By Rowena Lindsay, inside editor
“The Colored Museum,” a new play at the Huntington Theatre, turns stereotypes upside down by drawing on historically abhorrent theater portrayals, like blackface and human zoos, to create a scathing and hilarious commentary on the representations of people of color.
“The Colored Museum” was written by George C. Wolfe in 1986 and is directed by Billy Porter.
The entire show is staged by five actors: Nathan Lee Graham, Capathia Jenkins, Ken Robinson, Shayna Small and Rema Webb, and one percussionist, Akili Jamal Haynes. The actors rotate through the “exhibits,” portraying various black stereotypes.
The stage features a massive panel which rotates after each scene to give the set a museum-like feel. Two of the exhibits take place in display cases to further this effect. The sets were fairly minimal, using projections on the white walls rather than physical props.
Exhibits flowed together as percussionist Haynes came on stage at the end of each scene to usher the actors off stage to the pounding rhythm of the drum.
The show opened with Git On Board, a hilarious exhibit which introduces the audience to the humor of the play. Small, dressed as a stewardess, welcomes the audience aboard the “Celebrity Slaveship,” explaining how to properly fasten one’s shackles and asking the crowd to repeat the mantra “I will not rebel.” As the scene progresses, the ship passes through a time warp during which the audience gets a humorous lesson in African American history.
The Last Mama-On-The-Couch Play was one of the best exhibits of the night. The whole cast moved from one black stereotypical TV character to another and incorporated numerous musical numbers and dance styles to make a hilarious and entertaining commentary on the portrayal of black people in entertainment.
In The Hairpiece exhibit, two wigs argued over which wig their owner was going to wear to break up with her boyfriend, commentating on black beauty standards.
Not all the exhibits were there for laughs, however.
The Gospel According to Miss Roj was about a transgender woman. The exhibit started out with Miss Roj strutting across the stage, clearly the life of the party, before getting darker when she begins to reveal how unhappy she really is.
Another more serious exhibit, A Soldier With A Secret, was told by a statue of a Vietnam War veteran in a glass display case. After having a brush with death, he could see all the pain the other men in his unit would cause and bear in the future, so he killed them.
The one major flaw with the show was that it was far too long. With no intermission in the two-hour performance, the last few exhibits, particularly LaLa’s Opening, dragged on and lost the audience’s attention.
However, the play redeemed itself in the final exhibit The Party, which brought all cast members on stage at once and ended, like it began, on the Celebrity Slaveship. Small announced that the plane had landed and, in unison, all characters said “before exiting collect any baggage you may have as anything you leave will be trash.”
The play succeeded in being entertaining while also challenging the audience with the double standards, mistreatment and stereotypes that people of color face on a daily basis.
The Colored Museum is running at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Avenue of The Arts venue through April 5. Tickets start at $25, but are available to students with an ID for $15.
Photo courtesy T. Charles Erickson