Huntington's "Colored Museum": Kvetch-a-Sketch

Capathia Jenkins, Ken Robinson & Nathan Lee Graham in "The Colored Museum"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington Theatre Company's revival of the1985 play “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe is a series of satirical sketches, playlets depicting various cultural stereotypes of African-Americans. Described by Wolfe as both an exorcism and a party, it was first recognized as a jaw-dropping ninety-minute work; thirty years later, and extended in length, it's a testament to society's plodding progress in that it still bites. Each segment is more than mere kvetching, but has a particular point to make about that disappointing progress. As meticulously directed and choreographed by Billy Porter (a Tony winner for his leading role in “Kinky Boots”), this production is wildly memorable, whether one is being exercised, exorcised, partied or prodded. Suffice it to say that this slightly updated version is outrageously well directed, outrageously well performed, and outrageously out (of the closet, that is). Much of one's appreciation of the overall work may well depend on just how much baggage one brings to it, but more about this later.

Git on Board”, the first of eleven “exhibits”, features Miss Pat (Shayna Small), a programed flight attendant on a celebrity slaveship, instructing us to fasten ourselves in (one could almost hear her say, “it's gonna be a bumpy night”), referencing the Watusi, the Funky Chicken and Faulkner all in one breath. This is followed by “Cookin' with Aunt Ethel” (Capathia Jenkins), a cooking show in which we're taught how to “explore the magic and mysteries of colored cuisine” and cook ourselves an unusual batch of...well, no spoilers here. Then comes “The Photo Session”, dissing superficial glossy magazines like Ebony, wherein we're urged toward a fabulous world where “no one says anything profound or meaningful or contradictory”. On a totally different note, “A Soldier with a Secret” is next, when a soldier (Ken Robinson) foresees the future of his fellow combatants and devises a deranged solution to save them from the inevitable, “the secret to your pain”. In “The Hairpiece”, “Janine”,a 1950's Afro wig and “LaWanda,” a more au courant and assimilated long-tressed wig, debate their influences on their owner's life over twenty years and the fact that “it don't matter where you come from as long as you end up in the right place”. Then there's “The Gospel according to Miss Roj” (Nathan Lee Graham) where, in a gay nightclub, a drag performer declaims in a snap the debasement beneath the glitter: “If this place is the answer, we're asking all the wrong questions”.

The midpoint, and centerpiece, of the sketches is “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play”, a rather cruel, devastatingly brutal parody of black plays and films, specifically “Raisin in the Sun” (done a couple of seasons ago at Huntington), ending with a suggestion that everyone segue into an all-black, all singing, all dancing, musical: “If we want to live, we have got to dance”, all in front of an impossibly busy wallpapered set complete with a black Jesus. Next is “Symbiosis”, a tale of a man confronted by a younger version of himself, trying to throw away his past (“Man kills his own rage; film at eleven”), but his younger self is refusing to be trashed. Then there's “LaLa's Opening”, wherein singer Lala Lamazing Grace (Rema Webb) also discovers that her former self still haunts her (“You may think you made me, but...I was who I was...long before you made me what I am”). The zany “Permutations” follows, with Normal Jean Reynolds, a young girl from the South, explaining to us how she laid a giant white egg filled with babies: “any day now, this shell's gonna crack and my babies are gonna fly”. The final sketch is “The Party”, a fantasy feast given by one Topsy Washington, defying limits and logic, featuring Nat Turner, Eartha Kitt, Angela Davis and Aunt Jemima, with Topsy proclaiming “my power is in my madness...and my colored contradictions”.

The power of this work lies indeed in its occasional madness and “colored contradictions”; this is a museum, after all, aiming to educate while it entertains. Just as one might expect, as with most revues, some of these sketches work better than others, not unlike, say, “Saturday Night Live”. Inevitably, some of the once- topical references no longer are, and some parts will work best for theatergoers who can relate most to the jargon and jive. Several of the pieces are amusingly aimed at the jugular with knowing nudges to comfort the communally afflicted, while others exist primarily to afflict the comfortable. (We know who we are; this critic grew up in a 'hood where diversity meant a white Catholic who wasn't Irish). In either case, the cast, all playing a multitude of roles, land quite a few of the barbs, some gentle and some not, on their intended targets. The ensemble of Graham, Robinson, Jenkins, Small and Webb, with quite frequent onstage support from the fine Percussionist Akili Jamal Haynes, are wonderful as a group and impressive when each gets a chance to stop the show. Just one of numerous high points is that Supreme moment on hearing Jenkins channel Jennifer Holliday in “Dreamgirls”, a hysterically perfect take. In keeping with the tone of the work are the wildly funny Scenic Design with a rotating set by Clint Ramos, clever Costume Design by Anita Yavich, complex Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto, effective Sound Design by the team of John Shivers and Kevin Kennedy, and Projection Design by Zachary G. Borovay. There is also great Music by Kysia Bostic and Music Direction and Arrangements by James Sampliner. Everything about this production is Broadway-ready.

Except the length. In at least three of the playlets, the hijinks continue well past their sell-by dates. While the moments in drag are fabulously well done, they become a bit of a drag when extended way beyond making their points (though creating awareness of yet another sort of stereotyping), causing the show to lose its overall fast-paced precision and momentum. The same could be said for the “Raisin” parody with its intentional over-the-top emoting, once it becomes a seemingly endless musical. But that's easily fixed with a bit of editing here and there in Wolfe's amazingly clever book. Just to see LaLa Lamazing Grace almost hit that high note that only dogs can hear, or to attend Topsy's party where Bert Williams and Malcolm X are discussing “existentialism as it relates to the shuffle-ball-change” of tap dance, or any number of such memorable turns, is well worth a visit to this unique museum. Fifty years after Selma, we find ourselves either laughing until it hurts or laughing because it does. To appreciate this production fully, first you'll have to deal with your personal baggage, for, as it might be put by Miss Pat, any baggage you don't claim, they trash. 

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