Writer: Jahmar Ngozi
Directors: Jahmar Ngozi and Ajjaz Awad-Ibrahim
Jahmar Ngozi’s The Lost Generation, reimagined on Zoom, relates the last days of artist Jean- Michel Basquiat as he struggles with fame and addiction. Dauda Ladejobi gives an excellent performance as the troubled Basquiat, but the story becomes protracted in a running time that extends over two hours.
There’s already enough potential in the relationship between Basquiat and Andy Warhol for a full-length play, but Ngozi complicates matters by raising the spirits of other artists who also battled with drugs and artistic inspiration. Of all the ghosts, it is F. Scott Fitzgerald who best fits into the Lost Generation category, first alluded to by Gertrude Stein in the 1920s and referring to the American expats roaming around Europe after the First World War.
On this Zoom call, Fitzgerald is joined by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, writer and professional alcoholic Charles Bukowski and poet Gil Scott-Heron. Seemingly there to give Basquiat advice, they instead bicker about drugs and art, and at times they become as annoying and dull as drunk guests at a dinner party. It’s a relief when their Zoom windows are replaced by Basquiat’s, as it is his story we want to hear.
Basquiat is at the height of his success, but it seems to have gone to its head, best exemplified in scene where he describes smoking a joint on a plane. When a stewardess tells him to extinguish it, he refuses saying, ‘ but this is First Class!’ This stardom clashes with his more humble beginnings; his homelessness, his lack of art school education, all the attributes that made him such a feted celebrity. Regardless of his fame, potential buyers of his work reveal their own deep-rooted racism, offering him fried chicken as an inducement to sell art that he doesn’t want to part with.
When Inspector Colombo appears to tell everyone that another black artist, Michael Stewart, has been killed by the police, it becomes apparent that Ngozi has another lost generation in mind, and as the time period collapses into our present, the play has much to say about America, and freedom. And yet, the characters decide, despite America’s problems with race, it may be moving to equality more quickly than European countries.
The Lost Generation is a big play with big ideas but still it’s the focus on Basquiat that is its most gripping aspect. Dauda Ladejobi plays him as a tragic figure moving from child-like innocence to fiery anger as he listens to the other characters that have come to witness his demise. Disappointment and hurt gather in Ladejobi’s eyes, and its impossible not to feel for him, caught between the streets and limousines. His performance is hypnotic and it would be interesting to see him on a stage rather than stuck behind a computer.
There is good work, too, from Cinthia Lilen, looking uncannily similar to Kahlo, and from Jake Bryan-Amaning as Scott-Heron, although it’s slightly irritating that his face is always obscured by the smoke from, presumably, an incense candle. As Bukowski, Michael Ohren is suitably gruff and direct, while Samuel Burnard is a laidback Fitzgerald, though sometimes lounging too far from his microphone. When they all come together to vogue or to indulge in an orgy of drugs it’s very effective, despite the otherwise clunky Zoom transitions.
The Lost Generation’s main problem is the length: the play would work better on stage with an interval. But that still wouldn’t quite sort out the problems with the other artists, and while their biographies are well-researched (and in some places well-imagined) they only distract from the main event, and that is the story of Basquiat.