With his play The Colored Museum, which premiered in New Jersey in 1986, African-American playwright George C. Wolfe went where few writers had dared to go before him, fearlessly exploring what it means to be black in America, with a keen eye for humor and little regard for political correctness.
The bitter legacy of the origins of African-American history might seem an odd topic for comic reflection, but Wolfe's somewhat startling piece deftly presents the raw horrors of slavery as backdrop for black sociocultural development. He presents both poignant commentary and sharp-edged lampoon as he examines black life in America and the contemporary images that have popularly defined it.
Wolfe's play was controversial in its time, and proved to be an early career event for a man who went on to broader recognition as a Broadway director. Now 27 years old, the script remains a mostly accessible and daring satirization of various elements of black society, culture and artistic expression.
Providing some sting along with laughter, Street Theatre Company's new production exploits the material to general satisfaction. Director Jon Royal — who scored a big hit at STC with Hairspray in 2011 — has assembled a cast featuring familiar local veteran players, including Tamiko Robinson, LaToya Gardner, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, James Rudolph and Shawn Whitsell.
Wolfe's "museum" metaphor is realized in revue format, as 11 separate "exhibits" are presented with the assistance of revolving stage scenery that provides playing areas for the actors and also presents pertinent photographic imagery.
The show opener, "Git on Board," features Lauren Jones as Ms. Pat, the host of a "celebrity slaveship," in which passengers are urged to "fasten your shackles." Jones takes us through a loopy and caustic narrative that culminates in finding riches in a basketball career.
Next up is "Cookin' With Aunt Ethel," a kitchen sketch that satirizes the Aunt Jemima character and features Whitcomb-Oliva bursting into a well-rendered and sarcastic blues number. Then there's "The Photo Session," which finds Robinson and Don Daniels preening like superficial Ebony magazine models.
The meat of the show is in the middle — specifically, "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," a razor-sharp takedown of conventional black drama (e.g., A Raisin in the Sun) that morphs into a "shout" gospel number evoking the equally conventional all-black Broadway musical. Immediately following is "Symbiosis," featuring Rudolph and Nikki Staggs, in a very thoughtful point-counterpoint on the value and meaning of various aspects of black pop culture and entertainment. Here, Motown music is earmarked for the trash bin — a downright disturbing concept.
Other scenes that succeed on pure theatrical terms are "The Gospel According to Miss Roj" — Rudolph in drag as a campy nightclubber dealing in self-loathing; and "The Hairpiece," in which two identity-shaping wigs — an Afro and a straightened flip (Robinson and Gardner) — come to life on the dressing table as a primping young woman (Chalana Pitts) prepares for a looming sad-eyed encounter with her cheating boyfriend.
Less successful skits include "Soldier With a Secret," a piece featuring Whitsell, which pointedly grapples with the potent idea of black men dying for their country, but eventually loses focus; the somewhat labored "Lala's Opening," in which Gardner embodies a Josephine Baker type and strives to justify her transformation from small-town Southern girl to exotic French diva; and "Permutations," a pained monologue in which Whitcomb-Oliva works through the naive emotions of a slow-witted young pregnant woman embracing her “egg.”
Playwright Wolfe's revue does a fairly remarkable job of balancing serious commentary with genuine humor, and the STC version, though uneven, provides an intriguing perspective on the African-American experience — the progression from slavery, Sambo imagery and white-glove minstrelsy to the more hopeful modern time we presumably live in now.
Some of the roles here are double-cast; this review was based on the opening-night ensemble. The live music, which includes keyboards and percussion, is handled with typical excellence by musical director Rollie Mains.
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AGGGHHHH that last picture!