Thursday, March 12, 2015
Huntington Theatre Company Presents "The Colored Museum" by George C. Wolfe, Directed by Billy Porter - African-American History Outrageously Unshackled!
There is something shakin' at the Huntington Theatre Company, and if you know what's good for you, you best ease on down the road to Huntington Avenue before the good vibrations have ceased. "The Colored Museum" has come to town, and you do not want to miss seeing what is on display. Back in 1986, George C. Wolfe wrote an outrageous play that harpoons, lampoons, parodies and satirizes virtually every aspect of the history of black people in America. Under the brilliant direction of the multi-talented Billy Porter (Tony Award for Best Actor in "Kinky Boots"), the play has been updated with a fresh approach to the music that underscores the text and with the addition of one significant word that catapults the action of the play into the present day.
Mr. Wolfe brings a freshness, boldness and audacity to the subject matter that intentionally makes audience members - black or white - uncomfortable. Should I be laughing at these outrageous stereotypes and archetypes? In that regard, the ethos of this play reminds me of the play, "An Octoroon," by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, due to be revived next month at NYC's Soho Rep. Topics that have long been considered taboo are discussed as the elephant in the room. Wounds that may appear to have begun to heal are ripped open for fresh examination and debridement. The playwright of "The Colored Museum" is no Wolfe in sheep's clothing. He bares his literary fangs, and he huffs and puffs until the house of hypocrisy falls and is blown away by the fiery breath of his writing. Like a good preacher, he comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
The structure for the play is that the audience has been invited to embark on a tour of The Colored Museum, a series of eleven "exhibits," each of which sheds light on some aspect of African-American history and culture. The opening salvo tells us that we are not in for a comfortable evening of sitting back and being entertained. We will be compelled to do some serious soul-searching and reflecting, even while laughing uproariously. An off-white stage contains a large shipping crate - the kind one would use to ship a museum display. The crate is hauled to the ceiling revealing Shayna Small dressed as a flight attendant. She welcomes us aboard, and it quickly becomes apparent that the airplane is the 21st century equivalent of a slave ship, and she demonstrates how we are to put on our shackles and to refrain from "Drumming or rebellion"!
The fact that this material would challenge the sensibilities of the audience became immediately clear. My guest sitting beside me was a young African-American Ivy League graduate. When the shackles appeared, he groaned, "Oh, no!" Despite the flight attendant's insistence that there be no drums, drumming was soon heard off-stage. And for the rest of the evening, that drummer (Akilli Jamal Haynes) was omnipresent, representing both the African roots of the stories being told, and also emblematic of the fact that music and rhythm have been the life blood of the African-American community since the days of the Middle Passage.
As the eleven "exhibits" were unveiled, no aspect of black life in America was spared Mr. Wolfe's satirical touch. "Cookin' With Aunt Ethel" featured a character (Capathia Jenkins) who reminded me of Aunt Jemima. Ms. Jenkins was wondrous in this role, singing her heart out as she cooked up a surprise in her bubbling cauldron. "The Last Mama-On-The-Couch Play" also featured the gifted Ms. Jenkins, and took aim at one of the most sacred of all cows in the African-American cultural pantheon: "A Raisin In The Sun." In "The Gospel According To Miss Roj," the amazing Nathan Lee Graham gave us a fiercely defiant, flamboyant and ultimately despondent cocaine-snorting drag queen.
The vignette that most moved me is one I will describe in more detail. In "Symbiosis," Ken Robinson plays a young professional who is in the process of discarding symbols of his past and his youth in the 'hood. He examines and discards his first pair of Converse basketball sneakers, his first pick he would have used to get his 'fro together. He lovingly handles and then discards a colorful dashiki, and then an album by the Temptations. He clearly has concluded that in order to succeed in the white world of business, he must bury and move beyond those elements of his culture and identity that might prevent him from blending into the world of The Man. But getting rid of the Temptations is the last straw. He is confronted by his younger self in a hoodie, played very convincingly by the versatile Mr. Graham. The two versions of this man struggle with one another for dominance, until finally, the businessman strangles the younger self and stuffs him into the garbage bin. But that youthful rage and passion for living an authentic life will not be so easily extinguished, and the hooded figure climbs out of the grave to once again confront his older self. The scene left me in tears - in part because it was written and acted so poignantly, and in part because it made me realize that in many of the eleven "exhibits" a young black man dies - either physically, emotionally or spiritually., It hit close to home, for it is the way of the world.
Rema Webb is all attitude in "The Hairpeice" and a powerful diva with a past in "LaLa's Opening." She has a powerful presence and equally powerful voice. The excellent work of this amazing cast is under-girded by the Set Design by Clint Ramos, Musical Direction and Arrangements by James Sampliner, Costumes by Anita Yavich, Lighting by Driscoll Otto, Sound by John Shivers and Kevin Kennedy, Projection by Zachary G. Borovay and Original Music by Kysia Bostic.
At the end of the play, my friend turned to me and said: "I saw myself on that stage. I need to do some serious introspection about what I just experienced this evening." In our conversation with Billy Porter after the show, my friend was able to convey those reactions to the Director.
The word that was added that brings this play into the 21st century? Ferguson!
In wielding his artistic Billy Club, Mr. Porter has struck a blow for a reconsideration of the way that we look at race in America and the ways in which we embrace our own individual responsibility to ensure that the future of the black experience in America is brighter than the past.
The play will run through April 5.
Huntington Theatre Website