George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” opens with Miss Pat (Kyra Riley ’16) and partner (Zola Quao ’13), two pretend-stewardesses with blaring eyes and plastic smiles, who robotically demonstrate to the Middle Passengers behind them the proper way to fasten their shackles. They are slaves. We are looking at slaves here, with their backs facing us shamelessly or shamefully, a powerful director’s choice. This first vignette (of the 11 that make up the entirety of the show) takes us into a celebratory and satirical time warp through African-American stereotypes and identities in Racist America and abroad.
The major parts of the set are three white podiums, as if they are parts of an exhibit at a museum. However, unlike a day at the museum, there is no security guard slapping your hand away if you get too close to a piece — or if a piece gets too close to you. “The Colored Museum” is in your face, debuting at the very intimate Morse/Stiles Crescent Theater. But what I’m really getting at is the overrepresentation of parts in which the actors dance or scream up and down the aisles in the audience, encouraging it to dance or respond in some way.
I do not mean to say that these were bad performances. Gabriel DeLeon ’14 steals the show as the glittery drag queen Miss Roj. In the fourth vignette, “Soldier with a Secret,” Leonard Thomas ’14 stands a couple feet from my face and performs a heartbreaking and perfectly exaggerated monologue with a glistening tear in his eye. Thomas described the decision to kill all of his fellow soldiers so they could avoid the “pain in the future that comes with blood in the past,” referring to a home life not much better than being at war. I was both an audience member and the friend that he was about to shoot. But there is just too much contact, making the experience inevitably confrontational. Even so, perhaps this is the intention — in which case, the amount of prolonged eye contact I’ve made with the cast is justified. Still, I don’t think I’ll dance.
In addition, bright lights on the faces in the audience in some parts of the show add to the in-your-face nature. There were also defining light effects. The intense dim and focus on Thomas in the “Soldier” monologue make the war zone setting more convincing. I also appreciated the slow darkening that accompanied the “smile-and-click” mantra at the end of the vignette “The Photo Session.” This technique allows for the stereotype of modern African-American celebrity as nothing more than a photo-subject to effectively resonate in our minds as the vignette gradually ends.
Again, if the play’s intent is to exaggerate and over-emote, then Quao delivers it seamlessly. I’m still a bit chilled from her wide-eyed gaze and sneer as Miss Pat’s partner in the Middle Passage, and mesmerized by her act as Beyoncé next to Jay-Z, portraying what stereotypes have got to say about being an African-American star and also bringing this 1986 show to our time. The exaggeration is evident in Quao’s oscillating identities: as her American self and as French celebrity Lala. Actually a Mississippi native, she moves to France to pursue stardom (and a really bad French accent) without the oppressive American public.
While there are a total of 11 vignettes, the show is overall cohesive and conclusive. Even if the transitions from vignette to vignette seemed a bit choppy at times, the final vignette closes with a powerful conglomeration of all the “stereotypes” throughout the play. “The Colored Museum” offers a groundbreaking reminder of existing tensions that might just have to be in your face.
“The Colored Museum” will run through Saturday in the Morse/Stiles Crescent Theater.