In Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son, Playwright Psalmayene 24, Director Raymond O. Caldwell, and Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth take on the risky task of staging a well-known and oft-cited conversation and rift between two African American intellectual giants, writers James Baldwin (Jeremy Hunter) and Richard Wright (James J. Johnson), that took place in a Paris café – Les Deux Magots – in 1953.
The success of this production depends on one’s willingness to adapt to an interpretation of Baldwin and Wright’s encounter that uses multimedia, hip hop, and rap to make these twentieth-century literary giants and philosophers more relevant to contemporary audiences and perhaps a generation of theatergoers who are unfamiliar with them.
In the years leading up to the fabled Les Deux Magots meeting, Wright, who was sixteen years older than Baldwin, essentially midwifed Baldwin’s career, making it possible for him to receive a grant to leave the US and settle in Paris. Wright felt betrayed when Baldwin then published two essays criticizing Wright’s novel Native Son and its protagonist Bigger Thomas. In his seminal essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949), Baldwin writes, “all of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and fear,” arguing that in Bigger Thomas, Wright had created a character defined by white racist stereotypes rather than a fully fleshed-out human.
Psalmayene 24’s script attempts to capture the gravity of this meeting between the two intellectual titans. He pens some snappy lines between the two, which both Hunter and Johnson deliver with wit, depth, and humor. But too often, humor dominates the dialogue, and Hunter’s body language in particular, undermining conversations about betrayal and integrity.
Two minor characters: a waiter, Jean-Claude (RJ Pavel) and a waitress, Ludivine (Musa Gurnis) serve as foils and love interests, and represent Parisian working-class finesse and ineptness, respectively. Wright suspects Jean-Claude of working for the US government and spying on him. While Wright’s instincts are correct, his suspicions of Jean-Claude are ill-founded.
Brandi Martin’s projections ground the play in the continuum of the Black struggle for equality through images of Wright, Baldwin, and other iconic figures projected on a wooden backdrop.
Choreographer Tiffany Quinn gets kudos for making hip-hop dance seem possible in post World War Two Paris. Wright chasing Baldwin around the café to assault him ends with Baldwin diving under the table and barking like a dog. This scene unveils Quinn’s versatility in making improbable movement possible, for the thought of Baldwin diving under a table to escape anyone flies in the face of Baldwin’s real-life response to physical confrontation: Baldwin often said that he left the United States because he was certain that if he stayed he would kill someone, or someone would kill him.
The anticipated a tête à tête between two masters of the English language falls short in this play. A subplot of sexual desire – Baldwin attracted to the waiter, the waiter and waitress being sexually aggressive toward Wright and using this intimacy, which Wright rejects, for nefarious purposes – feels ill-fitting given the importance of the body of work that both men produced about love, fear, and race relations.
Although Baldwin referred to himself as a “homosexual” and Wright married a white American woman, these aspects of their personal lives feel like filler in the play. They fail to move the dialogue or plot forward in any meaningful way. While including this personal information does allow for a discussion on the relevance (or not) of one’s choice in who to love on the battle for Black equality, it still feels like a diversion from the seriousness with which Wright defended his novel and Baldwin felt compelled to maintain his critical position.
Both Hunter and Johnson do a good job executing the script they have to work with. Portraying Baldwin presents its own challenges because of his distinctive speaking voice, with the rhythms and inflections of a Pentecostal preacher. If you have ever listened to Baldwin speak, you know the difficulty of replicating that voice. However, part of Baldwin’s intellectual prowess rests in his oratorical delivery and his ability to quickly respond to any question with a wealth of critical insight that remains unsurpassed among writers today, (the exception perhaps being Toni Morrison). While Wright’s voice may be an easier one to mimic, the lyrical use of language remains absent in his lines. Even the haiku Johnson recites, of which Wright wrote about 4,000, becomes more polemical and perpetuates the idea of a free Paris for Black artists, musicians, and writers without the critical insight with which both Baldwin and Wright used to examine their lives in Paris. Where is the beauty in the language for which both men were known?
Pavel and Gurnis execute their roles as foils in an expected manner, with Pavel being granted an opportunity to display a more serious character, allowing him to stretch his dramatic acting chops a bit. Gurnis’s role rests in portraying a bumbling waitress whose interactions with Wright, if described, would give away the plot. This we will not do. Rest assured that Gurnis competently executes the plot twist, shocking the audience. Yet, the final scene begs the audience to question if the encounter between Baldwin and Wright even occurred, despite historical evidence that it did.
Baldwin and Wright’s legacies deserve a play that wrestles with the intellectual genius each possessed; a play that does not devolve into exploring their sexual proclivities, even when used to illuminate how the FBI noted these proclivities in Baldwin and Wright’s files. You cannot read a text authored by either Baldwin or Wright and remain unchanged. A play about either or both of these writers should shift your consciousness in some way. This play does not do that. So, manage your expectations, but do see the play. It is in repertory with Nambi E. Kelley’s Native Son, and a must-see to contextualize Baldwin’s criticism of Wright’s novel, a criticism that undergirds the rift in Psalmayene 24’s play Les Deux Noirs.
Running Time: About 65 minutes, with no intermission.
Lights: William K. D’Eugenio
Costumes: Amy MacDonald
Sound: Nick Hernandez
Properties: Willow Watson
Dramaturg: Isaiah M. Wooden
Rehearsal Stage Manager: C. Renee Alexander
Production Stage Manager: April E. Carter