Dear Mapel

Enter the access code provided in an email by Mosaic Theater Company and after a few on-screen opening remarks, playwright/actor Psalmayene 24 begins to read stage directions: Welcome to theater in the year 2020. He describes a setting familiar to those who have seen the work of Spaulding Gray or Mike Daisy: A “sturdy and elegant” desk with a seat, wastepaper basket, and a tabletop microphone stand on a stage littered with the balled-up paper of previous drafts. Just then he subverts expectations by narrating a sequence of vaudevillian prop-based physical gags in what had just seconds before seemed like a static setting, all accompanied by a simple hand-drawn animation by director and production designer Natsu Onoda Power.

Mosaic is one of the local theater companies adjusting to making art in the age of COVID-19. Dear Mapel, Psalmayene’s first project as part of a three-year stint as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded playwright residency at the theater, is being workshopped in a hybrid of filmed performance and animation, with the ultimate plan of staging the show live once both artists and audiences are free to emerge into a post-pandemic world. More unusually, critics, who are normally asked not to make public comment on works-in-process, have been invited to review it. 

When Psalmayene appears on camera, it’s not seated at a desk on a proscenium stage, but in restaurant undergoing renovation. The paint-stripped walls are temporarily decorated with reproductions of vintage go-go posters from the 1980s. He is wearing a scally cap and a red T-shirt reading “BROOKLYN” as he reads a poem invoking himself into our existence: Equally a self-mythologizing and self-deprecating as an artist, as a product of his Jamaican-American genealogy and his upbringing in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. To his side is percussionist Jabari Exum who plays everything from congas, djembe, and jam blocks to the cutlery and metalware found behind the restaurant’s counter. On occasion, Exum slips behind the bar and serves drinks.

Dear Mapel is like a spoken-word memoir, with episodes from Psalmayene’s life organized in series of letters, to his late, and usually absent father, Mapel, an alcoholic womanizer who seems never to have been totally forthcoming as to the extent of his family. These are stories a son wishes he could tell his father but cannot: awkward Valentine’s Day expectations in the third grade; losing his virginity, and being too consumed by adolescent machismo to admit that it was his first time to either the young woman or to his closest friends; being among the few black kids in his junior high school’s mostly white talented-and-gifted program, and the way his life was suddenly disrupted by the first time he was called the N-word; his 1990s alternative folk-hop band PS24, and the night he met his future wife Diane; the day he was evicted by his unscrupulous landlord; and anecdotes about picking out a good watermelon at Trader Joe’s. Some are the intimate stories fathers and sons rarely share even if both are still alive, and some are the stories told to avoid telling these more intimate ones. Yet these personal stories nonetheless exist in a political context: the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins, small talk with Ta-Nehisi Coates in Malcolm X Park, and antagonism between the Jamaican American and African American communities all serve as signposts.

Psalmayene often interacts with Onoda Power’s animations. But her most memorable contribution in this iteration of Dear Mapel is something more low-tech and tactile: an accordion-style book that unfolds out of a heart-shaped box with illustrations by her eleven-year-old neighbor.  

The theater workshop-as-streaming video (which was freely available between Oct. 26 and Oct. 31) makes one conscious of the moment in history—not just our pandemic present, not just Psalmayene’s present in which memories, storytelling, and future plans run together, but the antecedents in the first decades of the television era when the staging of plays, even experimental ones, was not a special event, but standard programing, or when multimedia performance became scalable to even small venues. It also forces us to wonder at the possible shapes that Dear Mapel might take when it reaches its final form, as live theater. The current workshop runs approximately 50 minutes but the plan is to include additional letters for a work that will run twice as long. Will Psalmayene introduce a second act in which the format he has introduced is turned on its head or break into another genre entirely? Will the scenic design replicate Psalmayene’s descriptions, or will words and world continue to be at variance?  Will he take up the story threads, and weave them together? These questions do not signify a feeling of incompleteness, but an exhilaration of being allowed to witness this stage in the creative process.