I haven’t stopped recommending this play since I saw it on Sunday. I completely loved George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum at the Huntington Theatre Company. The production was beautiful, the cast immensely, immensely talented, and the script is just so – SMART.
The Huntington in particular has a reputation for producing work by African-American playwrights. Not only are they one of the few theatres in the country that has produced the entire August Wilson Pittsburgh/Century Cycle, but they also have strong relationships with Boston playwrights Lydia Diamond and Kirsten Greenidge and have produced both writers’ works. The company also has ties to organizations in Boston such as the Museum of African American History, a representative from which spoke at a Colored Museum post-show discussion.
The first visual that greets audiences at the Boston University Theatre is an all-white soundstage-esque box set, with a giant wooden shipping crate in the center with “U.S.A.” printed on it. Nothing about this particularly struck me. After a few minutes, however, I realized that there was a small beam of light pointed at an object in the middle of the stage – a pair of shackles. I literally gasped – the first of many for me that afternoon.
This image sets up a huge part of what The Colored Museum aims to be – in your face! irreverent! but still reverent, in some ways. The play references literally some of the darkest parts of African-American history – from slavery and the Middle Passage to minstrel shows – while presenting bold, often outrageous characters, and inviting you to laugh.
One of the most compelling episodes of the play was absolutely fascinating because of the way it presents and also criticizes the works that have become the “canon” of African-American theatre. In this scene, a “well-worn woman” sits on her “well-worn couch” in her shabby apartment. Her dress and couch literally blend into the wallpaper of the room behind her. Images of A Raisin in the Sun (also recently staged at the Huntington) come to mind.
This woman’s son is the classic angry young black man. He is frustrated by his struggle with the “man” and his inability to get ahead. His physical posture and blocking onstage immediately reminded me of videos I’ve seen of the Broadway productions of Fences with Denzel Washington or James Earl Jones – very astutely captured by director Billy Porter. A man from the Academy presents him with an Oscar for his performance. Next onstage comes his wife, who is interested in accessing her African roots – I immediately thought of Beneatha Younger in Raisin once she begins her relationship with George Murchison. This character’s wailing and dancing earns her the Oscar from the man from the Academy. As each member of the family enters the room and performs his or her expression of “blackness,” each receives the Academy Award. These characters present tropes that have come to be celebrated as authentic and praiseworthy expressions of the African-American experience. But the play asks, what about characters and experiences who don’t fit within these models? Are they doomed to be ignored, as the same three or four canonized “black plays” are programmed across the country?
The Colored Museum answers its own question by including several figures who have distinctly unique expressions of their identities that are not often seen onstage. When the play premiered in 1986, the character of Miss Roj – a black drag queen – completely shocked audiences. Another vignette includes pop sensation LaLa, who found audiences were much more welcoming to her in France than in America, and upon returning to the states has to deal with some complex personal history.
Many scenes in the play are extremely dark. From men and women pictured in shackles on the airplane-style Middle Passage, to a minstrel figure crossing the stage banging a drum, to a ghost-soldier in Vietnam who executed his fellow soldiers one-by-one so they wouldn’t return home and torture themselves and their loved ones due to the horrors they had seen, many of the play’s moments are depressingly very real. There are also many moments that produced fits of laughter. Ending the play is tricky. The Colored Museum certainly does not want a neat bow to cover up its unpleasant bits. The playwright could have left audiences in a dark, unsettled place, urging them to think seriously about what they saw and to live in those unpleasant moments even longer. However, the playwright chose to end the piece in a fierce monologue and a joyous piece of music. It’s a celebration – the character says, yes, my history is complicated and often unpleasant, but I own who I am now, and my culture is actually richer because of it.
As she says, “I’m dancing to the music of the madness in me. … And whereas I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain, I can’t live without it. My power is in my madness, and my colored contradictions.” George C. Wolfe chose to end with celebration, joy, and dance. It was an absolutely invigorating finish to a complicated, wonderful play.