Raw. If there was one word to describe Mosaic Theater’s newest play “Dear Mapel,” that would be it. Written and acted by Psalmayene 24, directed by Natsu Onoda Power and set to the percussive stylings of Jabari Exum, “Dear Mapel” is part autobiography, part eulogy and part poetic fiction.
The work is an intensely intimate look into Psalmayene 24’s life. The vast majority of the play’s conversation happens between Psalm and his absent father, Mapel, via letters Psalm wrote after his death. These letters are erratic, nonlinear in their recollections of Psalm’s life. He alternates between spoken word a-là Sun Ra and crass, overtly masculine storytelling meant to highlight phases of boyhood.
A sort of jumbled, overflowing emotiveness is the main feature of Psalm’s storytelling. The show takes place against a static backdrop with hundreds and hundreds of pages tacked up against the walls, overflowing off the desk, laying crumpled and askew the stage. In the opening moments, Psalm enters and sweeps up the dozens of crumpled pages strewn about, only to sit at the desk center stage, take a sheet, ball it up and toss it to the floor. It’s a clever look into Psalm’s mind, the frustrated artist attempting production.
The intention is clear from the get-go; Psalm stands center stage and announces, “I will describe my universe and examine my life in these letters to you, my father.”
The stories he goes on to tell are both intimate and unhinged, deeply introspective and yet spoken as if realized for the first time. He alternates at first across wide gaps in his life, from dating a white girl in eighth grade to his freshman year at Howard University, pausing only every few moments to follow a story to its conclusion and begin another with a breathy “Dear Mapel.” The set’s ambiance stays perfectly aligned to Psalm’s storytelling with Exum tailoring his drumming to every circumstance from the comical to the dire.
Perhaps the most striking element of Psalm’s story is his description of Blackness in America, often running up the razor-sharp edges of white society that cut against him. He describes his experience with racist slurs, deconstructing the semantics of how they’re used against him. When a white friend calls him a slur, Psalm remembers “a collective sense of awkwardness [hanging] like an empty noose.”
His experience of Blackness growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn is unrecognizable to his father, a Jamaican-Chinese man, but he begs Mapel for advice or commentary nonetheless.
It’s impossible to extract Mapel from any of Psalm’s narrative simply by the nature of how the play is structured, but the story takes a shift toward the end to narrow in on their relationship as father and son. Psalm describes briefly reconnecting with Mapel before his death, finding out years after the fact via a connection on an ancestry website. He visits a medium, whose story of paternal regret he has difficulty believing. He asks his father over and over again the same questions with no possible answer: “Dear Mapel, how can I heal my relationship with you when you’re not here?”
Mosaic Theater’s genius in this production shines in its final moments when Psalm breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience he is aware of us. We grasp the idea that Mapel is real, the story is real, but the production is theatrics — though where one blurs into the other is unclear.
The show closes with Psalm, real life Psalm, describing his attempt to find Mapel’s grave and failing.
“Even beyond the grave,” he tells us, “Mapel is elusive.”
A thick envelope falls from above and pages unfold to reveal a response to all of Psalm’s letters. It’s a deus-ex-machina of questions answered, emotional needs met, love given. And though the audience has learned our reality here is fickle, it’s enough for Psalm. It’s enough for us.
Dear Mapel is available for online streaming now through February 27. Tickets can be purchased via the virtual box office here.
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