Saturday, July 20, 2024

Review | ‘The Colored Museum’ gets an impressive revival


Before he staged “Angels in America” on Broadway, before he took the helm at the Public Theater in New York, before he moved into filmmaking and brought us “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Rustin,” George C. Wolfe was a wet-behind-the-ears playwright whose experimental off-Broadway musical “Paradise” had just been demolished by the New York Times. What better time for a young Black writer to square his shoulders and take a swing at the titans of 20th-century African American culture?

The room was demonstrably ready when “The Colored Museum” opened at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre in 1986. The Times’s Frank Rich saluted the performers’ “stinging parodies,” praising the “pacing and unity” of an evening that’s basically a dozen dark-comedy sketches. The Washington Post’s David Richards hailed the playwright as one with “an antic imagination, a passionate sense of comedy and a welcome willingness to step on everyone’s toes.”

What pins critics’ ears reliably back about “The Colored Museum” is “The Last Mama-On-the-Couch Play,” an affectionate but withering centerpiece skewering a half-century’s worth of Black theater landmarks: dramas such as “A Raisin in the Sun” and “For Colored Girls” and all-Black musicals like “Cabin in the Sky” and “Purlie.” Whatever the merits of those shows, Wolfe notes acerbically that their authors still traffic in frustrating stereotypes, locking Black characters into old positions and inviting White audiences just far enough in to snack casually on Black trauma before catching a late supper at the oyster bar across the way. Nor do Black actors escape the nip of Wolfe’s teeth: Watch the cast of Psalmayene 24’s handsome new Studio Theatre production scramble for possession of the Oscar statuette that gets passed around, even as Wolfe’s barbs about overacting detonate like tart little truth bombs.

The director, fresh off the Folger Theatre’s richly textured but curiously unmoving refresh of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” fares far better with “The Colored Museum,” a show similarly episodic in structure but much less dependent on tone. With less of the supernatural to integrate, and without the self-imposed addition of a unifying conceit, he and his cast — Matthew Elijah Webb, Kelli Blackwell, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Iris Beaumier and William Oliver Watkins are the tight ensemble, with drummer Jabari Exum drawing their efforts even more impressively together — can focus on squeezing each sketch for its individual vitality.

Thus does the evening have the breadth to satisfyingly explore the emotional price paid by a Josephine Baker-style chanteuse (Beaumier) who has sacrificed the simplicities of her Mississippi childhood to transform herself into a global sophisticate, while also reserving just the right sparkle and sass for a sequence in which a woman (Blackwell) getting dressed for a breakup dinner argues with her two unexpectedly sentient wigs — Beaumier and Bakari, one an exuberant Angela Davis-level Afro, the other a silkier Mariah Carey waterfall — over which of them will help her project the right Strong Black Woman vibe for the occasion.

Thus, too, does the production have stylistic room for the bitter honesty of Webb’s vivid “snap queen” Miss Roj, who would just as soon destroy you as let you get under his skin; the haunted and haunting “kindness” of a Vietnam soldier (a superbly contained Watkins) whose ghost goes about quietly killing his platoon in their sleep to spare them the grief and abuse he sees awaiting them back home; and the commandingly elemental innocence of Normal Jean Reynolds (the mesmerizing Bakari), a grubby red-dirt teenager with a deeply eerie monologue about how she came to give birth to an egg.

Famously, Wolfe framed “The Colored Museum” as a string of exhibits exploding the ways Black Americans tell and are told in their own stories. Psalmayene 24 and designer Natsu Onoda Power lean into the notion with a casually environmental approach that, not unlike Rorschach Theatre’s “Human Museum” earlier this season, reframes the Studio lobbies and parts of the Victor Shargai Theatre itself as an exhibition space wherein compact installations invite further reflection on the corresponding scenes — so take time before and after curtain to explore.

Even more famously, Wolfe bookends the show’s action with a skit welcoming audiences aboard a slave ship that’s either sailing the Middle Passage or time-warping its way through to the present, or both. Regardless, Power has transformed the theater space into the wood-benched deck of a merchant vessel, aboard which a cheerily hospitable cabin attendant (Blackwell, game for pretty much everything the evening throws at her) warns patrons that drumming won’t be tolerated and that the Fasten Your Shackles sign must be closely observed. So maybe don’t bring your more easily offended theatergoing buddies.

Do bring a sense of hope, though: Wolfe’s “Museum” invites visitors to consider what kinds of pain are formative and what kinds are just poisonous: what’s key to remember and what’s safe to forget. Once visiting hours are over, Blackwell’s travel guide returns, reminding audiences to check the overhead bins for anything we really want to take with us. Anything we choose to leave behind, she promises warmly, gets chucked straight into the trash.

The Colored Museum, through Aug. 11 at Studio Theatre in Washington. About 1 hour 30 minutes without intermission. studiotheatre.org.



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