The Richard Wright-James Baldwin showdown “Les Deux Noirs” briefly becomes “Les Quatre” in the frisky, flippant new show at Mosaic Theater. Wright takes on a Jay-Z persona and Baldwin is Kanye West as the Jay-Z/Kanye West song “Niggas in Paris” gets the music video treatment, complete with choreography and projections. No telling where playwright Psalmayene 24 might swerve after that irreverent, heady start to his 70-minute power play between mid-20th-century titans of black American culture.
You can’t say Psalmayene 24 is jumping on the hip-hop bandwagon of “Hamilton”; he’s been doing this for at least 20 years, since he performed his “The Hip-Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown” at Arena Stage. The new drama’s full title is “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son,” and it’s based on a 1953 meeting in Paris between Wright and Baldwin. The beef was the upstart Baldwin’s critique of Wright’s 1940 novel, “Native Son,” a groundbreaking book that’s still troubling in its representation of Bigger Thomas’s violent reaction to an oppressive society.
Mosaic relishes programming mash-ups, and “Les Deux Noirs” is in rep with Nambi E. Kelley’s “Native Son” adaptation, directed by Psalmayene 24, which injects a second character to illustrate Bigger’s nagging double consciousness (Kelley’s invocation of W.E.B. Du Bois is deliberate). For extra measure, there’s even a new HBO film of “Native Son,” updated and substantially adapted by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks — who turned to playwriting as a student because of encouragement from one of her professors, James Baldwin.
So the waters are deep, yet Psalmayene 24’s script surfs and splashes entertainingly. James J. Johnson is natty and composed as Wright, his brown suit and tie a sharp contrast to the open-collar, no-socks look sported by Jeremy Hunter’s mischievous Baldwin. Johnson and Hunter are catty together, pretentiously dripping insults in the famed literary spat, and they go with the flow as Psalmayene 24 gets them jumping onto cafe tables for hip-hop interludes. Director Raymond O. Caldwell sets a tone that allows for everything from food fights to a startling photo montage of black power and painful stereotypes zooming across the 20th century.
The show is a fantasia that isn’t entirely sure of itself yet. Sexuality rears its head — Baldwin was gay, Wright married two white women — and in that complicated key, RJ Pavel and Musa Gurnis are terrific as the solicitous maitre d’ and waitress (both white) with creamy French accents and lusty eyes. The chats and the action never feel remote — lessons on the n-word, a great joke about reparations — even if the show is still seeking the thread that will pull it all tight.
The brand-new script was a midseason substitution rushed to fill a gap, but for Mosaic it’s a fine roll of the dice. It amplifies the admiration and discontent Kelley expresses in her “Native Son,” and the ending seems to anticipate what came later from writers such as Amiri Baraka. The theatrical frame is lively, and the two main roles are good, with every chance of getting better if the script evolves. Hunter may seem to steal scenes as the relentlessly performative Baldwin, practically singing his vowels and making dramatic faces, but Johnson’s Wright has a coiled presence that commands attention. It’s a fair fight that you hope will go deeper than this promising first round.
Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son, by Psalmayene 24. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Set, Ethan Sinnott; lights, William K. D’Eugenio; costumes, Amy MacDonald; projections, Brandi Martin; sound, Nick Hernandez; choreography, Tiffany Quinn. About 70 minutes. Through April 27 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $20-$65. 202-399-7993. mosaictheater.org.