ST. PETERSBURG — American Stage’s production of “The Colored Museum” is too important to be missed.
George C. Wolfe’s award-winning play is composed of 11 sketches known as “exhibits” that satirize African American culture. Though it was first produced in 1986, the issues explored are still relevant today.
The play is directed by Atlanta-based actor Keith Arthur Bolden, who has numerous film credits, including “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” and the newly released “Till.”
During a phone call before the show opened, Bolden said, “I think the regional theater has a responsibility to create space for conversation after shows, especially when you’re doing shows like ‘The Colored Museum,’ because you want to have space that fosters intersections ... We start having conversations, and I hope that it also fosters a curiosity.”
With just five cast members, the actors play multiple roles, each of them compelling and flexible as they portray a variety of characters.
The play opens with powerful African drumming by Malike Faye. While it’s not a musical, there are many scenes with music throughout the play.
Next, a group of friends enter a museum, and one groans, “I don’t want to be here,” saying out loud what a lot of people may be thinking when entering a museum and bringing the first laugh of the night. The white modular set designed by Harlan Penn opens to reveal different exhibits in each vignette.
Jemier Jenkins takes on the first sketch, “Git on Board,” as Miss Pat, a maniacally cheerful flight attendant aboard the Celebrity slave ship. The passengers are traveling on the Middle Passage. She demonstrates how to lock their shackles. Rules of the vessel include no call and response and absolutely no drumming — as that could lead to rebellion. Images of enslaved Africans packed on ships flash behind her. She describes what life will be like for them for the next couple of hundred years, with biting wit laced with centuries of pain.
Jenkins said in a phone interview prior to the show’s opening that when preparing to play Miss Pat, she looked to comedians who take heinous subjects and not only make light of them, but also present them in a way that helps people feel like they’re not alone in the situation.
She said the Black community has a superpower to be able to “transmute some of our most tragic and most painful stories and be able to have conversations about them .... we’re still very much living the repercussions of those experiences, so we have to still have those conversations.”
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The scene “The Hairpiece” may have received the biggest laughs of the night. Yewande Odetoyinbo is a woman getting ready for a date, while Jenkins and Alicia Thomas play the mannequin heads that hold her wigs. One is an Afro, and the other is a silky ‘do. They argue over which wig she should wear, reflecting the relationship Black women have with hair.
Speaking of wigs, Sasha and Shelby Ronea designed a wide variety of them for the show.
Stereotypes are explored in “The Last Mama on the Couch Play,” a send-up of “Raisin in the Sun.” Brandon Burditt plays Walter Lee, whose oppression by The Man has stunted his development. Odetoyinbo plays his knowing Mama, Thomas plays his long-suffering wife and Jemier plays Medea, his overly dramatic sister.
Jermaine Robinson Jr. shines as Miss Roj, a fierce transgender woman, in “The Gospel According to Miss Roj.” She’s full of snaps and quips, like “God created Black people and Black people created style.”
Robinson and Burditt have an interesting scene together, “Symbiosis.” A man (Burditt) is throwing away the elements of his Blackness so that he may fit in with white society, but The Kid (Robinson) protests. He seems to represent the younger version of The Man, there to remind him who he is. But the man resolves to fake it, saying he can only be Black on weekends and holidays.
Other scenes include a traumatized Black soldier (a standout scene for Burditt), a star singer who has tried to reinvent herself (played by Thomas with brilliance) and a woman named Topsy Washington, who imagines a party where Black icons intermingle (a joyous performance by Odetoyinbo).
Pain is a running theme throughout the play, but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t funny. Wolfe’s script feels a bit dated (especially the title’s use of the word “colored”), but in the hands of director Bolden and the gifted cast, the experience is dynamic, heartbreaking and triumphant.
If you go
“The Colored Museum.” Runs through Nov. 27. $45 single tickets, pass packages available. American Stage. 163 Third St. N. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.