The 11 sketches explore what it means to be a black
By MILAN PAURICH
Winner of the 1986 Dramatist’s Guild Award, George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” is a revuelike series of 11 seriocomic sketches about identity politics and what it means to be black. A lot of time has passed since Wolfe’s play premiered 20-plus years ago. Though hardly cutting-edge or avant-garde anymore (Keenan Ivory Wayans’ ’90s TV series “In Living Color” helped bring into the mainstream this same kind of bite-sized race-riffing), a first-rate production of “The Colored Museum” still has the potential to rattle, amuse and even enlighten contemporary audiences. Fortunately, the Oakland Center for the Arts’ “Museum” revival does precisely that.
Ably directed by Oakland newbie Johnny R. Herbert, the play opens on a slave ship where Miss Pat (the wonderful Carla Gipson) instructs passengers to “wear your shackles at all times.” To quell any potential trouble, drums are strictly forbidden on board the ship (“Keep repeating, ‘I do not hear any drums and I will not rebel.’”) Miss Pat does her best to maintain a smiley face throughout the introductory proceedings, but her message rings through loud and clear: Git on board and toe the line.
The best vignettes mercifully skewer racial and cultural stereotypes. “Cookin’ With Aunt Ethel” spoofs TV cooking shows as Aunt Ethel (Rozz Chapman — superb) regales viewers with down-home recipes for such exotic victuals as chitlin quiche and grits-under-glass. “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” is a letter-perfect blend of uplift-the-race plays such as Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Mama (Chapman), The Lady in Plaid (a delicious Lois Thornton), Medea (Kim Akins-Voeks) and Mama’s 30-year-old son Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie (Kenneth Brown) all compete for the title of biggest drama queen (an award handed out by Thomas Fields’ omniscient narrator). When “The Man” finally shows up to arrest Walter-Lee for overacting, Mama bemoans the fact that he wasn’t born in an all-black musical with a preordained happy ending. (Anyone who’s ever seen a Tyler Perry movie will know what she’s talking about.)
If some of the skits seem a tad flat (“A Soldier With a Secret,” in which a dead soldier returns as a ghost; the teen pregnancy lament “Permutations”), Herbert maintains such a brisk, metronomelike pace that no harm is done. Plus, the evening’s highlights (“Aunt Ethel,” “Mama-on-the-Couch,” the beauty shop fantasia “The Hairpiece” and “Lala’s Opening” about a Josephine Baker-ish expatriate singer returning to America) are so good they leave you hungry for more. Even the segments that feel unfinished (drag queen confessional “The Gospel According to Roj”) or borderline obvious (“Symbiosis,” which pits a buppie against his homeboy alter ego) are engaging thanks to Herbert’s outstanding ensemble cast.
Besides show-stopping turns by Chapman, Thornton and Gipson, terrific work is turned in by Brown (as Mama’s boy, The Man in “Symbiosis” and an Ebony model in “The Photo Session”) and the ineffable “Dixie Crystals” as self-described “snap queen” Miss Roj. And 16-year-old Chaney High School junior Samantha Daisher closes the show on a high note with her wickedly funny stream-of-consciousness monologue about a surreal party where Aunt Jemima and Angela Davis discuss South African politics over a plate of greens.
The most gratifying aspect of the production is the exposure it gives to so many gifted black performers. I can’t think of a better rationale for color-blind community theater casting than the steady employment of superb local actors like Gipson, Chapman, Thornton and Brown.