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Review: Literary Giants Spar in Mosaic World Premiere LES DEUX NOIRS

Review: Literary Giants Spar in Mosaic World Premiere LES DEUX NOIRS

It would have been interesting to hear the 1953 conversation between author Richard Wright and the upstart man of letters James Baldwin at the ex-pat literary nexus of Les Deux Magots in Paris.

Interesting, too, to imagine it; Baldwin had famously criticized Wright's 1940 opus "Native Son" in two celebrated essays, combined in his own book "Notes of a Native Son," charging that it only furthers stereotypes it meant to destroy. Wright's story of Bigger Thomas, trying to rise out of poverty in 1930s Chicago by becoming a driver (only to murder two women along the way) made him the most successful black author in America - a figure that Baldwin had to confront in his own rise to prominence.

The certainly problematic "Native Son" is having something of a moment, with a recent HBO adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks as well as one locally by the Mosaic Theater Company that runs in repertoire with a new world premiere piece that dramatizes the cafe meeting between Baldwin and Wright, "Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son."

Playwright and actor Psalmayene 24 was already directing Nambi E. Kelley's new version of "Native Son" for Mosaic - which not only boiled down Wright's 700 page novel into 80 minutes, but gave the rat killed early in the book a major speaking role. So he had at his disposal both the research into the compelling and thoughtful arguments between the two men, and the freewheeling license to present it any way he wanted.

So in addition to the potent give-and-take between the literary giants, much of which is taken from direct quotes from the men, he also figures, what the heck, in the age of "Hamilton," let's have them do a couple of rap battles as well.

Never mind that the rest of the production, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, strives to keep the setting the Parisian 50s, down to the music and atmosphere. Here comes the microphones and the two battle from atop their tables. Someone drop the beat!

The lines are clever and rhyming (and spelled out in supertitles that project every line of dialogue, in case you can't hear it under the recorded track). But is it necessary? Is Lin-Manuel Miranda so pervasive that all plays going forward will require a hip-hop segment? Would young people ignore it otherwise?

"Les Deux Noirs" began life as a spoken word supplement to the other play; the stuff of a post-show discussion to deal with the inherently problematic nature of "Native Son." It grew into a provocative two-man scene. But stretching it out to its own play means almost making it a musical,

Psalm may be trying too hard to create something for everyone. In addition to the jokes he stuffs into the text as they relentlessly play the Dozens with some expert mugging, there are a couple of dance scenes as well as the rapping. Then there's an ending that seems to come from a whole different play.

It all feels a bit like padding for something that still only clocks in at scarcely over an hour. Truth to tell, they could do more than run the two shortish pays in rep; they could present one right after the other each night.

"Les Deux Noirs" is still a winner thanks to the performances by James J. Johnson as the self-satisfied Wright, and especially Jeremy Hunter as the cutting and flamboyant Baldwin. Both are fully up to the erudite and crackling text.

RJ Pavel and Musa Gurnis are fine in their roles as the fictional wait staff, but their roles seem artificially expanded if only so each can take part in a dance sequence (choreographed by Tiffany Quinn).

Ethan Sinnott's set is spare and functional, evocative of the famous literary cafe and works well with Brandi Martin's projections (as to why they're showing supertitles as if the English they're speaking isn't discernible, it's an effort for the hearing impaired).

Five of the performances come with post show discussions, which is seemingly how we all got here in the first place.

Running time: About 65 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: James J. Johnson and Jeremy Hunter in Mosaic Theater Company's "Les Deux Noirs." Photo by Stan Baroun.

"Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of A Native Son" by Mosaic Theater Company runs through April 27 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center's Lang Theatre, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets at 202-399-7993 or online.

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