George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” premiered in 1986, and 25 years later, it’s still uproariously funny and often unsettling. Made up of 11 “exhibitions,” the play takes aim at stereotypes, self-loathing and assimilation within the African American community. While some plays don’t age well, Wolfe’s themes still resonate.
Clocking in at just 90 minutes, “The Colored Museum” opens with hyper flight attendant Miss Pat, who leads the cabin crew of what appears to be a time machine and slave ship. She flashes the “fasten shackles” sign and encourages no drumming from coach because it might cause rebellion. Statuesque Amber Iman is superb as Miss Pat, making her way into the audience to encourage the singing of spirituals as the ship hurdles through history.
Enoch King brings down the house as flamboyant gay barfly, Miss Roj, who can strike a man dead with her finger snaps of doom. As the cocktails loosen Miss Roj’s tongue, the issue of living as a gay men in the black community is portrayed with both outrageous humor and pathos. With a pulsing disco beat, sassy go-go boots and hot pants, King (last seen in True Colors’ “Broke-ology”) so perfectly inhabits the character, it’s a shock to see him later in another exhibition where he’s cast as an “angry black man.”
The highlight of the exhibitions is “The Hairpiece,” where Amber Iman plays a women getting ready to break-up with her two-timing boyfriend while her wigs – a wild Afro played by Yakini Horne and a straightened-and-dyed flip played by Danielle Deadwyler – argue over which hair has the most power. At the root of the argument is how African American women have tried to assimilate by taming their hair to look more “white.” The message comes across, but it’s the astonishing actresses and their pitch-perfect comedic timing that makes the following vignettes pale in comparison.
Right behind “The Hairpiece” for audience reaction is “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” which brings the ensemble together to portray every stereotype in the book. Although Madea wasn’t around when Wolfe wrote the play, there are echoes of her, as well as a little “Mama’s Family,” in this frenetic set piece. Enoch King portrays the aforementioned “angry black man,” who denounces God and get’s a beat down from couch-bound mama (Jo Nie Flemming). When the rest of the family shows up, it turns into a song and dance number that has to be seen to be believed.
The problem with these hilarious send-ups is that they are followed by more serious “message” monologues. The audience is still laughing and coming down from the comedy and are then thrust into the world of a damaged Vietnam vet or a young, mentally handicapped girl locked in her room after she becomes pregnant. This is a flaw in Wolfe’s script, but director Jasmine Guy does an amazing job of keeping the play moving forward, with a high energy level even in the more quiet moments. The actors are completely invested in their roles and the physical comedy is impressive.
“The Colored Museum” may make some uncomfortable with its language and portrayal of African Americans, but even at its most absurd, there is unmistakable truth unfolding onstage. Wolfe’s goal as a playwright was to pull back the curtain and reveal African Americans to themselves, their shared histories, strengths and foibles. Jasmine Guy accepts that challenge and brings “The Colored Museum” kicking, screaming, singing and dancing into the 21st century.
The Colored Museum continues through April 17 at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center, 3181 Rainbow Drive, Decatur, GA 30034. For more information, visit truecolorstheatre.org.