By George Kevin Jordan
This past Sunday HBO presented the season premiere of final episodes of “Game of Thrones.” It could arguably be one of the last communal television watching experiences in our lifetime. It’s the last of the water cooler subjects. As more and more people splinter off into their own microcosms of conversation and viewing habits, trying to pull a topic everyone can grapple with together is getting harder and harder.
Why do people go to the theater?
For a dedicated group of audience goers the theater presents that communal experience, and unlike film, offers a unique performance each time the actors step out on stage. Theater offers whoever sits in the plush chairs an opportunity to engage in a larger conversation. And you don’t have to search for people to talk to about the subject, everyone is in the room with you.
Good theater does even more. It subverts your expectations and plays at the mediums strengths, live performance, engaging the imagination in real time. Pushing boundaries or language and reality.
This week the Mosaic Theater Company presented “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of A Native Son,” written by Psalmayene 24 and directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, a fast paced musically and poetically charged play based on the a meeting of three literary giants, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes in a Paris Cafe in 1953. In this interpretation of the encounter, the playwright focused on Wright and Baldwin and their fraught relationship brought to a steaming angry froth thanks to Baldwin’s scathing reviews of Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son.”
The situation and the play that encompasses the situation are both specific to Black life and age old at the same time. Baldwin committed the ultimate “no-no,” which is to publicly chastise another Black person, to downgrade or ridicule their work. But in the more general sense, he did what every young writer did to their heroes, they kicked them right off the pedestal. Everyone wanted to be like Ernest Hemingway, until they didn’t. So many writers lived by Joan Didion’s complex writing, but the next generation critiqued her style.
This tradition of the next generation challenging their predecessors was taken to new heights in the hand of Psalmayene 24 who took the heart of most writers, a glob of narcissism, ego,and insecurity, and wrapped it into genuine emotions and care. You felt for Richard Wright, played by James J. Johnson, as he navigated hurt feeling and betrayal at the hands of a young up and comer he tried to support. And yet you also feel for Baldwin, played by Jeremy Hunter, who’s critiques of Wright’s work had some validity and rang true in many ways.
Psalmayene 24 used the filter of battle raps to fully convey the battle of old and new young and old, rising star, and established act. During the performance there are literal dance-offs, bouts of words and near microphone drops as each artist proports their skills and their rationale for being king.
Both Johnson and Hunter seem to relish their roles filling them with swagger, intelligence and heart. Baldwin, for many, has a much more prominent place in our subconscious with many YOUTUBE archived battles Baldwins has conducted. We have a short hand in our minds of who we think Baldwin may be, so on stage it resonates. Wright’s work seems to stand out in the mind more than him as a flesh and blood character in literary society, so Johnson has reign to create how we see the author.
The point of the play and the experience to me is less of what transpired. Facts are not as relevant as the larger literary truth. What I saw was two Black men, fighting for their right to exist to be, in and of themselves, but also in conjunction with one another. They are brothers whether divided by ideology, age, temperament or financial circumstances. And it is a sight to see them laugh, fight and love their way through greatness.
The play is full of surprises, none of which I will spoil, but needless to say the cast serves the writing, and the writing serves the cast. RJ Pavel and Musa Gurnis round out the cast. Les Duex runs through April 27th at the Mosaic Theater’s Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H Street NE. For more information please go to https://www.mosaictheater.org/
This article originally appeared in The Afro.