The Lost Generation
Written by Jahmar Ngozi
Directed by Jahmar Ngozi and Ajjaz Awad-Ibrahim
Produced by PoetryHouse and Arts Council England
Cast: Dauda Ladejobi, Michael Ohren, Cinthia Lilen, Jake Bryan-Amaning, Samuel Burnard, Felix Brunger and Amy Cotter
Running time: two hours
World premiere (via Facebook, YouTube, Zoom) – November 20-21
If you can embrace it, lockdown’s shift from the real to the virtual is a liberation that makes anything possible.
Writer/director Jahmar Ngozi’s The Lost Generation transforms the imaginary party format beloved of Radio 4 and weekend supplements into a poetic, jubilantly anachronistic exploration of what it means to be an artist and, specifically, to be a Black artist defying the odds in an American society that defines human rights by breaching them.
Star of the show is Jean-Michel Basquiat whose chef d’oeuvre Untitled sold for a record-breaking $110 million – not bad for a Brooklyn boy who ran away from a broken home and slept rough.
Under Ngozi’s and Awad-Ibrahim’s direction, Dauda Ladejobi gives Basquiat vulnerability and shyness as he avoids eye contact in defiance of the nascent rules of performance via Zoom, while alluring us with his magnificent smile before rising to noble anger.
Basquiat died in 1988 aged 27 of an overdose. It’s also the age at which Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix died, and we might imagine a plot based on great talents lost to the world before they were 30.
But Jahmar instead surrounds Basquiat with a generation of artists, not so much lost as carving out their own way, comprising Frida Kahlo, jazz poet and musician Gil-Scott Heron and writers Charles Bukowski and F.Scott Fitzgerald.
Looking absolutely the part as Kahlo, Cinthia Lilen makes us understand why the world is obsessed with this compassionate, eloquent, clear-sighted, articulate artist driven by pain – just a letter away from paint – who flirts charmingly and innocently, thanks, not least, to the safe distance of the digital medium.
She is not without bitterness, but it does not dominate.
By contrast Michael Ohren, as a washed-up Bukowski and Samuel Burnard, as a blocked F. Scott Fitzgerald, let it get the better of them to the extent that playful banter becomes dangerously close to active hostility, requiring Kahlo’s pacific intervention.
Jake Bryan-Amaning as Gil-Scott Heron serves as a vehicle for the performance poetry for which Ngozi has an established reputation.
“The blues is as American as apple pie. The question is why,” his character quips, using rhyme to underline his political point.
The decision to bring in cult television detective Columbo (played by Felix Brunger) to solve a death among the artistic Black community is arguably more surprising, but we forgive it as it is just one of the many hanger-on roles tackled by Brunger and by Amy Cotter.
Cotter’s stand-out performance is her horribly convincing portrayal of a ruthlessly ambitious New York Times reporter, unable to deal with Basquiat’s refusal to wear shoes and socks.
The corrosive clash of cultures and classes that don’t understand each other is diametrically opposed to the international community of artists for whom the language of art transcends every barrier.
We could listen to them riffing for hours, but Ngozi calls a halt after two with a neatly satisfying ending that explains the chessboard sitting in Basquiat’s studio waiting to be justified.
The curtain call is a screen full of happy actors grooving to the music and affirming the joy of artistic creation that surmounts any obstacle, including lockdown.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.