A heartfelt ode to fathers and sons, finding your voice, and growing up hip-hop, Psalmayene 24’s epistolary drama Dear Mapel (★★★★☆) also profoundly honors the lost art of letter-writing. That distinctly direct and intimate mode of expressing what’s most deeply felt, and saying what often can’t be spoken, serves as Psalm’s chosen means of addressing the father he barely knew.
Via letters to Mapel, the award-winning performer and playwright vividly evokes his own coming-of-age enriched by art and music, while examining the main thing, or person, that went missing.
For this world premiere production, director and production designer Natsu Onoda Power engulfs Mosaic’s Sprenger Theatre stage in a sweeping deluge of paper missives. Dozens more balled-up sheets of paper litter the floor, stray thoughts rejected or reconsidered.
The setting suggests a flood of stories, emotions, unaired grievances, and unshared joys, more than could be contained in a thousand letters, or however many it might take for the writer to feel some sense of closure.
The calm center of the storm at his writing desk, Psalm admits that closure remains elusive. But, as he quotes his Jamaican granddad, “nothing beats a failure but a try.”
So the show — which opens with Psalm’s beautifully written “I Am” poem introducing himself as an “incorrigible, nonconformist Jamerican…fly-ass motherfucker” — constitutes a powerful attempt to reach someone who can no longer respond. Though perhaps Mapel, as much as the audience, can still somehow receive the message.
That metal writing desk, the only piece of furniture onstage, turns out to be quite the adaptable supporting player as Psalm enacts fond reminiscences of growing up in Brooklyn, losing his virginity, founding the dance troupe Subtle Motion while attending Howard U., and growing from aspiring actor to accomplished artist.
His truest support along the 90-minute journey is actor-percussionist Jabari Exum, also brilliantly adaptable, whether stepping in to play backup dancer, bandmate, or various other roles.
Most often, Exum, also known as Jabari DC, supplies inspiring musical accompaniment on drums and percussion, as Psalmayene brings to life his search for self, and for flagrant womanizer Mapel. Some stories register as pleas to his dad, who was barely around when Psalm was a kid, became estranged as Psalm reached adulthood, then died before the two could firmly put their differences to rest.
Other tales from his life — including a fateful turn on Amateur Night at the Apollo, and an eye-opening stint as the only Black cast member in a European touring company of Pinocchio — illustrate tests of character that he could only have faced alone.
Warmly open in his interactions with the audience, Psalm entertains as a storyteller, while also transmitting layers of pain and grief, with hints of regret but no bitterness. And he uses humor effectively to handle sensitive subjects like the overwhelming anxiety of a Black man trying to choose a watermelon in the supermarket without looking like a stereotype.
These well-chosen bits and passages tend to offer modest stakes, definitely more life lessons than life or death. But we already know what’s at stake for fathers and sons, and we can feel for this artist, now a devoted husband himself, what’s at stake for him in every letter, real and imagined.
The letters themselves are the conversation and its record, poignant reminders to speak what can be spoken while you have the chance.
Dear Mapel runs through Feb. 13 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.
Video-on-demand production will be available for streaming Feb. 14 to 27.
Tickets for in-person performances are $68, and individual tickets for streaming are $40. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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