“The Colored Museum” premiered in 1986 under the direction of George C. Wolfe and has been brought back to passionate, captivating life by our very own Claire Trevor School of the Arts Drama Department, under the direction of Jaye Austin Williams. This play allows the audience to realize that African American slavery does not merely remain an event of the past.
It’s understandable for viewers to expect “The Colored Museum” to be a heavy, dramatic performance; I was expecting to find an extended example of the interpretation of black slavery in the play. To my surprise, I laughed as many times as I gasped and grimaced during the eclectic play — “The Colored Museum” is the expression of every angle of thought and emotion, both understood and hidden, on the subject of African American oppression as well as submission into society.
The play is divided into the museum exhibits and scenes which take the audience on a ride (on a “celebrity” jet/slave-ship) that invites them to abandon the safe feeling that racial prejudices are in the past and to explore the effects of the hundreds of years African Americans spent suffering.
As audience members walked through a side entrance and were greeted by an aircraft attendant, tribal drums kept the rhythm of anticipation. Once all of the audience members stepped down from the stage into their seats, “Git on Board” began with Miss Pat, the airline hostess, welcoming us to the “Celebrity Slaveship.” She asked us to keep on our “shackles at all times” and repeated the demand of “no drums!” Turbulence brought the other characters down the aisles yelling out quotes of famous African Americans, among which were Martin Luther King and James Brown. The hostess referred to this turbulence as a time warp, allowing the audience to hear a summary of the history of African Americans. Audience and cast travel together through the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Great Depression, noting the influence African Americans had on each one of these periods.
Scenes included the humor in soul “Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel,” the abandonment of meaning in the superficial life of “Photoshoot” for Ebony Magazine and the secrets of black pain in war expressed in “Soldier with a Secret.” The tone became light again with “The Gospel According to Miss Roj” and her “snap queen” attitude. She traveled all over the stage and aisles expressing the beauty of “words flowing instead of blood.”
The need to conform to society was expressed in the scenes “Hairpiece” and “Symbiosis.” “Hairpiece” gave a new meaning to the phrase “talking heads,” as wig mannequins fought over which one will be worn (the trestles or the afro). “Symbiosis” illustrated the black man’s need to blend in “to survive,” and the need to kill his kid-self (peace-fro and Motown albums in the trash). He concluded with “Being black is too emotionally taxing; therefore I will be black only on weekends and holidays.”
“The Last Mama on the Couch” was a satire of the black/feminist over-acting drama for which many actresses have won acclaim. The scene is supposed to be about African Americans in their struggle against “the man,” but each woman in the scene takes hold with excessive drama. In “Lala’s Opening,” Lala’s childhood literally haunts her and is found in the closet off stage — “the girl inside, the girl who died, so a new girl could be born.” “Permutations” tells the story of a woman who instead of giving birth to a child, laid an egg containing seven or more babies who would have “skin all kinds of shades … they are going to fly.”.
The last scene showed a young black girl with a party of historical black revolutionists and performers in her head. When she started to sing “dancing to the music of the madness in me,” the entire cast came out on stage singing and dancing until the ship arrived and the audience was asked to take their belongings “as any bag you don’t take, we trash.” This last message speaks as a metaphor for leaving behind memories and events of the past. If you don’t bring them up, if you forget them, they will be thrown away as if they never mattered.