an emancipated man formerly enslaved in Missouri. He is depicted bent double and crouched on one knee at Lincoln’s feet. A shackle on one extended wrist is broken. He looks up, and to Lincoln’s left, as if he sees an open door.
Though Black people raised $17,000 to pay for the statue, the design was selected by the all-White Western Sanitary Commission. It has long been criticized, including by famed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, speaking at the statue’s 1876 dedication ceremony.
Psalm first saw the statue sometime in the 1990s, after he arrived in DC from Brooklyn as a student at Howard University in 1991. Every time he sees it, Psalmayene –who goes by a shortened version of his stage name, Psalm –has a visceral reaction. “And it’s not a good response,” he said, glancing up at it.
This play goes a step further. While the playwright says his feelings about the statue are not conflicted, he has found a way to metabolize them, he said, a way that he hopes will inspire productive, positive conversation. He has written a play centered on the controversial monument; a comedy about what happens when Lincoln’s head goes missing.
Directed by Reginald Douglas, Monumental Travesties premieres at Mosaic Theater (1333 H St. NE, in the Atlas Performing Arts Center) September 7 to October 1.
Recipient of an impressive five Helen Hayes Award nominations—and winner of one, Psalm (a.k.a. Gregory Morrison) is the writer and lyricist of The Blackest Battle (Theater Alliance) and the writer, director, and lyricist of the film The Freewheelin’ Insurgents (Arena Stage).
Finding the roles offered to African American Actors unsatisfactory, he started writing his own plays to create opportunities for people of color. Psalm is just beginning his second 3-year residency as the Andrew W. Mellon playwright-in-residence at Mosaic.
“A Comedy About Something That Is Not Funny”
Psalm came to his residency with the idea for a play around the Emancipation monument. The statue evokes strong feelings. It has been the subject of intense, even angry, debate. After activists threatened the statue tear it down in 2020, it was fenced in for 84 days. For each of the past three years, DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has introduced legislation calling for the removal of the statue from the park and re-contextualization in a museum.
But the script predates those events, which were centered on the summer of 2020 in the maelstrom of reaction to the killing of George Floyd and the COVID pandemic. Psalm began writing the play in 2019, workshopping it through Mosaic’s Catalyst incubator, a space where artists are given space to take risks in creative pursuit. After COVID restrictions were lifted, Psalm further worked with a workshop on the first act in August 2022 at Northeast Library (330 Seventh St. NE).
Monumental Travesties is set on Capitol Hill. It begins when Chance, a Black performance artist living on the Hill, surreptitiously removes Lincoln’s head from the Emancipation Memorial; it ends up in the shrubbery in front of the home of his white liberal neighbor, Adam. When Adam knocks on Chance’s door, what the latter sees as a revolutionary act unleashes an absurdist chain of events. That act of protest leads the two men and Chance’s wife, Brenda, down a path that questions how the symbols of our past impact our present. The comedy explores race, memory and the often-privileged act of forgetting.
While Psalm’s feelings are not ambiguous, he said the play is written from multiple points of view, offering more questions than answers. Answers, he said, should originate with the audience. It was a personal challenge, he said, “to write a comedy about something that is not funny.”
The goal is to create conversation he said, leading to creative action –and to do it from a positive place. “The play is successful to me, one, if people laugh; and two, if people can have productive conversations with those whom they disagree,” the artists explained. “Because that seems like something that our current American landscape lacks, the ability to disagree while being kind to each other.”
A Dream Project
Psalm says Mosaic has become a leading force in new play development in the nation. “I couldn’t think of a better theatre company to premier a play like this, that really walks a tightrope in terms of comedy,” he said, “but also making people think about heavy issues.” He said Mosaic has handled it with care, intelligence and craftsmanship.
Mosaic’s Artistic Director Reginald L. Douglas says it is his and Mosaic’s belief that new plays that catalyze conversations and start a dialogue with the city about the community are vital. Monumental Travesties fits that description perfectly. “It’s a dream project for me and for the organization, for sure,” he said.
Douglas has been the Artistic Director of Mosaic Theatre since 2020. He’s also directing Monumental Travesties. He said that the play is a great example of the work they want to do at Mosaic: working with writers who have bold ideas and provocative questions that lead with humor, heart and empathy. “I always say that we come to theater to laugh and to think –to be entertained and delighted,” Douglas said. “And that’s exactly what this play does.”
Douglas said Psalm’s plays are full of musicality, rhythm and word play and feature rich, nuanced characters that actors can dig into with sly, witty humor. “And his DC pride is quite strong,” Douglas said. Psalm, the artistic director continues, is smart but also caring –prioritizing using his work to bring audiences together rather than driving them apart.
That is an important goal of theater, Douglas said. “I think that comedy and laughter is a universal language, and people listen more when they’re smiling,” he said.” I think we can hear each other better when we are all sharing the joke. Douglas said there is something magical when we come together from multiple perspectives to share a story about an issue together.” The goal of good theater at Mosaic, he added, is to see our neighbor in ourselves.
Familiar and Absurd
And you might see a lot that is familiar. The play is set on Hill. The set is based on Capitol Hill rowhouses, with set designers touring some of our neighbor’s homes to get it right. So, you’ll see scenes –and people—familiar, maybe very familiar. ”They remind us of ourselves,” Douglas said of the characters.
There will be surprises; the setting is reality, but it becomes the stage for outrageous events, just as many of us have witnessed in real life. But at the end of the day, the question is simple, Douglas said: who gets to remember what history –and how and why?
Discussions around the statue brings up race –already an absurd conceit, he said, that frees the theatricality to go to even greater lengths to explore “what if”. “There’s nothing more absurdist than race, that someone one day said, ‘oh, this is how we’re going to define our world’,” Douglas said, noting it is also absurd that it is an idea that we still hold onto. “The given premise is already a bit preposterous,” he said, “if you take a step back.”
From a step back and a seat in the theatre, audiences will have a chance to laugh at and debate the absurdity of it all. Douglas said that the lead characters, Chance and Adam, are a bit of a modern-day Hill George Jefferson and Archie Bunker. Chance sees himself and a revolutionary character; his neighbor, Adam, feels ownership and connection to the statue. That tension of friendship, and the one-up-manship between “frenemies,” Douglas said, takes the play to greater heights.
Psalm, the playwright, said he did not write a play about the statue. The monument provides the impetus for the discussion, he acknowledges, but the work is about how people view history and interpret art.
It is also about how audience members see themselves and their connection to the figures on the statue, Psalm said. “Because depending on who you see yourself as in the monument,” said the artist, “that often times dictates what you think should be done with the monument.”
But who will you see yourself as once you leave the theater? “It’s Abraham Lincoln –and Archer Alexander—as we’ve never seen them before,” Douglas promises, “in a way only possible in theater and from the imagination of Psalmayene 24.”
Learn more about Mosaic’s 2023-24 season and get tickets to Monumental Travesties https://mosaictheater.org/season