Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s premiere “P.Y.G., or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” at Studio Theatre jumps into hip-hop, too. A white pop star modeled on Justin Bieber gets thrown into a reality show with two black rappers — Petty Young Goons, a.k.a. P.Y.G. — who are supposed to toughen the Bieber figure’s act. As in “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” Chisholm’s hit drama at Mosaic that sprang out of the Trayvon Martin shooting, frictions blow up.
“I went down the Bieber rabbit hole,” Chisholm says. “It’s about collaboration and how to negotiate cultural exchange.”
Psalmayene 24 directed Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of “Native Son” as he wrote “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of A Native Son,” inspired by Baldwin’s critique of Wright’s landmark 1940 novel; the two plays are now rotating on Mosaic’s stage.
“Richard Wright is Jay-Z and James Baldwin is Kanye West,” says Psalmayene 24, who had another historical figure burst into rap last year with “An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland,” part of “The Frederick Douglass Project.” “Jay-Z is at the top of his game, but now Kanye was the upstart radical. Their relationship has echoes of a rap battle in terms of Baldwin trying to make his name by taking down the person in the top spot.”
Psalmayene 24, known as Psalm to his friends, grew up in Brooklyn, took acting seriously when he came to Howard University and started making work he could perform; he has a new solo show in the works. Chisholm was raised in St. Louis, studied fine arts in college and liked theater as a way of melding visual art and writing. Chisholm was commissioned by Georgetown University to write a play in coordination with the Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation project, but after going to Louisiana for research, he discovered he needed to yank the assignment inside out.
“I was like, I don’t want to write a slave,” Chisholm says. “There’s nothing you can do to make me write something so a black person has to get onstage and play a slave. I’m not doing it. That became ‘How Not to Write a Slave Play.’ ”
How do you describe “P.Y.G.”?
Chisholm: It’s a very loose adaptation of “Pygmalion.” It’s about this white hip-hop star from Canada who wants to roughen his image up. They give him a reality TV show with two rappers from Chicago, and they are in charge of his new persona. So as they play him like Eliza Doolittle, they go into conflict about what they’re doing and what it means for the culture.
The real impetus for the play was I was in talk-backs for my other shows, and a lot of the white patrons would ask afterward what they should do. I was like, okay: I’ll just write a whole play to tell white people what to do. It was an earnest question. I took them to heart. The play evolved into something totally different.
You are directing “P.Y.G.” and going all-in with the reality TV angle?
Chisholm: Yeah. Cameras, live feeds, live music, commercials. It’s got it all. I definitely leaned into it. I’m a big fan of reality TV, actually. It’s a guilty pleasure. I’m a big “Love and Hip-Hop” fan. I’m also a big “[Real] Housewives” fan. All of them. “Orange County” is my favorite.
Is it helpful that you’re directing “Native Son” while writing “Les Deux Noirs”?
Psalmayene 24: Absolutely. They are in dialogue, and the research is all for both plays now. “Les Deux Noirs” takes place after “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” [Baldwin’s “Native Son” critiques] were published in magazines. It’s a reimagining of a meeting between James Baldwin and Richard Wright. There’s rap in the play, and we use a song that both Kanye and Jay-Z are on as a means of getting us into this world. It’s not all in rhyme. But parts of their conflict we see expressed through that.
Your plays both use history and of-the-moment issues and devices. How do you balance that?
Chisholm: My plays usually start out of me being taught a rule and saying: I don’t believe that. As much as it is an adaptation, it’s also written as an objection to “Pygmalion.” I think I added that after the idea was rolling, as a strategic way to invite people in.
Psalmayene 24: I still have this universal vision in terms of who I want to speak to. But then I had to slow down and meditate on that and say, Actually, there’s so much wealth in the black experience that I’m going to focus on that.
Chisholm: That’s a thing for me, too. The thing I’ve been doing is removing whiteness from my plays. This play is in transition. There’s intra-racial conflict, and I’m much more interested in tackling that than I am outside white conflict. I know what that is. That’s not changing. But what’s our beef, and how do we address that?
Psalmayene 24: With both Wright and Baldwin, their primary readership was white. The mainstream publishing industry is white. I think that’s something black artists now have to grapple with.
Chisholm: That’s what the characters in my play are dealing with: They’re making money, but for who? They’re getting notoriety, but to what end? I was doing research for this play and looking at rappers’ concerts, and all the people in the front are white. I’ve taken that as an imperative to not pull any punches. Okay, you’re gonna give me money to say what I want to say? I’m gonna say it.
Psalmayene 24: There’s this bipolar quality to being a certain type of black artist. The same institutions that are funding you, a lot of times, there’s a part of my upbringing that has taught me that those are the institutions my work is supposed to burn down. Don’t get me wrong: There are many allies in these organizations, and that is important. We’ve always been in partnership with white allies. We have to continue that.
There is a lot of writing now about the state of black theater. What’s exciting, and what needs work?
Chisholm: What’s exciting to me is the recognition that there isn’t a monolith. I think the thing that is missing is, like, rap battles. The thing that excited me about the old-white-man plays is that they were talking to each other. They were like, “I don’t like what you were saying, so I’m going to write a whole play debating what you’re saying.”
Psalmayene 24: That’s aligned with the spirit of hip-hop, the breakdance battles, the rap battles. Steel sharpens steel. We raise each other’s games. We need to disagree. We’re not a monolith. Let’s air these differences out.
Big stages are always open to August Wilson. How do you feel about that?
Chisholm: I’m not mad at it. I think the thing I would love people to start doing with August is interpret it. Instead of making them history plays, let’s have some fun direction, or a concept. Let’s interrogate it like we do Shakespeare. If your goal is to tell an authentic black story today and you choose August Wilson. . . . The bane of my existence is when people choose [Lorraine Hansberry’s] “A Raisin in the Sun.” It’s a great play, but it’s not really speaking to today. And the fact that you think it does is problematic for me.
Psalmayene 24: I’m not going to say anything bad. Much love to August.
Is the “Hamilton” effect good or bad?
Chisholm: It’s in the play. [laughs] I have no desire to see it. I feel like I know what it is. And I don’t want it.
Psalmayene 24: Ultimately, it’s a good thing, because hip-hop is now thought of as having the ability to be intertwined with high art, with theater that’s world-class and commercially viable. I think the danger is that people think that is the only way to combine the forms. There are infinite ways to marry hip-hop and theater.
Chisholm: I’m glad it exists. But it’s like a gateway drug, and I don’t need a gateway drug. I’m already in.
If you go
Les Deux Noirs and Native Son
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. mosaictheater.org
Dates: Through April 28.
P.Y.G., or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org
Dates: Through April 28.
Prices: $20-$76, subject to change.