A Cause for Celebration: Return of
The daring form of Wolfe's opus is a full-length, one-act revue of 11 vaudeville-like, thematically related sketches comprising a mosaic which spans over 200 years of the African-American experience. There is real pain and suffering, and much that is deadly serious here. Irony, remarkably free from bitterness, abounds. Yet the principal tool that The Colored Museum employs is unabashed, riotously gut-busting humor abetted by more than a soupçon of song and dance.
Wisely, there is no attempt to update the play more than twenty years after its premiere. The Colored Museum is clearly of its era, but its principal themes are both specific and universal, and will surely speak to all of us for generations to come. Additionally, it provides an engrossing and valuable snapshot of a unique time and place in black American history. Still, a glossary might be helpful for younger and future audiences.
The Colored Museum begins with an ironic sketch about the middle passage ("fasten your shackles"). The 1960s are evoked as Rita, the "Celebrity Line" slave ship hostess, offers promises of a brighter future with James Brown, the Watusi, the Funky Chicken, Diahann Carroll's Julia and basketball, from which "you will become millionaires." However, this does not pass without sobering references to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the four Birmingham schoolgirls tragically murdered in 1963. The fourth sketch centers on the Vietnam War, Dr. King's principled opposition to it, and a dead Vietnam soldier recounting his pain and that of his African-American compatriots.
Although there is some satire of African-American stereotypes, the range and depth of The Colored Museum goes much deeper than that. What is most impressive is how passionate, personal and revelatory a work of art this is. It is notable that half of the sketches are rooted in show business and theatre. For George C. Wolfe has laid bare his soul here. In doing so, Wolfe has brought us a singular portrait of an emerging and brilliant, gay African-American artist during a bracing period of liberation.
Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has directed sharply and crisply, maintaining a fast, upbeat pace. Adam Koch's evocative set features a rounded museum exhibition space which revolves to reveal the changing "exhibits." Large and richly detailed, it features fascinating historical artifacts and projections.
Director-choreographer Maharaj has brilliantly cast this production with a multi-talented crew. The five actors create a considerable gaggle of roles requiring a broad range of acting styles, and display musical theatre skills with great aplomb.
In Wolfe's laugh out loud, blistering satire of "Another Mama on a Couch Play," i.e. A Raisin in the Sun, the Oscar is passed from actor to actor as they serially shred the scenery with their histrionics. We are made to feel that each new Oscar holder is the deserving winner. Inga Ballard (Mama), LaTonia Phipps (Sister) and Tiffany Jewel (Wife) each shine here as they do throughout the evening. Impossible as it may sound, Timothy Ware (Walter Lee) fulfills the task of earning that Oscar. Ware finishes up with a hilarious and beautifully performed dance routine. It is no small feat that Ware and Jewel in this sketch bring strongly to mind the great comedy team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.
Derric Harris chillingly projects the anger of a bottom rung transvestite performer at the "Bottomless Pit" trying to cope with thoughts of a father who repeatedly called him "faggot."
Tiffany Jewel brilliantly reveals the tortured soul of a singer (partially modeled after the perception of some of Eartha Kitt) who must lose her struggle to escape her past to reclaim herself and her sanity. This is one of two sketches that most defines the ultimate theme of the evening. There are additional first rate sketches which further add to Wolfe's grand scheme.
The Crossroads Theatre Company which is celebrating its thirtieth season has reduced its schedule in recent seasons because of financial difficulties. However, this season, the Crossroads is staging three full productions of significant productions from its past. This is certainly cause for celebration.
With its exemplary, illuminating production of The Colored Museum, Crossroads Theatre has shown that it remains a vital and valuable treasure of the New Jersey theatre scene.
The Colored Museum continues performances (Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 PM / Saturday, Sunday 3 PM) through October 5, 2008 at the Crossroads Theatre Company, 7 Livingston Ave,, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Telephone: 732-545-8100; online: www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org.
The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe; directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj