Dallas — George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum debuted 30 years ago, in 1986, as a satire of the experience of being black in America as seen through “exhibits.” For this exhibition, the playwright is the artist; the director the curator. If it were updated for the hashtag era, we’d no doubt see exhibits related to Black Lives Matter and rampant whitewashing in Hollywood and onstage—not to mention in textbooks.
But what’s there in the 11 exhibits is exceedingly relevant, sometimes in small ways that most non-blacks haven’t thought much about and could lead to justifiably uncomfortable conversations on social media. For instance, if you haven’t had a black friend explain why white preoccupation with their hair texture is annoying, then you might want to learn more about that.
The script was the first play Soul Rep Theatre Company produced back in 1997, and now that the company is back after its decade-long hiatus, it’s fitting that they’ve restaged it for the group’s 10/20 season (10th season, 20th year). The production, co-directed by Dee Hunter-Smith and Rene Jones, has a number of bumps and overall unevenness, but I’d encourage any white theater patron whose main experience with black theater is Dreamgirls or Ain’t Misbehavin’ to take it in.
Wolfe’s script calls for three women and two men to play the various roles, and for no intermission. Soul Rep doesn’t adhere to either of these suggestions, but no harm. The ensemble consists of Rene Jones, Anyika McMillan-Herod, Shayla Kelley, Kazy Amoi, Emir Price, Douglas Carter, Monique Ridge-Williams, Yolanda Davis and dancer Terrance M. Johnson. The young Qaadir Muhammed plays drums, crucial in the first exhibit.
That scene, “Git on Board,” is one of the show’s laughter-through-uncomfortable-tears moments. A cruise ship attendant, Miss Pat (played by Jones), gets the audience ready for a voyage on Celebrity Slavehip, “departing the Gold Coast and making short stops at Bahia, Port au Prince and Havana, before making our final destination in Savannah.”
She urges the audience to fasten our shackles as she explains what the future holds for the newly arrived Africans, who will go through many, many struggles (Jim Crow, Civil Rights) and highpoints (Martha and the Vandelas, Diahann Carroll), and will eventually make a fortune thanks to an air-filled bouncing sphere that we now know as a basketball.
Some of the more humorous exhibits that follow include: “Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel,” a cooking show with McMillan-Herod as Ethel; “The Photo Session,” in which two models (Kelley and Amoi) live inside the glamorous world of Ebony Magazine, safe from the real world; and “The Hairpiece,” with McMillan-Herod as a woman at her dressing table and in the middle of two talking wig stands (Williams and Kelley), trying to explain which is better for her to wear tonight, the afro or the long, flowing hair. With these, the first act turns out to be the stronger half, with McMillan-Herod giving the standout performances.
Emir Price isn’t as successful in “Soldier with a Secret,” a powerful monologue about black men dying in Ameican wars; and the hilarious piece about a drag queen, “The Gospel According to Miss Roj,” suffers from a performance by Carter that’s neither bold nor fabulous enough.
In the second act, Kelley is mesmerizing in “Permutations,” as a Southern girl using an egg metaphor for the optimism she feels about the babies she’ll have and will confidently let fly out into a world that values them. Less successful is “Lala’s Opening,” in which Davis is a respected international singer/entertainer, along the lines of Cesaria Evora. Singing is not the strong suit of this cast in general.
The final scene, “The Party,” with McMillan-Herod as a woman who can’t stop dancing and implores the cast and audience to celebrate the power in my “colored contradictions” is stirring.
Two other scenes in the second act stand out.
In “Symbiosis,” a man entering the business world (played by Amoi, in his best performance of the show) is confronted by his inner youth (played by Price) when he’s considering trashing all the things that attributed to making him the proud black man he became. Everything from a dashiki and Converse All-Stars to Temptations and Stevie Wonder records. “I’ll only be black on weekends or holidays,” he convinces himself. Move that into the current conversation about how black men have to present themselves in this country to feel safe. Poignant.
The satirical sharpness of “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” remains a highlight. It’s a parody of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, with Davis as Mama, Carter as “Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie-Jones,” and McMillan-Herod and Jones as mash-ups of Raisin’s Ruth and Beneatha. Both women are confident in their Africanism, like Beneatha. But the point here is not to make fun of Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, but rather non-black audiences’ unwillingness to watch black theater in which the performers aren’t singing and dancing.
It’s amazing that it took more than 40 years after Raisin for a black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog), and we still see that white audiences, especially, are uncomfortable with seeing real black life, both struggles and celebrations, portrayed on stage. Here’s hoping Soul Rep and the area’s other black theaters, African American Repertory Theater and Jubilee Theatre among them, can change that.
On another note, Soul Rep's publicity photos for this show, of these actors/characters as iconic paintings, is genius: Miss Roj as da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," Aunt Ethel as Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," and especially Junie the soldier as Magritte's "The Son of Man," with a bag of Skittles instead of an apple. Terrific reference to Trayvon Martin.