The splashy opening is spectacularly preconception-smashing. We know we’re about to see a play premised on a 1953 meeting in a Paris café between the literary lion Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the up-and-coming cub. But beyond that, any expectations we may harbor get blown out of the water the moment James J. Johnson (as Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (as Baldwin) begin a crowd-rousing rap-dance. The sound system is blaring Jay Z and Kanye West’s profanity-laced “Ni**as in Paris.” And (this production being projection-captioned) every crude word is glaring on the set.
The number is such a sensory overload—and so damn good—one wants to hit replay and rewatch it then and there.
Playwright Psalmayene 24’s semi-fictional story takes us next to a more conventionally staged scene in a café between Wright and Baldwin. The actual meeting was occasioned when the upstart Baldwin famously critiqued Wright’s bestselling novel Native Son and Baldwin’s cheek piqued Wright’s wrath.
As we quickly learn, conventions of dramatizing that event have been dispensed with. In Les Deux Noirs, the two leads behave as the litterateurs never would in life. Besides breaking into rap and dance, they do verbal smackdowns and comedy sketches. They have escapades with the wait staff. Historicity is but the jumping off point for Psalmayene 24’s leaps of imagination.
The structure of Les Deux Noirs is basically a man-to-man débat—by turns a very classy one, a very crude one, a very woke one, a very cartoonish one—but a cockfight nonetheless.
RICHARD: Ahhh, the gloves are coming off and we’re going to bareknuckle it.
JAMES: You’ve backed me into a corner like one of those rats from your novel. I have no choice but to fight my way out.
RICHARD: Be warned that you’re going to have to knock me out in order
to raise your hands above your head in triumph.
JAMES: I’ll do my best.
The play’s explicit grounding in combat makes the work akin to watching a contact sport, a battle between two black men.
They tussle in multiple ways, including insults about each other’s sexuality (Wright was heterosexual; Baldwin, homosexual). Baldwin criticizes Wright for marrying a white woman and takes him to task for the sexual violence his character Bigger Thomas commits:
BALDWIN: Why did you rape her? Bessie—the young, Negro woman in your book, Native Son?
He continues this line of attack with Wright’s treatment of Mary Dalton:
BALDWIN: You gave Mary such a sweet and muted death compared to Bessie. Suffocation by pillow, fueled by a potent mix of fear, frenzy, and lust. But you couldn’t help gratifying the terror that exists in every crevice of the mind of those who call themselves white by savagely chopping her head off with a hatchet. And yet, ironically enough, the author of such a hideous act purports to champion the interests of Negroes.
(Mosaic’s programming of Les Deux Noirs in rep with, and in conversation with, Native Son is inspired—and is never more impactful than when Psalmayene 24 has Baldwin challenge the novel’s violence against women. Relatedly, in Psalmayene 24’s direction of Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Native Son, he carefully stylizes those scenes to avoid sensationalizing them.)
Fueling the gendered tension between the two men, Wright refers to Baldwin as “a little sissy” and calls him “a Negro homosexual with a fetish for white men.”
The night I saw the show the audience was audibly registering every parry and thrust, an enjoyment the show openly invites because so much of it is framed comedically. There’s a silly bit when Baldwin and Wright go back and forth, tit for tat, pouring each other’s drink into their own glass. And both Johnson and Hunter are adept at physical comedy, as in their rapper personas and a farcical chase around the table. Curiously, the clowning in their showdown works—as does all humor that overlays and originates in anxiety. The spectacle of two men contesting manhood will make anyone apprehensive, and if laughter breaks the tension it’ll be all the heartier.
The narrative arc of Les Deux Noirs leads to an aspirational resolution. It’s when Psalmayene 24 has both men come to terms with what they’re really battling about: what it means to be black.
There is a visually stunning scene when a waiter is taking snapshots of Wright and Baldwin and projected behind them is a montage of stock photos of African American stereotypes. Though Wright and Baldwin do not turn to look, it is as if both carry the pictures in their minds.
Their rapprochement comes after they each let down their guard, let go their armor, and speak a truth to each other that transcends truce.
WRIGHT: I know some people despise Bigger and the despicable crimes he commits. To that I say good. If you detest him, change the circumstances that made him. Change the philosophy that deems a man better because of his pink skin. Change the belief that a man is worse because he is the color of rich ebony. Change the system that conspires to keep the Negro’s neck between its boot and the unforgiving ground. Native Son was written to be a rock in the boot of that system. A rock that afflicts the foot until it is forced to take the boot off our necks—finally and forever more.
BALDWIN [rapping]: When will we come together to supersede our fear?
No more hate against Black, no more hate against queer
I don’t know man but I believe in the possibility
Of the moral victory
I don’t know man but I believe in the probability
Of the historic victory
I don’t even know man but I see the inevitability
Of the ultimate victory
Les Deux Noirs is surprisingly a lot of fun. But it’s also an indelibly personal imagining of how two great black writers might have rapped their way as artists from adversaries to allies. Definitely a show not to miss along with Mosaic’s gripping Native Son.
Running time about 65 minutes, with no intermission.
Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son plays through April 27, 2019, in repertory with Native Son through April 28, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.
Review – ‘Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Michele Simms-Burton
Review – ‘Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Ramona Harper
Magic Time!: ‘Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by John Stoltenberg
Director and Playwright Psalmayene 24 Discusses ‘Native Son’ and ‘Les Deux Noirs’ by Michelle Simms-Burton