Arena Stage is debuting a three-part digital music series, Arena Riffs, that features three original musicals each 20-30 minutes long. One of the original works, slated to debut on March 31 is a pandemic-era hip-hop musical called the “The Freewheelin’ Insurgents.”
Written, directed and performed by award-winning playwright Psalmayene “Psalm” 24, who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to D.C. after attending Howard University, the musical is set and filmed entirely in D.C. and follows a cadre of musical theatre artists meeting up to rehearse in Rock Creek Park.
The five characters in the musical film (Psalm plays the director of the theater group, mostly from behind the camera) are not only dealing with the sense of loss and grief of being theater artists in the midst of the pandemic, but their own personal challenges with love, mental health, and their relationships to the racial justice movement and Black Lives Matter.
“My inspiration for the piece was really my own personal grief as a theater artist not being able to do theater – that was where I started,” says Psalm.
“Thinking about that sense of mourning, I connected it to the exacerbated grief of the Black community in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd,” Psalm continues. “All of the characters in this film are Black. That was an aesthetic choice, that also turned out to be a political choice in this moment to really investigate what it is that Black characters, Black people have to deal with in this specific historic moment.”
Creating this story was also an opportunity to emphasize that the Black community is not monolithic, he says. One character’s struggle with the tension between violent and nonviolent protest is an important theme in the piece.
“That’s one thing that I wanted to do even through the casting of the film – is cast Black people in a nuanced light that we haven’t seen before. There are different types of thought, different approaches to even protest, different textures of love.”
The characters explore and embody these themes throughout the piece through their interactions with one another, and their performance as they rehearse.
Gary L. Perkins, a D.C. local who grew up in Waldorf, plays Noble, another actor in the crew. “The story not only highlights what black artists go through individually, but also our shared experiences,” Perkins says. “That’s something that’s not often highlighted. Stories of oppression, self-discovery, the uprising that we’re embracing in this specific scene: this was about what it’s like to be an actor in 2020. It’s this infusion of art and activism.”
Both Perkins and Psalm say creating a musical around a group of actors in the theatre scene was an exciting experience that opened new avenues for expression and storytelling. “It’s a cathartic feeling, because it’s us talking about being actors,” says Perkins.
“To play an actor playing an actor makes your performance a little more grounded, but it also raises the stakes – knowing how important this message is, but also for this story to cause some real change.”
“I know that life, and I figured I could imbue the story with the particular details of theatre culture that an insider would know – I felt like this was a way for me to sort of heal and reconnect with doing theater, even though I’m not able to necessarily do it in the way that I’m used to participating in it,” adds Psalm.
He says filming and editing performances have their own distinct opportunities and challenges – the first being that before the pandemic, he didn’t have much experience with film. Covid-19 changed that, and he says this piece is the culmination of what he’s learned in adapting his work to be recorded, edited and watched online.
“There’s only one scene in which I’m actually on camera with the other actors – the final scene. The weather was uncooperative, so we actually ended up shooting that scene on the first day,” Psalm explains, which made the process more like creating a feature film than a musical theatre production.
The majority of the piece takes place in Rock Creek Park: “We shot this film in February. We had a lot of snow, sleet, rain – so we were trying to dance between raindrops in terms of scheduling this thing,” says Psalm. “I loved it because you get a chance to bring the audience along with you into this natural environment. That’s one thing I’ve been doing a lot [during the pandemic], is going out into nature, and actually Rock Creek was one of the places that I really started to explore.”
Psalm says its inclusion as the backdrop of the story is a way of sharing a personal ritual with audiences. “My hope is that they can get a sense of the calm and the healing vibrations that I get from being out there,” he says.
It also has a special energy as a public space, with people stopping to watch the production and background sound a constant factor.
“You have joggers, you have pedestrians, people who are out on their walks,” Psalm explains. “[It was a challenge] in terms of the interruptions, but it was also a gift because the environment becomes like an additional character.”
Perkins and Psalm have a long working relationship; both say they’re thrilled that a lot of the collaborators they’ve been working with in theater could be a part of this project, including choreographer Anthony Thomas and Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez, who directed the music. The camaraderie of working together on a performance means even more now in the current moment, says Perkins.
“The joy of making it with people I would call friends – to relive all of that while watching it is something that I’m really looking forward to, and I’m hoping that the message of these Insurgents is something that resonates throughout DC theatre,” Perkins says.
The musical will premiere on March 31 and will be free to stream at any time. For more, visit www.arenastage.org and follow @arenastage on Instagram. Keep up with Psalmayene 24 on Instagram @psalmayene24.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.