Playwright steals Lincoln’s head from statue on Capitol Hill in Mosaic’s ‘Monumental Travesties’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Monumental Travesties' by Mosaic Theater (Part 1)

Since 1876, the Emancipation Memorial has stood in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill in Northeast D.C.

This Thursday, a new play highlights the statue’s controversial design as Mosaic Theater stages “Monumental Travesties” at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, Northeast, running now through Oct. 1.

“The statue depicts Abraham Lincoln standing over top a kneeling Black man in a loin cloth,” playwright Psalmayene 24 (a.k.a. Gregory Morrison) told WTOP.

“It’s supposed to be a statue that commemorates Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, but it’s controversial for many reasons. It’s really about the representation of the Black man in the statue and the subservient pose that he’s in.”

While the statue may have been built with good intentions to commemorate a slain, pivotal president a decade after his assassination in the aftermath of the Civil War, critics of the statue say the 19th century designers didn’t put enough thought into the depiction of the Black man and what it would mean to 21st century visitors.

“The monument is about celebrating freedom, that was the intent behind it, but I think the people who commissioned it and the artist got it wrong because that’s not what this monument is communicating,” Psalmayene 24 said.

“It’s communicating something quite different: a Black man in a denigrated position, it doesn’t show him in a way that celebrates his agency. … Lincoln is seen as this paternalistic figure bestowing freedom on high.”

The Brooklyn native first saw the statue decades ago as a student at Howard University.

“I’ve been troubled by it ever since I saw it,” Psalmayene 24 said.

“I saw it sometime in the mid-90s when I was a student at Howard. It just seemed so obviously anachronistic and outdated. I was shocked that something like this existed right here in Washington D.C. … My whole vision of art is creating elevated representations of Black folks. This piece represents the exact type of representations that my art aims to dismantle.”

As such, he’s using the power of the pen to create a provocative new play that follows a Black D.C. performance artist named Chance, who removes the head from the statue of President Abraham Lincoln, takes it home and throws it into the yard of his neighbor, a white liberal professor named Adam.

“Chance runs home to his wife and an absurdist chain of events happens from there,” Psalmayene 24 said.

“It’s important to say that the piece is a comedy. I thought that was a pretty crucial piece to telling this story and holding it, because it’s such a heavy topic and I didn’t want people to feel weighed down. I wanted to bring some levity to the storytelling experience, so I thought comedy was the perfect genre to hold this story.”

The play stars Louis Davis as Chance, Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Chance’s wife Brenda and Jonathan Feuer as the neighbor. “These actors are just acting their faces off,” Psalmayene 24 said of the rehearsals thus far.

The play is directed by Reginald Douglas, whom Psalmayene 24 called “a really deft director, particularly when it comes to comedy. He really has a good eye for all things directorial, whether it’s costume design, lighting design, scenic design. The director has to hold all these things in their mind simultaneously. It’s a new play and he’s a great new play director also. He has a great dramaturgical mind, so he’s an ideal person to be directing this.”

He hopes that the play will inspire D.C. audiences to rethink the statue’s design. “The freed man should absolutely be standing up; I think he should be wearing clothes,” Psalmayene 24 said.

“Frederick Douglas spoke at the unveiling of the monument and was critical of it. … Douglas said what he would love to see before he dies is a statue of the Black man standing up on his feet like a man, not couching on his knees like a four-footed animal. He pretty much distilled exactly how I feel about the monument back in 1876.”

He said there’s recent precedent of another major city removing such a statue.

“There used to be a replica of this exact monument in Boston, but in 2020, after the great justice movement that was sparked in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the city of Boston removed that monument, they took it down,” Psalmayene 24 said.

“My question is why is it still up here in Washington D.C.? I have some ideas: this is the town where Lincoln once lived, he was in the Oval Office here, he was killed here, and this is federal property.”

What does he ultimately hope happens to it?

“I think relocating it is a great idea,” Psalmayene 24 said.

“I think it needs to be re-contextualized for the public. … I do think there needs to be a deeper, iconographic analysis of the monument, so putting it in a museum makes a lot of sense to me. There could also be a reinvention of it where you add pieces around it. I don’t know how that would be done, but I’m just brainstorming right now. I also wouldn’t be mad if it was melted down.”

Find more information here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Monumental Travesties' by Mosaic Theater (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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