Nashville On Stage: The Colored Museum

The Colored Museum is a satirical series of 11 vignettes chronicling African American history with serious ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humor by George C. Wolfe who wrote Jelly’s Last Jam and directed Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk. The 1986 play won its author the Dramatists Guild Award that year.

Presented by the Fisk University Stagecrafters, The Colored Museum plays Fri., April 12, and Sat., April 13, at 7 pm in the Little Theatre on the Fisk campus. The theatrical production is a part of Fisk’s 2013 Spring Arts Festival.

Entertaining, educational and inspiring, the satirical play tells the story of 200 years of African American history and artistic contribution as if it were a museum exhibit. The 90-minute humorous treatment of iconic images and stereotypes in The Colored Museum may remind you a bit of Hollywood Shuffle. Throughout, there are references to well-known works such as Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Though debuting in 1986, the topics explored in the 11 ‘museum exhibits’ of this play remain contemporary. Each scene and monologue (whether it is about the journey through slavery, conforming to beauty standards or how the Black family is portrayed) is a living display of African American culture and the persistent effect of racism on it.

The ‘exhibits’’ in Wolfe’s museum focus on contemporary Blacks torn between cultural oppression and revolt—and the necessities of living in the present. The ‘exhibits’ range from a pin-stripe-suited businessman who tries to throw away his past (‘Free Huey’ buttons, Sly Stone records) only to discover that his rebellious younger self refuses to be trashed without a fight. A Josephine Baker-like chanteuse named ‘La La’ similarly finds that her carefully created show-biz image is haunted by the ‘little girl’ she thought she’d left for dead in backwoods Mississippi. A woman dressing for a date is traumatized when her two wigs (one a 1960s Afro, the other that of ”a Barbie doll dipped in chocolate”) come alive to debate the identity conflicts they have represented in their owner’s life for 20 years.

The characters of the play ”can’t live inside yesterday’s pain”—yet they can’t bury it either. When two Ebony magazine fashion models try to retreat from their past into a world of glamour, they find only ”the kind of pain that comes from feeling no pain at all.”

But any perceived seriousness of tone takes a backseat to humor. Wolfe is constantly throwing wisecracking remarks like a jab at Michael Jackson’s nose or The Color Purple. But there’s always a delicate balance between humor and message. For example, there’s a poignant, noble monologue in which Wolfe retrieves the dignity of a very innocent, very pregnant teenager.

Then there’s a speech by a woman named Topsy Washington who imagines a big blowout of a party, ”somewhere between 125th Street and infinity,” where ”Nat Turner sips champagne out of Eartha Kitt’s slipper” and Angela Davis and Aunt Jemima sit around talking about South Africa. This fantasy merges present and past as it expands ”defying logic and limitations.” Topsy decides to put her rage about the past behind her so she can ”go about the business of being me” and celebrate her own ”madness and colored contradictions.”

History rises up in the form of music, other characters and projected images, insinuating that the baggage of slavery cannot really be banished from The Colored Museum. But much as in Quentin Tarantino’s Django, the slavery and oppression of the past have been defied by Wolfe’s fearless humor.

The music of The Colored Museum is intricate to the themes of the African American ‘cultural exhibits.’ In each scene, the music matches the wardrobe and time period. The songs are inspired by a broad range of artists including Miles Davis, Take 6, Stylistics, Fats Waller, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Ross.

The vignettes or ‘museum exhibits’ and talented cast of Fisk’s production of The Colored Museum include:

‘Git on Board’: Tori Miller

‘Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel’: Efemena Emonefe

‘The Photo Session’: Lauren Walker and Zachary Dickerson

‘Soldier with a Secret’: Charles Graham

‘The Gospel According to Miss Roj’: Letroy Billups, and Zachary Dickerson

‘The Hairpiece’: Tori Miller, Efemena Emonefe, and Lauren Walker

‘The Last Mama on the Couch Play’: Charles Graham, Cristina Fentress, LeTroy Billups, Trishona Horton, and Lauren Walker

‘Symbiosis’: Charles Graham and Zachary Dickerson

‘Lala’s Opening’: Lauren Walker, Azaria Robinson, and Kristen Shelton

‘Permutations’: Trishona Horton

‘The Party’: Efemena Emonefe, Tori Miller, LeTroy Billups, Lauren Walker, and Charles Graham

One of the finest satires of 20th century American theatre, The Colored Museum combines sharp wit, amazing music and intellectual food for thought. The work offers a rich opportunity to open an honest dialogue about racism in America in order to repair its damaging legacy.

Tickets to The Colored Museum, are $10 general admission; $5 students; Fisk students are free with ID. For reservations, call the Fisk University Speech & Drama Dept. at 329-8681 or e-mail fcarter@fisk.edu