Jeremy Pope as artist Jean Michel Basquiat in The Collaboration on Broadway (Contributed photo)

The drama “The Collaboration,” dives into an exploration of a relationship between Warhol (Paul Bettany, “Wanda Vision”) and Puerto Rican/Haitian American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope, “Ain’t too Proud to Beg”) a street artist turned cultural lightning bolt. The drama is presented by Manhattan Theater Club and the Young Vic Theater and is a transfer from London. 

If you do a general Google search on Jean-Michel Basquiat, you will find many articles describing him as a Black man. I have an issue with anyone being described as if they are crayons or paint choices. Black is a color, not a race. And to highlight the point even further, Basquiat was of Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage, and in retelling his story, his identities are often ignored. 

“The Collaboration” places Andy Warhol with Basquiat. A bold pairing and one New York audiences are drawn to like a moth to a flame. The story takes place in the summer of 1984; longtime international art icon Andy Warhol, who was turning the art scene on its head, and Jean-Michel Basquiat agree to work together on what may be the most talked about exhibition in the history of modern art. 

The question looms, can these two creative giants co-exist or even thrive? The stage becomes a blank canvas. The play is written by Anthony McCarten (four-time Oscar®-nominated writer of The Two Popes and Bohemian Rhapsody) and directed by the acclaimed Kwame Kwei-Armah (Artistic Director of London’s Young Vic). Kwei-Armah was brought up in Southall, West London. His parents were born in Grenada. He changed his name after tracing his family history through the slave trade back to his ancestral African roots in Ghana.

The artistic creations of Jean Michel Basquiat (Contributed photo)

An artist’s surroundings (past and present) usually help them find their “voice” in their artwork. It certainly fills in many cracks, at the very least. Here the story centers on 16 canvases and the friendship that took root between them. Warhol and Basquiat. It’s not new news that the powers that run the world love keeping things unbalanced. In the art world, a rivalry builds a story, and a story helps make the artist, which increases the price of their work. So by pitting these two bold painters against each other, art sellers create a foundation to sell the work. The 20-something Basquiat’s work was commanding higher prices than Warhol’s. 

Basquiat’s work explored his Haitian, African, Puerto Rican/Latino, and American heritage, leaning into his graffiti style. His art grew in scale and scope, referencing the distinction between poverty and wealth, and his work was done with purpose. It wasn’t a happy accident that he used words, text, graffiti eye, logos, and iconography. His painting ‘In This Case,’ sold for $110 million at auction in 2017. He created over 200 artworks during his lifetime, developing a signature imagery that accompanied all of his paintings — a heroic, crowned black oracle figure and a Kings’ crown.

Basquiat’s Haitian roots. Basquiat, born in Brooklyn, was the son of Matilde Andradas, of Puerto Rican descent, and Gerard Basquiat, from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As a 17-year-old, he dropped out of high school, and his father kicked him out of the house. He became homeless and lived with friends and sold sweatshirts and postcards that he painted over. His life on the New York streets influenced his interest in graffiti, where he gained attention for his graffiti tag “SAMO” – short-hand for “same-old shit” created by Basquiat and his high school friend, Al Diaz.

In reviewing “The Collaboration,” I wanted to get a Haitian’s perspective on the play and how the character Basquiat, a Haitian and Puerto Rican man, was captured. Most of us only hear about Haiti and the growing chaos that is building. Haiti’s interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, requests help in the form of an international intervention but remains in limbo because there are undefined terms of how they appear. It may look as if devastating gang violence, escalating hunger, and another outbreak of cholera. The country and its 11 million residents are without a president — vacated since the assassination of Jovenel Moïse 18 months ago — or a parliament.

Here’s what Rubens Amisial, born in Haiti, the manager of Brooklyn Deli, had to share about “The Collaboration”.

NJ URBAN NEWS As a Haitian, what did you think about how Jean-Michel Basquiat was portrayed in “The Collaboration”?

AMISIAL: I must start by saying that the show was incredible. As a Haitian man, I was proud to see a Haitian American man recognized for his talent. And Haiti is [also] known for its art. Since Jean [Michel Basquiat] has already paved the way as a man of color in the modern art world, I hope that soon enough, more Haitians will have a chance to be recognized for their talents as well. Better yet, all people of color. 

NJ URBAN NEWS:  There’s a lot of division that hurts everyone, especially people of color. Why do you think this issue rages and especially in Haiti? 

RS: That’s a solid question. It’s all about control and power. Back in the 16th century, a man of color and a white man could have the same job. But the white leader will make the other poor white man believe that even though he is doing the same job he is better. It’s a separation of power. Once the rich white man allows the mass to come together, they will lose power. That’s why we have the 1% “rich white,” and if they don’t create division and chaos, they believe they will lose their power. That’s why anyone with a different hue must go through it before being recognized or given respect. 

Better yet, America is the only country that will go to war with another country and lose. But come back home and make a movie about how they won the war. With lies, there is control, division, and power. The same is still relevant now.

The Collaboration’s creative team includes Anna Fleischle (Set & Costume Design), Ben Stanton (Lighting Design), Emma Laxton (Sound Design), Duncan McLean (Projection Design), Karicean “Karen” Dick & Carol Robinson (Wig Design), Ayanna Witter-Johnson (Original Music), Deborah Hecht (Dialect & Vocal Coach), James Latus (Production Stage Manager). Andy Warhol died at 58 in 1987 after gallbladder surgery and Jean-Michel Basquiat at just 27 in 1988, after a heroin overdose.

“The Collaboration” — is extended to February 11th.

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