George Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” begins on the Celebrity Slaveship, amidst the flickering projections of antebellum and early-20th-century photographs and newspapers. Little is discernible, but an excerpt of a headline reading “COLORED PEOPLE” can be caught. We are introduced to Miss Hap, the mistress of ceremonies, one of many loud, colorful and comic characters, to appear once and not again. “You must wear your shackles at all times,” she announces to the “crew”; “Earphones can be purchased for the price of your first born child.” This is not a play that paints for us narrative, nor a meaning clear and distinct; from the get-go, director Alexis Payne ’19 uses Wolfe’s challenging script to let us laugh, grieve and think our way through extravagant, artful and poetical black American realities, acted out on a white rectangular stage.
Payne’s cast is exceptional throughout. One struggles to believe this is the first Yale production for Rayo Oyeyemi ’18, as she dances, giggles, weeps from the bombastic hot pink PVC legging-clad Miss Hap into the proud child, eager to show her mother her fertility. The same impossible brilliance in a Yale theater debut performance is seen from Me’Lena Laudig ’19, whose impeccable and immense singing voice commands total attention with every divine note sung — the audience begs for yet another melody, a mere hum of a tune, at the end of her every line. Both Laudig and Oyeyemi move with exceptional ease and fluency, which is beyond welcome: So often in undergraduate theater, movement is desperately neglected, but Payne has paid ruthless attention to the totality of the play. In turn, the audience pays ruthless attention to each reality it is presented with.
Despite stellar performances all round, the title of showstopper is reserved for Alcindor Leadon ’17, who explodes the Iseman Theater with laughter and love in his performance as “snap queen” Miss Roj. Harold Bloom GRD ’56 once wrote of Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff that he was practically wounded upon each of the fat knight’s exits, so vital was his performance — well, in Leadon’s Miss Roj we have a black, drag, snap queen Falstaff. “If you find yourself gasping for air in the middle of the night, chances are, you FUCKED with Miss Roj and she didn’t like it,” he raspily shoots out, followed by a lethal snap and silken wave of the arm, and the audience reels once more. His confidence and charisma breathes truth into his philosophies: “God created black people. And black people created style.”
Part of what makes Leadon’s Miss Roj so irresistible, along with Lexi Butler ’17 as La La Lamazing Grace — once a “humble girl from the backwoods of Mississippi” now a violent faux Zsa Zsa Gabor — and Laudig’s party girl situated “somewhere between 125th street and infinity,” are the flawless costumes put together by Cara Washington ’18. This is Washington’s fourth show as a costume designer, and one sees her perspicacious touch throughout: perfectly fitted shimmering white dresses, hoop earrings somewhere between glamorous and absurd, and a pair of crimson patio pants to knock your socks clean off. Once again, the thought with which Payne has assembled a team for this production is visible in every pore of the 105 minutes it devours.
The heroic cast take us through each vignette with such grace and flair that the script’s profundity in what it says about blackness infiltrates almost clandestinely: Throughout the production, lethal gravitas blends into side-splitting whimsy. Kerry Burke-McCloud ‘17 solemnly pronounces that “each and every one of them had pain on his future and blood on his past”. On the other hand, Leadon’s hammy actor, auditioning for something like a Lifetime movie, howls “I wanna BE SOMEBODY.”
That’s right, Leadon brings the house down with not one but two different characters. Two wigs, or friends disguised as wigs, or both, bring about a nervous breakdown in their owner, which wreaks comedic havoc on the audience. Oyeyemi as the made-in-Taiwan Afro, “ashamed of where she comes from,” fights against Branson Rideaux ’20, the platinum blonde wig, hair-flips aplenty. Next we watch a suffocated businessman strangle to death the personification of his childhood, his blackness. He moans in anguish: “Being black is too emotionally taxing, and therefore I will be black only on weekends. And holidays.” Blackness doesn’t look like any one thing, we learn; it sounds like records, “the sound of a heart moving in the water,” as Laudig’s Harlem-to-infinity party girl tells us “the drums … in my speech, my walk, my hair, my style, my eyes.” It might look like “Nat Turner sipping champagne out of Urtha Kitt’s slipper.” It might look like anything.
The play is not perfect: The gray rectangle that is the stage feels uninspired, particularly on the heels of Stefani Kuo’s architectural wonder created in the same theater only a week before, and we see once more near-inevitable minor technical malfunctions that threaten to disrupt the play’s energy (is there something I will never be able to understand that makes cueing an MP3 forever a momentously challenging task for a technician?). However, these are made negligible by virtue of virtuosic performances from the whole cast, and standout performances from Leadon and Laudig. Payne has given us a play full of joy and care, full of love and thoughtfulness of language, a play, which, unlike many of the Yale Dramat’s problematic recent projects, speaks to the experiences of people of color and puts them front and center. The endearing and wondrous success of the production makes it clear to all: black theater matters; black artists matter; Black Lives Matter.