By definition, a museum is a repository of the past, and what's placed on the pedestals is studied, honored and admired. In George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, on exhibit at Ensemble Theatre in a rich, lively and very funny production, the relics of black history are displayed for these noble purposes. But Wolfe has added a further dimension that lifts his play into very fine art, indeed: satire.
The black experience of the past is mocked and parodied in stinging little tidbits that nip away at pretension, victimization and shallow self-aggrandizement. Yet running underneath all the laughs -- and there are many under director Alice M. Gatling's satiny direction -- is a heartfelt quest for identity and acceptance, and the gnawing question of how to deal with the baggage of history. As the high jinks play out on stage, historic lithographs of slave-ship interiors, minstrel coon shows, lynching and pop-cultural travesties are projected on both sides of the proscenium. Wolfe asks, how do we overcome the pain, the nuttiness, the bigotry and the Jheri Curl?
With a swank museum design by James Thomas, atmospherically lighted by Kelly Babb, 11 "exhibits" constitute Wolfe's historic storeroom, and the surreal/serious tone is immediately set by "Git on Board." We're flying from Africa to Savanna on Celebrity Slave Ship airlines, served by Miss Pat (Nicole Ford), an annoyingly peppy flight attendant in an annoyingly perky pink outfit (the costume design by Shirley Marks Whitmore is, as always, spot-on). She reminds us in the condescending tone so familiar to frequent flyers to "wear your shackles at all timesÉno drums on boardÉand refrain from singing, as that sort of thing can lead to rebellion."
The Colored Museum
Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.
Through May 21. $15-$35.
As the plane flies through a time-warp storm, American black history swirls by, accompanied by Miss Pat's glib commentary on what's in store. "You'll have to suffer for a few hundred years," she says offhandedly. But the result will be a complex culture with some of the best dancing, sports millionaires and Miss Diahann Carroll in Julia. "Think what you'll mean to George Gershwin and William Faulkner." When the plane lands, Miss Pat says with ingratiating smile, "You can't stop history. Have a nice day."
Among the ten vignettes that follow, a few lack the same screwball logic or prickly sense of humor because the jabs show their age -- Museum premiered in 1986 -- but they're all infused with wicked wit and Wolfe's sharp observation. The five Ensemble actors gobble up this high-calorie feast.
"A pinch of style and a dash of flair...a heap of survival...a touch of humility...a whole lot of humor...throw in some rage...and don't forget, add some attitude," sings a sassy doo-wrapped Aunt Jemima type (Bobbi Yarbrough-Session) in "Cookin' with Aunt Ethel." (The play's sprightly music is by Kysia Bostic.) Bake 200 years and get..."a bunch of Negroes." She unfolds a gingerbread line of multihued stuffed rag dolls. End of skit.
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The show takes a more serious tone with one of its finer exhibits, "The Gospel According to Miss Roj." We meet this snap-happy dinge queen at a gay disco bar. Wearing a halter top, skintight capri pants and white go-go boots, and fueled by anger, rage and alcohol, Miss Roj (Nicholas Lewis) flounders in a caricature of his own making, as he battles against his painful history and his place in it. "We traded in our drums for respectability," he rants, "a whole race trashed and debased." Being outrageous is the only way to protect himself.
Roj's darkness is swiftly dispelled by the hilarious "The Hairpiece," in which the Woman (Yarbrough-Session), bald through perpetual "frying, dying and de-chemicalizing," is confronted by two wigs that come to life to battle for her attention: the power Afro (Kymbrel Mosley) whose kink is "like the kink in your heart," or the white bread, straightened "Barbie-doll dipped in chocolate" (Ford) that can be tossed and shaken to show emotion.
Museum's search for identity culminates in the final exhibit, "The Party," in which the black past, present and future are validated and confirmed. Free-wheeling Topsy (Yarbrough-Session), dancing around the stage to the music in her head, describes a party "somewhere between 125th Street and infinity." A vivid vision in burnt-orange pantsuit, Topsy celebrates the amazing amalgamation and "colored contradictions" inherent in black culture -- everything she is. "Whereas I can't live inside yesterday's pain, I can't live without it," she affirms. "We still got our drums," she sways and chuckles.
This Colored Museum should be listed in everyone's guidebook.