BWW REVIEW: THE COLORED MUSEUM Celebrates and Skewers Black History

Written by George C. Wolfe; directed and choreographed by Billy Porter; music direction and arrangements, James Sampliner; scenic design, Clint Ramos; costume design, Anita Yavich; lighting design, Driscoll Otto; sound design, John Shivers and Kevin Kennedy; projection design, Zachary G. Borovay; music by Kysia Bostic; production stage manager, Emily F. McMullen; stage manager, Tareena D. Wimbish

Cast in Alphabetical Order:

Nathan Lee Graham, Capathia Jenkins, Ken Robinson, Shayna Small, and Rema Webb; percussionist, Akili Jamal Hayes

Performances and Tickets:

Now through April 5, Huntington Theatre Company, BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.huntingtontheatre.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-266-0800.

It feels like it could have been written yesterday, but THE COLORED MUSEUM, now in a rollicking revival at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, Mass., was actually first produced in 1986. Written by the estimable Broadway playwright and director George C. Wolfe (Jelly's Last Jam, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches) and directed here with great panache by Tony Award winner Billy Porter (Kinky Boots), this scathing "black black comedy" marches through 300 years of African American history by way of 11 funny but also penetrating living vignettes.

Each "exhibit" in THE COLORED MUSEUM depicts a particular historical stereotype or cultural trope, lampooning everything from slavery to jazz music to family life to the forgotten soldier. Recurring themes such as identity, survival, acceptance and assimilation challenge each character as he or she tries to carve out a unique piece of the American Dream.

The vignettes, presented as vaudeville sketches, at first seem to be disconnected but Wolfe and Porter tie them all together by using drumbeats as a consistent undercurrent. In between scenes a time-traveling minstrel (Akili Jamal Haynes) leads characters from one exhibit to another, donning clothes and playing a variety of percussion instruments that symbolize each passing era. The drumming is provocative and insistent, serving as a powerful reminder of each character's inescapable history. It's both a celebration and a warning, passing one generation's legacy onto the next. When at the end the drumming swells into a cacophony of heartbeats, it's the sound of the collective African American consciousness. Three hundred years of history melds with the present, and the result is a hope for the future that is dependent on the past.

Biting satire drives the engine of THE COLORED MUSEUM, turning archetypes on their heads to skewer not only the racist stereotypes perpetuated by white people but also the self-defeating self-denial often engaged in by blacks themselves. In so doing, Wolfe simultaneously celebrates and exposes the complexities of an entire lineage of people who became Americans not by choice but by chance.

The journey begins when a chipper stewardess (Shayna Small) entreats her "passengers" to "Git on Board" the Celebrity Slave Ship, an aircraft on which travelers are told to fasten their shackles and refrain from drumming or code talking. During their passage from Africa to Savannah, the slaves are told of the 300 years of pain they will endure with Small maniacally acting out highlights (or are they lowlights?) on fast forward. Cut to the Jazz Age where Capathia Jenkins shows us how to "bake ourselves a batch of Negros" on the "Cookin' with Aunt Ethel" show. Stirring the pot with a heaping helping of powerful vocals and a pinch of salty attitude, she tosses in ingredients ranging from rage and sadness to blues and survival.

"The Photo Session" mocks the superficiality of high-end black glamour magazines while the "Soldier with a Secret" portrays the harsher realities of the Vietnam War. "The Hairpiece" is a hilarious schizophrenic nightmare that has Nathan Lee Graham terrorized by two of his/her wig mannequins that come belligerently to life. The afro wig (Jenkins) insists that her natural curls are right for the big break-up that is pending because she won't be pressed into surrender. The long flowing wig (Small) argues that her straightened do can flick off a man with one emphatic head toss. Either way it's the heart of the woman, not the hairstyle, that matters.

One of the most powerful exhibits turns out to be "The Gospel According to Miss Roj," a gay cross dresser who finds solace at the Bottomless Pit nightclub. Poised, proud and yet pained by being marginalized, Graham mines the determination and the demons living inside this coke-snorting self-destructive "snap queen." With a haughty bravado that is both defiant and sad, Graham's Roj is at once remarkable and tragic. His gospel was written by Aretha - R-E-S-P-E-C-T - but for all his flamboyance, it's still a word he needs to internalize for himself.

Respect is also what Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie-Jones (Ken Robinson) seeks in "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," a delicious parody of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. With matching wallpaper, sofa fabric and dress material for Mama, this "Masterpiece Theater"-like episode satirizes the classic formula for black drama. There's the well-worn Mama (Jenkins) who takes no guff from her angry and insolent son. There's the feminist daughter-in-law (Webb) who has embraced her African heritage and roots. There's also the dramatic younger sister (Small) who has used her classical education to take herself one step further away from her history. With nods to Doo Wop, Motown, Gospel and even The Lion King, "The Last Mama" spoofs both the exaggerated melodrama and the giddy all-black musical revue.

Identity crises are at the core of both "Symbiosis" and "Lala's Opening," exhibits in which the characters have turned their backs on their childhood selves. In the former, an urban professional (Robinson) keeps trying to throw away his youthful rage (Graham), while in the latter the swanky nightclub singer LaLa Lamazing Grace (Webb) has invented an exotic Creole persona to obliterate her impoverished past. Webb handles the dichotomy in her personality cleverly, shifting subconsciously from her adopted French to her native Detroit accent whenever haunting childhood memories creep back in.

Children are the promise of "Permutations" when a fragile young southern girl (Small) lays a giant white egg filled with babies. As more and more heartbeats from inside the egg can be heard, the scene changes to "The Party" where the beating transforms into a driving disco drumming. In this final exhibit Topsy Washington (Webb) plays host to African Americans from throughout history, merging the past with the present in a celebration of both. Here anything is possible. The foundation for the future has been built with every brick from the past.

Porter's past experience with Wolfe at New York's Public Theater is evident as his direction perfectly interprets the play's take-no-prisoners style. The music he and music director James Sampliner have chosen also serves to deepen the satire and heighten the merry mayhem.

Clint Ramos' sets seem deceptively simple but the rotating panels and central turntable allow scenes to slide smoothly from one exhibit to the next. Zachary G. Borovay's detailed projections - which not only transform the backdrops but also change the proscenium arch - are strokes of pure genius.

THE COLORED MUSEUM is a daringly smart comedy that feels both timeless and contemporary. Wolfe and Porter call it a celebration and an exorcism. I call it potent and delightful.

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON: Capathia Jenkins, Nathan Lee Graham, Ken Robinson, Shayna Small and Rema Webb; Capathia Jenkins; Rema Webb and Nathan Lee Graham; Ken Robinson; Shayna Small, Nathan Lee Graham and Capathia Jenkins; Akili Jamal Haynes




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