THE COLORED MUSEUM may make you uncomfortable, but you’re going to have real good time first! The Huntington Theatre Company’s revival of George C. Wolfe’s 1986 musical is a whip-cracking, gospel-ringing, minstrel-mashing, high stepping, low-down, soul-searching trip through a museum of black stereotypes, at once a purge and a celebration.
At the helm is two-time Tony winner actor, director, writer Billy Porter who starred in Broadway’s KINKY BOOTS, and who directs and choreographs a cast of five fabulously talented performers through these 11 hilarious “exhibits.” The first exhibit, “GIT ON BOARD” immediately nails the tone as sassy stewardess “Miss Pat” (Shayna Small) welcomes us aboard “Celebrity slave ship, departing the Gold Coast… final destination Savannah,” and warning, “Shackles must be worn at all times!” Yes, we are laughing– but should we be? We titter on the edge; should we respond when she prompts us to repeat, “I will not rebel”?
Soon we’re “Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel,” Capathia Jenkins,’ with her tear-the-roof-off-the sucka’ vocals, firing up a bluesy brew of simmering rage, grits under glass, and a batch of negroes no one knows what to do with. Skip ahead to two glossy specimens from Ebony Magazine, mannequins smiling through the contradictions and “the pain of having no pain.” Still later, two wigs, one straight, one kinky, battle over which will give the wearer the most power over a traitorous lover–the history of hair and its meaning in black culture in one hilarious vignette. I was in hysterics. The Gospel according to Miss Roj featured Nathan Lee Graham in a bravura set piece as a drag queen with a lot to say about when to “snap” on the the risky edge of identity and acceptance. “La La’s Opening,” a Diana Ross diva needed to close a little sooner and seemed superfluous given the ground we had already covered.
But then there was extraordinary “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch-Play” featuring a powerful mother in a floral dress on an identical floral print sofa, who slaps her rebellious son into next week; all he wants is to be a man in a world that still calls him “boy,” and all she wants is for him is to show some respect for his elders and wipe his feet! It’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” shriveled to its core, having given up its juice–but nonetheless, a beloved trope we can all can cozy up to.
Sacrilege? No. The show is genius, ultimately releasing us to laugh at our limitations while embracing the pain that animated the stereotypes to begin with, and propelling us forward. I haven’t mentioned the music. Initially, the stewardess says “no drums” allowed on board. But then we hear them, and they beat through every sketch from gospel hymns, to ragtime, jazz, blues, soul, rock n’ roll, disco, and hip hop, speaking history in a language deeper and more constant than words, a visceral through line to pain, sorrow, solace, triumph, and the redemption of shared laughter so we can make the best of a past we cannot change and move forward. THE COLORED MUSEUM is a living, breathing exhibition worth the price of admission– and then some. At The Huntington Theatre through April 5!