Over the last six months, many of us have had the chance to really reflect on our relationships, both with ourselves and with others. For some, this might have been the first time we’ve really looked in the mirror. For some, this time period has been a continuation of an ongoing effort, another step down the path of introspection. For some, this walk down memory lane has led to a lot of “what ifs.”
If I could go back in time, would I want a better relationship with my father? If I could have gotten his advice, what questions would I have asked him? If I could talk to my father today, what would I tell him about who I was, who I am, who I’m becoming?
It’s a brilliant, story about looking within, around, and outside of oneself for answers to questions about being a Black boy and man in America.
Playwright, actor, and artistic leader, Psalmayene 24, dives deep into these very personal questions in a workshop presentation of “Dear Mapel.” Under the current circumstances, Mosaic Theater Company has had to adapt to a virtual reality. “Dear Mapel” succeeds at bringing that in-house theater feeling home, and, importantly, it’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
Lasting a little under an hour, the streamed production spans nine letters (some real, some imagined), which leaves more to be desired and digested at a future time. Hopefully, as director Natsu Onoda Power notes, the remainder will be produced in person.
Even so, the current production comes full circle, opening and closing with Psalmayene 24 reflecting on the first time he met his father. We hear the happiness and subsequent pain of such a defining moment. We see the excitement and smile fade from his face as it registers that he’s just been introduced by his father as a friend’s son. “I am a son,” he repeats.
With each letter, Psalmayene 24 highlights a different turning point in his life: “slowly, carefully, gingerly” transforming out of virginity; picking up a watermelon at Trader Joe’s only to be told by the white cashier that he didn’t choose right; dating a white girl who is oblivious to the stares and snickers they receive while in public together; being called a racist slur, the subsequent awkward silence, and then need to pretend all is alright, life can go on as normal when in fact everything’s changed; trying to navigate the societal must-dos of Valentine’s Day after agreeing not to do anything; meeting his now-wife for the first time; and finally meeting, and then subsequently losing contact with, his paternal side of the family — brother, grandfather, and father.
Percussionist Jabari Exum emphasizes Psalmayene 24’s magnificent storytelling with accompanying rhythms and background vocals. His musical additions change with each scene, from drums to martini shaker to rain stick.
And while there isn’t much movement within each scene, the background or camera angle shifts slightly. Additionally, the thoughtfully chosen props used to distinguish a new letter help keep the viewer engaged. For example, during the high school party scene, Jabari Exum offers Psalmayene 24 different drinks as the events unfold and his identity shifts — 7-Up to vodka to Red Stripe. Another example can be seen during the Valentine’s Day saga. The scene opens with a box of what appears to be chocolate, but ends up being a string of hearts — one side containing the letter being read aloud, the other side showing the audience drawings to help indicate who’s speaking.
While there’s an abrupt shift in volume in one scene and a somewhat disjointed back and forth between angles in another scene, Mosaic really made the most of what can be done to produce in today’s socially-distanced reality.
“Dear Mapel” exemplifies what it means to be vulnerable, to go deep within and touch those raw emotions our inner child might still feel. It’s a brilliant, story about looking within, around, and outside of oneself for answers to questions about being a Black boy and man in America. All in all, “Dear Mapel” gives a wonderful first glimpse of what we can expect to come from Psalmayene 24 over the next three years.
Running Time: 50 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Contains profanity, sexual content, and racism. This show is recommended for audiences 16 and over.
“Dear Mapel” can be streamed until October 31, 2020. Tickets are free and available through the Mosaic Theater Company of DC. No software is needed to watch the production. However, it’s advised that your Internet speed is at least 3Mbps. Reserve your ticket here.