By George Kevin Jordan
The Mosaic Theater, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, is tackling complex subjects and complicated work with the arrival of “Native Son” written by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, and adapted for the stage from Richard Wright’s classic source material, the novel “Native Son.”
The website describes the play like so: “Richard Wright’s iconic novel about oppression, freedom, and justice comes to life on stage in this ground-breaking adaptation. Suffocating in rat-infested poverty on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s, 20-year-old Bigger Thomas struggles to find a place for himself in a world whose prejudice has shut him out. After taking a job in a wealthy white man’s house, Bigger unwittingly unleashes a series of events that violently and irrevocably seal his fate. Adapted with theatrical ingenuity by Chicago’s own Nambi E. Kelley, this Native Son captures the power of Richard Wright’s novel for a whole new generation.”
For renowned playwright, director and actor Psalmayene 24, who will direct “Native Son,” the production had some interesting creative twists and turns. Originally he was tapped by the Mosaic’s founding artistic director Ari Roth to direct a workshop reading of “Native Son” about a year and a half ago. But because of timing of the original play and concerns the source material, particularly the way some characters are portrayed, Psalmayene 24 was asked to write a response play inspired by the criticism author/playwright James Baldwin had for Wright’s “Native Son.”
Since the original play was not quite ready yet, Psalmayene 24’s piece was also bumped up to full production. Hence “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son” emerged as the companion play.
The Mosaic Theater describes Les Deux this way: “Set in the legendary Parisian café Les Deux Magots in 1953, Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of A Native Son reimagines the meeting between Native Son author Richard Wright and essayist/activist James Baldwin. It explores the tension between Baldwin’s searing critiques of Native Son and Wright’s unbridled indignation in response—a confrontation between two mighty African-American artists, with echoes of a present-day rap battle.”
Psalmayene 24 said he understand why some people may have been troubled with Wright’s work.
“Part of the reason why I think people have challenges with the source material is because Richard Wright wrote a piece that people would be forced to grapple with until societal circumstances had changed,” he said. “I feel his uncompromising willingness to tell the truth about the African-American experience is something a lot of people can’t face even today.”
“Unfortunately as time moves on “Native Son seems more relevant today than it did when it came out in 1940.”
For Psalmayene 24, his journey to become one of the District’s premiere writers and directors, has been informative and transformational. His resume shows someone embedded in the DMV theater scene. His directing credits include ”Word Becomes Flesh,” (Helen Hayes Award winner for Outstanding Direction,Play), “TheShipment,” “ NotEnufLifetimes,” and “Read: White and Blue.” He is the recipient of an Individual Artist Award in Playwriting from the Maryland State Arts Council and has received grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities and the Boomerang Fund for Artists Inc. He is currently the Master Teaching Artist at Arena Stage and is the Artist-in-Residence at Bowie State University.
But the Brooklyn native he came to D.C., like many before him, by way attending an HBCU – namely Howard University. He admits to having one vision that developed into the career we see now.
His original plan was to be a revolutionary in the vein of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton but says, “I fell in love with the arts and I feel like as an artist I still have that desire for revolution particularly when it comes to uplifting the black community and particularly when it comes to uniting people across color lines as well.”
He pivoted from film production, to dance and finally leaving as an acting major. The rational is a revolutionary and traditional as they come.
“To be honest I’ve always loved to act but then one day I was walking in front of the Fine Arts Building and I saw the most beautiful women coming in an out of the building and I said that’s where I need to be,” he said with a laugh.
The ladies may have brought him into that fine arts building, but he didn’t squander the artistic opportunities. He founded a dance company with friends, experimenting with hip-hop, club and street dance mixed with African dance. His group started performing around the area. And then he began to take theater more seriously, more acting and writing jobs began to materialize. “So it’s been sort of this organic journey that i’ve been taken through arts and entertainment,” Psalmayene 24 said.
And what is his secret with listening to his gut instincts and moving so seamlessly through the arts?
“Keeping your eyes and ears open and being conscious about where you are in your life and being responsive to opportunities that come your way,” he said. “Also having a vision for where you’re going. You may have a plan but God’s plan may trump your plan. So there’s this orchestration that seems to be happening that is honestly bigger than me.”
“Native Son” runs through April 28, while “Les Deux Noirs” runs through April 27. For more information on both plays and to purchase tickets please go to: https://www.mosaictheater.org/native-son.
This article originally appeared in The Afro.