"The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown," the newest production by the African Continuum Theatre Company, is written and performed by Psalmayene 24 (who plays Jujube and his obstreperous half brother Peanut) and Toni Blackman (who plays a variety of female roles). As performers they're talented: Blackman has a low, lovely voice and Psalmayene has a rubber-limbed slow-motion dance style that is hypnotic to watch. As writers, they're going over familiar content without bringing anything new to it.
The form is new. "Hip Hop Nightmares" is poetry, spoken to the riveting music of Brent "Munch" Joseph. But the story of Jujube Brown (Psalmayene) is the same old unhappy one of a young black man who turns to violence and is destroyed by it. It's not enough to say that the social reality is still horribly with us; an artistic treatment should bring some new insight to the situation, not just rehash its misery.
Jujube's a bright kid, bored in school, who gets a scholarship to a snooty all-white prep school, Evergreen Academy. He feels alienated there and leaves for New York to live with his divorced father and Peanut, a self-styled graffiti artist. One day, when Jujube is back living with his hard-working mother in D.C. and Peanut has come to visit, the three go for a picnic in the park. Jujube and Peanut get into a scuffle with cops, and Jujube shoots one.
The show doesn't "explain" what goes wrong for Jujube. On the one hand, this avoids glib oversimplifying. On the other hand, it leaves the audience trying to figure out whether his fate was inevitable or could have been prevented. While Jujube is oppressed by his general environment -- no money, mean cops, only one parent, violent neighborhood, preppies who don't get his style of music -- no particular awful events have scarred him.
Again, this is sociologically sound, but it's not very satisfying in a stage presentation. The point seems finally to be that the overall racist environment, regardless of its particulars, is poisonous to young black men. The audience's only alternative is to think that Jujube's a bit spoiled and not too bright, like dozens of other prep school boys who come to bad ends. (In "Catcher in the Rye," Holden Caulfield ended up in a mental institution.)
Dan Covey's lighting, with its brightly colored, visible fixtures, is harsh and jarring in the right way, and Tom Donahue's set graced with Rene Toussaint's graffiti is an appropriate background for the story. (Cool Disco Dan has even visited the neighborhood.) Psalmayene's choreography is outstanding -- lithe, witty and, unlike the show itself, full of surprises. The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown, conceived and directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, written and performed by Toni Blackman and Psalmayene 24. Music, Brent "Munch" Joseph. At the Arena Stage Old Vat Room through March 22. Call 202-488-3300. CAPTION: Psalmayene 24 co-stars in and co-wrote "The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown."