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For two weeks, musician and playwright Gregory “Psalmayene 24” Morrison paced the floors of his Columbia Heights apartment, waiting for the characters that would later strut the stage in the latest play to possess him. “I would inevitably walk around as these characters and start speaking as these characters,” the 33-year-old says. “[S]o I had a very strong physical connection to these people, to these spirits.”
Psalmayene walked and talked in character until he had enough material to write Free Jujube Brown!, a one-man “reimagining” of The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown, a 1999 play he co-wrote and performed with poet Toni Blackman. “Toni had moved away, and I still felt invested in the piece,” he says. “I looked at it as a challenge….I feel like every actor should attempt a solo show.”
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In The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown, a young Jujube leaves the ghetto after winning a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, only to be turned off by his new environment. Free Jujube Brown! features the same character, now an accomplished writer who has been arrested for killing a white police officer. A host of new characters decries the injustice, claiming that Jujube was provoked. “Some people would say that he’s wrong,” Psalmayene says of his main character. “I just put it out there and have people come to their own conclusions about the moral consequences.”
Psalmayene transforms into a colorful cast to tell his tale: an alcoholic crackhead who advises a young Jujube not to use drugs; a Rastafarian songwriter who calls the now imprisoned Jujube a “prophet”; and a prep school classmate with identity issues. “Some of them are based off of people I know and have met in my life; some of them are pulled from my imagination, some of them are my own voice,” he says. However, the many characters that he speaks life to in the 80-minute production aren’t the sole display of his versatility: Psalmayene—who, prior to becoming a playwright, spent three years dancing for the local West African dance company KanKouran—has infused Free Jujube Brown! with a series of breakdance- and capoeira-based movements he choreographed himself.
As is to be expected of hip-hop theater, Psalmayene also gives his two cents about the state of hip-hop today. “[Hip-hop has] become a grotesque crippled invalid of what it was originally meant to be,” Psalmayene says. In one scene, he plays an old man who personifies hip-hop. As he sits onstage atop a wooden crate—his back bent from age, his face and hands deformed—he complains of feeling oppressed by the new generation of hip-hoppers and confused by their penchant for violence, promiscuity, and materialism.
“I cannot control what knuckleheads say and do in my name,” the old man says. “Please make them stop….They are killing me.”
Free Jujube Brown! runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, to Saturday, April 14, at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. $20. (800) 494-8497.