A marvel of tone control, Mosaic’s world-premiere production of Psalmayene 24’s prickly comedy Monumental Travesties (★★★★☆) keeps the vibe generally upbeat even as discomfort and distress mount for the characters and the audience.
It all starts out innocently enough, with a brazen act of criminal vandalism that spins out into a haunting — and hysterically funny — race play between neighbors on a rowhouse block of D.C.’s Capitol Hill.
Andrew R. Cohen’s sumptuously detailed, homey set grounds the proceedings in a very present reality — nearly everyone in the audience will have been inside or seen a house like that — which feels crucial when the play starts to dance along the edges of absurdity.
But again, everything is triggered by a simple act that makes perfect sense, at least to Black radical performance artist Chance (Louis E. Davis), who steals the head of Abraham Lincoln from the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park. Righteously disgusted by the bronze statue’s portrayal of Lincoln lording over a kneeling, formerly enslaved Black man, Chance beheads Lincoln in protest, and drops the pumpkin-sized head in the manicured shrubbery of his white neighbor, Adam (Jonathan Feuer).
Chance’s latest art action seems absurd to his loving wife Brenda (Renee Elizabeth Wilson), but at this point in their marriage, she takes it in stride as Adam shows up on their doorstep, lugging Lincoln’s head, wanting to know what they know about how it wound up in his garden. In turn, Chance challenges Adam to understand why anyone might be moved to remove the head from a nearly 150-year-old statue of Honest Abe.
The play finds fertile, funny ground in their attempts at honest discussion of the ways D.C. residents of different demographics might view the memorial differently. Some might say the Black man in the statue isn’t kneeling, but “rising.” It is, after all, also called the Freedman’s Memorial. But where some might see a celebration of a necessary turning point for the nation, Chance sees a tableau of subjugation, sculpted larger than life.
In order to persuade Adam to see what he sees, Chance stages another, more provocative action that neither Adam nor Brenda sees coming. The audience probably also won’t anticipate all the twists ahead, though Reginald L. Douglas‘ assured direction and the committed cast keep the fast-swerving dark comedy on track.
In that regard, Wilson especially stands out for her mastery of comic tone, while keeping Brenda a chipper hostess, a wily player in the game of cat-and-mouse with Adam, and the voice of reason (usually) amidst escalating craziness. Through it all, Brenda remains endearingly supportive of Chance’s art, despite feeling ignored for the sake of his outlandish performance actions. Psalmayene’s pointed takes on performance art, and artists in general, register some of the play’s best punchlines.
Yet, the show not only discusses but demonstrates how outlandish actions can move minds. In the play, Adam is moved by his participation in Chance’s art, with Feuer and Davis enacting an intense and genuinely enlightening interplay of Black outrage and white guilt. Adam is so moved to probe his own privilege and biases, and question his identity, that he comes up with an entirely new racial identity.
While the characters push each other mercilessly, taking the art and actions at times too far, the actors bring excitement to the occasion by signaling they’ll go to whatever lengths this thorny topic demands — which, ultimately, is surprisingly far. And just like the Memorial, different viewers will witness the play’s climactic events quite differently, depending on what point of view they brought into the house.
Monumental Travesties has been extended through Oct. 8 at Mosaic Theater in the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $42 to $70, with economy ticket options for each performance. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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