The Colored Museum
George C. Wolfe's slam-satire on African-American history gets a revival at Huntington Theatre Company.
In 1986, George C. Wolfe authored an 11-segment pageant, The Colored Museum, to give his audiences a quick journey through 300 years of African-American life, complete with takeoffs on the clichés and complexities of race and gender. But 20 years have gone by, and although the images and issues skewed by Wolfe are still relevant, more current events eclipse them, making the material in the Huntington Theatre's revival seem a bit old despite the high quotient of entertainment provided by a stellar cast.
The two-hour, intermission-less piece is structured in a series of disconnected sketches, as if a viewer were stopping to inspect disparate pictures on the wall of a museum or watching a vaudeville show comprising a variety of acts. The production is set on a revolving stage, with each portion playing on its own set, designed in minimalist style by Clint Ramos, but augmented by Zachary G. Borovay's back wall projections. The skilled percussionist, Akili Jamal Haynes, who changes costume to match the historical period, ushers each number on- and offstage, most shocking when he appears in exaggerated black face.
Director Billy Porter (of Kinky Boots fame), keeps the tempos quick and high-octane. However, several of the sketches make their point long before they end, especially the last elaborate number, "Lala's Opening." Backed by Lala's name in lights, it seems to be an overextended riff on Josephine Baker's life, portraying her as a self-absorbed diva rather than a complex expatriate.
The most memorable skit is a riff on Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, with the smack-'em-in-the-face Mama costumed in a flowered dress that matches the wallpaper and couch upholstery, her whining son, his back-to-her-roots wife, and his scholarly sister, who is totally removed from her milieu. Like Hansberry's drama, which examines the trials and tribulations of blacks striving for a better life in post-World War II American society, Wolfe tries on the subject, transforming the drama into comedy. The other effective sketch, "The Gospel According to Miss Roj," succeeds chiefly on Nathan Lee Graham's succulent performance as the cabaret queen, snorting coke and sashaying around the stage with plenty of attitude, even as he admits he's a freak with no place in the world.
The five actors take on all of these roles and more. Shayna Small is a perky stewardess who invites the audience on a Celebrity Tour airplane ride, complete with shackles instead of seat belts and a stern warning not to play the drums; Capathia Jenkins is a Big Mama/Aunt Jemima icon stirring up a witches' brew of rage, and later the Mother in the Hansberry skit. Rama Webb portrays the Baker-type star; and Ken Robinson plays a business trying to junk his past.
There's no question that a national dialogue about race in America is overdue, and that clichés about African-American life are still true and evident on all sides, good reasons for the theater to join the conversation. However, given the current concerns such as the value of black lives and the economic divide between the 1 percent and the rest of the population — black and white — the show feels distantly related to our present, but firmly set in the recent past. Porter has inserted mentions of Ferguson and references to The Lion King in the show, but that is not enough to make The Colored Museum timely beyond the gags about black hair and tap dancers hogging the spotlight.