Review: MONUMENTAL TRAVESTIES at Mosaic Theater

World premiere play doesn't quite know what to do with a severed Presidential head.

By: Sep. 13, 2023
Review: MONUMENTAL TRAVESTIES at Mosaic Theater

Controversial statues have been de-installed long before a racial reckoning meant the end of most Confederate statues in recent years. An 1840 marble sculpture of George Washington was removed from the U.S. Capitol rotunda because some didn’t like that he was shirtless (it sits now at the National Museum of American History) 

A lingering controversy accompanied Thomas Ball’s 1876 monument of the 16th President in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park. It depicted Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation in hand, “freeing” a formerly enslaved Black man, rising from his knees. 

Funded by money raised immediately after Lincoln’s assassination by groups of the formerly enslaved, its dedication was declared a national holiday. A speaker at the event, attended by President Grant, was Frederick Douglass, who soon after criticized the design of the Black figure crouching “like some four-footed animal.”

In 2021, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a bill to remove the memorial, which had a barrier fence put up around it to protect it from protesters in 2020. 

Another way of dealing with it, in Psalmayene 24’s world premiere play “Monumental Travesties,” is by lopping off Abe’s head entirely. 

We don’t see the vandalism itself in the Mosaic Theatre Company production. Set in a nearby rowhouse, we see the culprit, Chance (Louis E. Davis), dash home, in his Mohawk and Black Art Matters-inscribed jacket, to escape bypassing police lights. 

Chance may have interrupted intimate plans of his wife Brenda (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) by boasting of his latest brash art statement. 

Decapitating a prominent statue is something out of “The Simpsons” (specifically season one, episode 8, “The Telltale Head”), which may be fitting in something intended as a comedy.

But from the point that a white neighbor Adam (Jonathan Feuer) walks over with the head complaining someone had just tossed it in his garden, it’s clear nobody knows quite to do after this outrageous gesture any more than he does.

At first, there’s an uncomfortable demonstration about the power dynamics in Ball’s statue, so Adam is asked to disrobe and kneel accordingly. Once that humiliating lesson is over, he leaves, only to return shortly after, acting as if he didn’t remember coming over with the giant Abe head earlier. 

Then proclaiming himself not only anti-racist, but non-white, Adam agrees to carry the bronze head around his head like the very weight of history (although nobody can decide quite how heavy it’s supposed to be judging from the way it is variously carried). 

Chance boards up the exit and announces that the neighbor will now have to be locked up in a jail cell — which he has conveniently brought up from the basement, along with judicial robes and a nonsensical English powdered wig - as if reenacting the “Here Comes the Judge” bit from “Laugh-In.” 

Because it’s a comedy, remember?

And what about the Abe head? While it’s lifted and given some voice a couple of times as if it were a puppet head, it mostly just sits there until the shocking, seemingly offhand  conclusion. 

An opening night crowd tittered nervously at the intended gibes — such as a neighbor who would prove his anti-racist tendencies by laminating his Black Lives Matter sign. But serious laughs were largely missing from what’s erroneously billed as “laugh-out-loud.” 

Certainly, artistic director Reginald L. Douglas directs it as if it’s a sitcom, with actors often shouting their lines to the audience and not to each other. In addition, the brightly lit (by Alberto Segarra) living room set by Andrew R. Cohan, while accurate, has a “filmed before a live audience” vibe. 

In this upside-down “All in the Family,” the trio of actors do as well as they can, with Davis’ Chance given the license to be a little exaggerated. Wilson seemed to have the right tone for Brenda, who is meant to be an occasional voice of reason, and was strong when she returned as a 19th century woman who originally raised money for the statue. Feuer brings a wealth cringe-inducing reality to the overly well-intentioned neighbor trying too hard to be an ally. 

The program describes a three year process (!) to develop the scattershot script, which plays as if every idea thrown in along the way was kept, including some unnecessary business regarding a mother’s urn of ashes and a lie about financing the townhouse with a “murder lottery” (an offensive term referring to payments given to survivors of police killings). 

Trying to one-up the outrageousness of the opening action is a failing proposition, and the play might have been better trying to make its point in a more limited one-hour Fringe format. 

Both Douglas and 24 say their intent with “Monumental Travesties” is to spark conversations. And that, we can say with some certainly, will definitely be accomplished. 

Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission. 

Photo credit: Louis E. Davis, Jonathan Feuer and Renee Elizabeth Wilson in “Monumental Travesties.” Photo by Chris Banks. 

“Monumental Travesties” plays through Oct. 1 at the Atlas Performing Arts, 1333 H St NE. Tickets at 202-399-7993 or online. 


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From This Author - Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in and AARP the Magazine. He has a... Roger Catlin">(read more about this author)


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