Chicago Theatre Review
Razor-Sharp Satire Lands Brilliantly in PULSE Theatre’s ‘Colored Museum’
The Colored Museum – Pulse Theatre
“People kept asking for a ‘Black play.’ I kept asking, ‘What’s a Black play?’ Four walls, a couch, and a mama? I can’t live within those old definitions.” –George C. Wolfe
“The Colored Museum,” the 1986 play from theater luminary George C. Wolfe, is not an easy play to produce. A brilliant, ruthless satire of America and its limited, stereotypical grasp of both race and Black culture, “The Colored Museum” is composed of 11 scenes, each of which portray a different stage of the Black experience. For instance, there is the opening scene, “Git on Board,” which ruthlessly reimagines the transatlantic slave trade as a 1980s plane flight, with a plucky stewardess (the dynamic Demetria Drayton) informing her passengers to shackle their arms and legs, not play any drums, and, upon arrival in Savannah, Georgia, to abandon their native cultures and adopt the religion of their new masters; there is “The Hairpiece,” a hilarious bit involving a young woman and the two mannequins in her room – one wearing an afro wig (the charismatic Deanna Reed-Foster), the other a long, flowing, Barbie-esque hairpiece (the talented Ekia Thomas) – who argue over which wig she should wear; and in perhaps the play’s most famous bit, there is “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” an unrelenting (and sidesplitting) parody of “A Raisin in the Sun” that manages to blast holes in 1950s melodrama, drama cliches, and musical theater all across its scene.
Obviously, “The Colored Museum” is not for the faint of heart, and I’ll admit to a slight sense of trepidation as I entered the eta Creative Arts Foundation’s beautiful facilities in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. Would the Pulse Theatre Company and its creative team had the necessary chops to bring Wolfe’s satire to life? Suffice to say, my hesitations could not have been more poorly placed. Boldly co-directed by Aaron Mitchell Reese and Donterrio Johnson (a familiar face in Chicago’s musical scene) and featuring a remarkably talented ensemble, there is not a dull moment in Pulse’s production.
Wolfe has described his play as a simultaneous “exorcism” and “celebration” of Black culture, and that duality is palpable in every scene of this production. Consider, for instance, the scene titled “Symbiosis.” A man dressed in professional clothes (the magnetic Jelani West) opens a dumpster, and begins discarding all the elements of Black culture that he can – his dashiki, his “Free Huey” pins, even his old soul records. Before long, his conscience (embodied by the versatile Ben F. Locke) begins arguing with him over his decision, and begs him to retain those aspects of who he is. Across the scenes few minutes, there is drama, such as when the man proclaims that he will only advance in American society without his culture; there is comedy, such as when the man’s conscience demands he keep his Jackson 5 LP, as it is “the evidence that Michael Jackson had a black nose”; and there is tragedy, when the man discards his conscience along with those buttons and records.
Clearly, “The Colored Museum” is a play of remarkable nuance and many layers, and one that is particularly well timed to today’s America, one that has seen a resurrection of unabashed Blackness within mainstream entertainment circles and a bold reinsertion of civil rights into the national discourse; indeed, both Reese and Johnson speak to the show’s prescience in essays that accompany the playbill.
The theater may be a few miles south of the city’s typical theater circuit, but “The Colored Museum” is necessary theater for a 21st century Chicago, and is well, well worth the time.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Oct. 23 by PULSE Theatre Company at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to http://www.greenhousetheater.org/.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com