“The Colored Museum,” the Yale Dramatic Association’s second production of the fall season, opens Thursday in the Iseman Theater.
The experimental play by American playwright George C. Wolfe uses satire to convey the experience of being black in America, according to an official description provided by the Dramat’s website. Composed of 11 sketches or “exhibitions,” the production aims to showcase different images and ideas of what black identity seems to be, director Alexis Payne ’19 said.
“I’ve been looking at the ways in which stereotypes affect mass culture and the media, and how nothing is ever as it seems in terms of those images,” Payne said.
Payne and the cast conducted a significant amount of research on the production, which first premiered in 1986, before rehearsals even began. Branson Rideaux ’20, an actor in the Dramat’s rendition, noted the amount of time he and cast members spent around a table discussing the culture that had influenced the script. He said cast members realized during their research that the stereotypes satirized in “The Colored Museum” found their roots in blackface minstrelsy — a 19th-century variety act during which white people would wear blackface to portray black characters.
Payne said that at moments, looking through historical archives and working with the difficult material presented by the production was “painful.” The process, however, was ultimately full of “laughter and joy,” because she and the cast sought to figure out what made the show funny. She added that the cast found more precise motives for their characters through their research, which has made their acting choices more deliberate.
While there are funny moments throughout “The Colored Museum,” the play also raises serious questions about characters breaking away from the identity imposed on them by mainstream culture.
“It is a funny [play] until it’s not,” co-producer Declan Kunkel ’19 said.
Kunkel added that he believed Wolfe should have a greater presence in the Yale theater scene.
Although “The Colored Museum” premiered 30 years ago, the production team holds that the issues within the play remain relevant today.
“Most of the stereotypes are mostly still there,” Rideaux said, “but we don’t realize that they are stereotypes anymore.”
“The Colored Museum” is being marketed to an audience broader than the Yale community, Payne said. While the Dramat typically requires audience members to purchase tickets for its shows, half of the tickets to the Saturday night performance will be sold on a pay-what–you-can basis at the door. This policy is meant to draw in an audience from the New Haven community who are not affiliated with Yale. The show’s entire cast and production team has been doing outreach by going into the community in person to attract a more diverse audience, Payne said. She added that she thinks this outreach will be more effective than hanging posters because it humanizes the production.
Kunkel said producing “The Colored Museum” at Yale is significant because the undergraduate theater community often does not put up plays that “tackle big issues.”
“I want the people who are coming to the show to think about who put these characters here and who is in charge of this museum,” Payne said. “These characters were not asked to come here voluntarily or put up their bodies for this performance.”
The production will feature post-show discussions after the Thursday night and Saturday matinee performances. Danielle Bainbridge GRD ’18 will lead the discussion on Thursday, and Daphne Brooks, a professor in the African American Studies Department, will lead Saturday’s discussion.
The Yale Repertory Theatre produced “The Colored Museum” in 1992.