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Bigger Thomas, the hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, is a victim of tragic circumstances and systemic oppression. He does terrible things to survive, but his desperation is borne out of a country that assumes the worst and denies him autonomy. That desperation centers Mosaic Theater Company’s repertory productions inspired by Wright’s life and work. Nambi E. Kelley’s Native Son adaptation can be ferocious, cutting entire plotlines while adding vibrant new characters. Psalmayene 24’s Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son is the more playful production, imagining what happened when Wright met James Baldwin at a Paris cafe. Both plays will renew interest in Wright’s work, even if they also undermine each other.
The major conceit in Kelley’s Native Son is a new character, The Black Rat (Vaughn Ryan Midder). He acts as a conscience to Bigger (Clayton Pelham Jr.), but his presence is more complicated than that. Only Bigger can see or hear The Black Rat, who is so frightened and anxious that he acts out of base instinct. The program notes the character is inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness:” Unlike Bigger, The Black Rat is always aware of how the world perceives young black men. As Bigger’s life spirals out of control, starting with his accidental killing of a young white woman named Mary (Madeleine Joey Rose), The Black Rat snarls advice. It is a daring approach, and director Psalmayene 24 ups the ante by keeping every actor on stage at all times. They bask in judgment of Bigger, so we empathize with the enormous pressure on him.
Psalmayene 24’s approach to his own play, Les Deux Noirs, is much more conventionally entertaining. Before James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain, he was an ambitious intellectual who saw an opportunity in Native Son. By critiquing Wright’s novel in two essays, Baldwin could distinguish himself as the new pillar in African-American literature. We meet Baldwin (Jeremy Hunter) and Wright (James J. Johnson) in that context. Baldwin arrives late for the meal, so Wright is already on edge when he arrives. They argue, they joke, and they offer insight into each other’s work. The production also includes multiple dance sequences, hip-hop battles, and even a blues tune.
The irony behind this Native Son is that, for such a thoughtful and probing novel, the stage production finds meaning through choreography and movement. Bigger frequently fights through a wall formed by other actors, and these abstract moments are barriers to any rational outcome. After Mary’s death, Bigger shoves her body in a furnace, and the cast’s arms/hands serve as the small compartment in which she does not quite fit. Bigger has no choice but to mutilate her body, and the intimacy among the cast is also a little disturbing. Throughout Bigger’s hellish odyssey, The Black Rat is always there, getting too close to Bigger and needling his every impulse. Fans of the novel or even those who saw HBO’s recent Native Son film adaptation may never have felt as drawn to this material, or as uncomfortable with it.
That discomfort and unease is what makes Les Deuxs Noir so strange. The play starts with Hunter and Johnson dancing to “Ni**as in Paris,” and the song’s defiant, celebratory attitude is a form of tonal whiplash. In fact, the raucous approach to Wright and Baldwin’s fictional meeting suggests a lack of curiosity in their work. Hunter and Johnson give broadly comic performances, leaning into their respective personas like the reimagined literary figures in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The trouble is the dialogue remains incurious about these men. They never develop beyond caricatures: Baldwin is flamboyant and irreverent, while Wright is more of an arrogant blowhard. The effort is less like Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a play that imagines Picasso and Einstein meeting in Paris, and closer to a pseudo-literary riff on The Odd Couple.
The actors in Native Son admittedly have an easier time because Les Deux Noirs must contend with preconceived notions of both literary figures. Renee Elizabeth Wilson plays Bessie, Bigger’s second victim, and her chemistry with Pelham has a hellish, frightening quality to it. The white characters in the play reinforce how Bigger has the deck stacked against him. Bigger tries to pin Mary’s murder on Jan (Drew Kopas), a confirmed communist, and yet he behaves with the inherent privilege that he will make it out of trouble in one piece. The older white characters treat Bigger with a mix of polite disinterest and outright hostility, but the play’s message is that both attitudes comes from a shared sense of constant subjugation.
There are also white characters in Les Deux Noirs, and they serve as playthings for both Wright and Baldwin. Ludivine (Musa Gurnis), a waitress, and Jean-Claude (RJ Pavel), a waiter, flirt with Wright and Baldwin, respectively, since no one is exactly shy about the type of person they prefer. The subtext is a commentary on the relative freedom African-American men can enjoy while they’re in Europe, but even that has its limits. There is a curious, hollow scene in which Psalmayene 24 puts a face on Wright’s paranoia—he was investigated by the FBI for more than two decades—and its outcome upends all the action that preceded it. It’s as if the playwright wants to treat his subject with deference, so he uses comic exaggeration to hide his lack of inquiry. This stands in major contrast to Kelley’s Native Son, which tears and rebuilds the source material until it lands on something modern.
The only technical snafu has to do with the play’s projected captions. Hunter’s deviations from the text prove distracting for those keeping track of both versions of the script, but the presence of captions keeps Mosaic’s work inclusive for all.
That minor issue notwithstanding, Native Son and Les Deux Noirs strive to highlight the inequities and deadly consequences that still define the African-American experience. Like Bigger Thomas, Wright and Baldwin will remain significant figures from whom we can still learn. In order to keep them vibrant, Psalmayene 24 and Kelley experiment with narrative, performance, and pop culture. One play is more successful than the other, but at least both will have the intended effect of renewing interest in these writers, and how their outrage extends into the future.
Les Deux Noirs runs to April 27 and Native Son runs to April 28 at 1333 H St. NE. $20–$65. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.