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The Politics of the Real

Ascendancy and The Colored Museum confront issues that -- surprise! -- make you think

A short distance east of Stages, the Ensemble is currently showing its own political fare, The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe (successor to Joseph Papp at the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival). These 11 comedy sketches, strung together by theme and objective, go for blood as they gleefully satirize and rip apart African-American stereotypes to reveal their destructive ramifications. Lively, energetic and thought-provoking, the Ensemble's production proves that Wolfe's play is as funny and painfully meaningful today as it was when it was first produced, 12 years ago.

Though not every skit works as well as the rest, some are so successful that the five actors who make up the cast will have to learn to wait for the audience to stop laughing before they go on with their lines.

One example of the excellent work of the Ensemble's production comes from Adrian C. Porter as Miss Roj in "The Gospel According to Miss Roj." This long monologue from a transvestite "snap-queen" dressed in spandex bell-bottoms, mile-high platforms and a bouncy, picked-out afro that blooms out to there is unforgettable. Miss Roj's snap is so powerful that she actually snapped an ugly-mouthed, gay-hating gawker to death one afternoon. She snapped him up one side and down the other, and then, suddenly: "Heart attack," she tells us with absolute authority. Porter gives a highlight performance that moves from being hysterically funny to poignantly sad when we discover that Miss Roj is, for all her bravado, lonely and alone. She's been marginalized not just by the homophobes on the boardwalk, but by her family, and her only place of solace is the bar from which she tells her tale. Like all of Colored Museum's characters, Miss Roj is a cliche, but she's one that's revealed as fresh and new.

Another sketch that had the audience rocking in their seats with laughter was "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play." One of the evening's longest scenes, it employs the full cast of five as it crushes many of the cliches that television lives by: The youth who can't get anywhere because of "The Man"; the iron-haired, housedress-wearing Mama (her dress matched the couch) who sits with her legs splayed, worrying endlessly about getting her son to wipe his feet; the angry young wife who weeps and wails and carries on, her arms flailing. There's even a slow-motion death scene in which the young man (who has thrown his babies out the window) is shot by police. Part of what makes this sketch so brilliant is the all-out energy of the actors. Adrian Porter, Michael Green, BeBe Wilson, Kelley Smith and Cheray Martin are all terrific, though Martin in particular deserves some sort of medal for her role as the angry young wife, which has to be one of the funniest performances I've seen all year.

Perhaps the weakest part of The Colored Museum is that many of the sketches go on just long enough to be too long. In fact, every scene could have been cut by at least a line or two, and some sketches, such as "Soldier with a Secret" and "Permutations," were so shaky as to be more puzzling than interesting.

Since the production functions much like a highbrow (and higher quality) Saturday Night Live or In Living Color, shortening and tightening it would only make a fun play even finer. It would also make it even more thought-provoking -- a rare pleasure in a time when broadcast news trivializes politics for our viewing pleasure. Television may provide all one needs of scandal, but thanks to plays such as Ascendancy and The Colored Museum, at the theater, at least, you can think about real issues.

Ascendancy plays through February 15 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220.

The Colored Museum plays through March 1 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055.

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