You might expect a 26-year-old play about African-American culture to seem dated. And, in fact, a lot of the references in The Colored Museum are quite stale. There are jokes about Jheri curl and Michael Jackson's nose.
But despite some passe details, George C. Wolfe's play, which comprises 11 sketches, is relevant, mildly thought-provoking and extremely entertaining.
The first of the 11 sketches, which are billed as "exhibits," shows how timely Wolfe's writing is. A bubbly stewardess cheerily greets African "passengers" being flown from America to become slaves. She instructs them to keep their shackles fastened at all times and advises that their luggage will be thrown away. And, she says, if they can just deal with a few hundred years of oppression, some of them will become millionaires by playing basketball.
It's startling and almost shocking, but deft writing by Wolfe (who is African-American) and Stephanie Roberts' hilarious performance keep it from becoming offensive.
To really put it in perspective, the same weekend this production opened, people around the country heard about a Republican legislator from Arkansas who wrote that slavery was "a blessing in disguise" for black people, because it enabled them to become U.S. citizens. It was difficult not to connect the legislator's horrific words with the playwright's jokes and see that Wolfe's satire is still regrettably relevant.
That's true for most of this play and this production. The emphasis is on comedy, but there's an undercurrent of piquant social commentary. Wolfe never lectures or polemicizes, but he makes his points while he's entertaining us.
Director Anna Brennen has assembled a first-rate cast, mostly consisting of actors familiar to local audiences. Besides Roberts, the cast includes Gloria Bailey, Tia Jemison and Joshua Goff, some of the best actors in the area. The great local musician Alvon Griffin provides drum accompaniment.
Probably the most well-known vignette from The Colored Museum is "The Hairpiece," an absolutely hilarious bit in which a young woman is preparing to meet her boyfriend to break up with him. On her dressing table are two anthropomorphic wigs. One's an aggressive Afro; the other's a straightened 'do with a Marlo Thomas flip. The two wigs (played by Bailey and Jemison) get in a boisterous argument about which one of them is a better choice for the occasion.
It's a funny scene even if you read it from the script, but Bailey and Jemison elevate it with riotous performances.
One of the most thought-provoking scenes is "Symbiosis," which has a businessman throwing away relics from his youth — an Afro comb, Sly and the Family Stone records, autographed photos of Stokely Carmichael — because he wants to finalize his assimilation into mainstream America. His younger self appears and argues that the man needs to hold on to his past, and even to some of his anger.
Wolfe scores some serious intellectual points in that scene, but he still entertains, and Kibwe Dorsey and Robert Richards are excellent as the Man and the Kid, respectively.
Only a couple of the exhibits misfire, and even those aren't bad. Probably the worst is a monologue from a drag queen, played by Richards, that simply isn't as funny as the others.
Most of the characters enter on a turntable, and start their scenes framed by a backdrop that dominates the stage. It's a cool and effective way to get the characters on and off stage, but unfortunately the backdrop looks as though it was painted by a high school prom decorating committee.
Through all 11 sketches, Wolfe plays with African-American stereotypes, including those imposed by African-Americans on themselves. (There's a great parody of popular black-oriented plays of the era.) He slashes at some of those stereotypes, and almost seems to celebrate others. In the end, Wolfe and the Stageworks cast deliver something that invites audiences of any race or ethnicity to laugh at human foibles.