Howard alum grapples with father’s death in new Mosaic Theater play ‘Dear Mapel’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Dear Mapel' (Part 1)

Howard University alum Psalmayene 24 is one of our top young playwrights, embarking on a three-year stint as the Playwright in Residence at Mosaic Theater in Northeast D.C.

This week, he stars in a workshop of his play “Dear Mapel” streaming through Jan. 18.

“You get a chance to see how the sausage is made, a chance to look under the hood,” Psalm told WTOP. “Even though it’s a little bit more than half of the play, it still feels like a full meal. You still get some sense of a beginning, middle and end, even in this portion that we’re sharing before we go ahead and give people the full production this fall.”

Instead of staging it at Atlas Performing Arts Center, the play was filmed by director Natsu Onoda Power with dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke and percussionist Jabari Exum.

“When you see the stream, we didn’t do it at a theater with people, we actually shot it at Baby Wale, which is a restaurant the director co-owns with her husband,” he said. “The director is doing some really exciting things with animation and playing with form.”

The play explores Psalm’s relationship with his late father through a series of letters (both real and imagined) and asks if we can alter our relationships with those who have died.

“I didn’t meet him for the first time until I was 12,” he said. “We had a falling out and became estranged. Then 17 years later after writing a letter, I heard back from him, we reconciled and fell out of touch again. Years later, I was on Ancestry.com, made a connection with a cousin and found out my father had actually died three years earlier.”

Indeed, Mapel Chance died in May 2014, but Psalm didn’t hear about it until Oct. 2017.

“You can only imagine the grief and mixed bag of emotions that I felt when I got that news … grappling with his absence in my life, then the grief of losing your father,” he said. “All of that weighed heavily on me, so I decided to do something creative with everything I was feeling and create this play as a means of connecting with Mapel beyond the grave.”

Psalm calls it the show that he’s been afraid to write and perform for years.

“It’s like asking a flower, ‘Why’d you decide to bloom?'” he said. “It was just time. I felt in my soul that it was time to tell this story. I’ve written eight or nine full-length plays and countless short plays, but this is the first time I actually decided to write a play about my life where I am the protagonist and people in my life are main characters, so that’s scary.”

The teaser trailer is straight fire as Psalm drives around his own stomping grounds, declaring: “I am an incorrigible non-conformist, urban fabulist, Black alchemist American, maven of rhythm, peaceful rabble rouser, nocturnal creature, ancient storyteller.”

“We went up to Brooklyn and went to the neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. “We visited my father’s grave for the first time. There was a surprise waiting for us at the cemetery, which I’m not going to give away now. Folks will have to wait for the full production. I have to go write that story and finish the play with what happened at the cemetery.”

After growing up in Brooklyn, Psalm moved to D.C. to attend Howard University.

“I was always a creative child,” he said. “I got into hip-hop in terms of dance then started acting in school plays. Then I came down to D.C. to go to college and eventually stumbled into writing because I was not seeing the types of roles that I wanted to see in terms of representation for Black artists, so I decided to try my hand at writing my own.”

He landed the Mosaic residency last summer through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“This is a three-year post where I essentially get paid to write, I’m on salary, I have health insurance,” he said. “The timing couldn’t have come better because this thing just started in July. … The pandemic was still fresh, so the timing of it was really fortuitous.”

What other projects is he planning for the remainder of his residency?

“One is to dive back into ‘Les Deux Noirs,’ which is about the relationship between James Baldwin and Richard Wright at a Paris café after they had a falling out over Baldwin’s criticism of ‘Native Son,'” he said. “Another one is a musical about Marion Barry, which I’m excited to dive into. He’s such a fascinating, intriguing, provocative, polarizing man.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Dear Mapel' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

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