“The Colored Museum,” currently at American Stage in downtown St. Petersburg, is one of the first theatrical works created by celebrated Black playwright, director, and leader in American theater, George C. Wolfe. The play is a series of satirical stories that examines and reflects upon modern Black identities, culture, and history and presents a provocative collection of sketches, primarily monologues, that challenges the audience to face raw and often painful truths of the continuing struggles of Black people. Some of the sketches are bitingly hilarious; most are starkly serious in their tone. American Stage presents most of the sketches well.
The play is set in a fictional museum. Sterile white walls with minimal displays of innocuous objects: a glove, a mic, a fan, a necktie. The atmosphere gives a safe, cold, detached feeling, as if a patron could causally walk through the exhibit without emotional investment. Yet these objects represent a deeper story that will challenge the audience to engage and think. The play journey takes the audience through 11 tales, or “exhibits,” as the stories are presented over roughly 90 minutes.
The play starts powerfully with the sketch Git On Board. A flight attendant named Miss Pat gives a preflight safety speech on board the “Celebrity Slaveship,” where passengers are asked to “Fasten their Shackles” as they take their journey from the Gold Coast of Africa to Savannah and through hundreds of years of oppression. Miss Pat assures the passengers that even though they will suffer for a few hundred years, sports like basketball may make them millionaires.
Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel, a cooking show with the host Aunt Ethel singing a recipe to the audience on the best way to “make a bunch of Negroes.”
The Photo Session presents the world of glamorous male and female models on the cover of Ebony magazine, a world that leads to a soulless life.
Soldier with a Secret offers a gripping tale of a soldier who believes he has died, has visions of the bleak future of his fellow soldiers, and thinks God has instructed him to spare his brothers in arms from their future pains. He utters a chilling line, “once you’re dead, why keep on dying?”
The Gospel According to Miss Roj, a Transgender woman, commandingly struts through a New York nightclub like a powerful preacher sermonizing to their flock the ugliness of the world. Miss Roj delivers a speech with fierce determination that they will not be abused or silenced any longer. They demand that the world sees them as the all-powerful “Snap” Queen.
In The Hairpiece, two wigs come to life and argue about which is the best wig for their owner to wear for her to leave her man and take charge of her life – one of the hilarious pieces of the night.
The Last-Mama-On-The-Couch, a parody of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” was easily the best sketch in the evening. Each female character in this sketch purposely outshines and pulls focus from the lead male character. One by one, each female character is given an award for their performance while the male lead is accused of the crime of over-acting. The sketch ends with the hilarious musical number asking, “Why couldn’t he be born into an all-Black musical?”
Symbiosis has a middle-aged man throwing away the things his younger, more politically charged self owned – but his younger self is there to fight him for his former life.
Lala’s Opening is the most confusing of the sketches. It features an American nightclub singer who pretends to be French and has a nervous breakdown as memories of her past haunt her. What may have added to the confusion in the piece were some missed light cues and an unreliable hand mic.
Permutations tells a disturbing tale. A little girl innocently talks as if she is telling a fairy tale about being raped by a garbage man. Her mother locks her away in a dark room until the girl lays an enormous white egg, apparently filled with flying babies.
The Party wraps up the evening. A professional party-goer images an evening with an array of famous Black people throughout history, and many of the characters from previous sketches join the party.
I applauded the strength and the incredible talent of the cast. Jennifer Jenkins, Alicia Thomas, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Brandon Burditt, and Jermaine Robinson Jr. all committed to their passion and tell these stories with truth and heart. With only a few unfocused sketches, “The Colored Museum” at American Stage is a powerful evening of revealing stories that force the audience to give their attention and engage in conversations as they leave the theater.