‘The Colored Museum’ Takes Unflinching, Hilarious Look at Black Experience (4.5 Stars)

The Colored Museum’ – Written by George C. Wolfe; Directed by Billy Porter; Scenic design by Clint Ramos; Costume Design by Anita Yavich; Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto; Sound Design by John Shivers and Kevin Kennedy; Projection Design by Zachary Borovay; Music by Kysia Bostic.Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theatre 264 Huntington Ave, Boston through April 5th.

While watching the opening sketch from “The Colored Museum” – one which featured a beautiful African-American “stewardess” on the Celebrity Slaveship instructing the passengers to “fasten their shackles” and admonishing them to “not play drums” on the ship – I sat back, fully expecting a more stylized version of an “In Living Color” episode. It had all the elements of the groundbreaking 90’s show: comedy based on the painful reality of much of the black experience and some very big but slightly unnerving laughs. But not long after the first couple of sketches (or “exhibits” as the program refers to them), “the sh*t got real” as the kids say.

Following a very funny send up of specialty cooking shows with “Cooking with Aunt Ethel” – where a blues belting Bessie Smith type bakes herself up “a batch of Negros,” – and an imaginative sketch ridiculing the pretentiousness of Ebony Magazine, the comedy comes to a screeching halt and we’re taken to the much darker place of “Soldier with a Secret”. In this brilliant vignette, a freshly killed soldier in Viet Nam comes back to life to see what the future holds for his fellow black soldiers when they return stateside after the war, and he decides to protect them from the pain in a very unsettling way. Although it has a Twilight Zone feel to it, the reality behind the impending scenarios is all too real. And from there, we’re taken on a roller coaster ride of searing satire that is alternately hilarious and insightful.

If you’re a white person and hesitant about going for fear of being lampooned or schooled on race relations – fear not, the satire here is strictly “Black on Black’. Playwright George C. Wolfe skewers all things African-American – good and bad – and takes on (and slaughters) a herd of sacred cows. The show was written pre-Oprah so she (unfortunately) is spared the harsh light of his scathing wit, but if it’s part of the black experience pre-1987 (when the play was written) it’s ripe for parody, from slavery to the theatrical depictions of black folks in “Raisin in the Sun”. It also helps to be familiar with 60s-80s history to understand the references, but there are some updates in the script to keep it current (such as a Ferguson mention). But there are other issues raised during the production, the most thought provoking of which was a scene where a black professional who has “made it” decides to leave behind his former black persona, but is confronted by his younger, more idealistic self who doesn’t want to be abandoned (with good reason).

“The Colored Museum” is really about trying to fight becoming a stereotype without giving up some of the good things about your cultural identity. And in a city like Boston, where so many third generation Irish and Italians and second generation Hispanics and Haitians retain so much of their cultural heritage, the material can resonate in a more universal way. Ironically, some of the best material in the show comes from a pair of gospel and blues fueled vignettes, two musical genres that come directly from the black experience. The singing in these numbers alone are worth the price of admission.

This is a brilliantly directed and executed production, and while I generally don’t feel qualified to comment on things like set and projection design, the multiple scene changes were seamless and the quick change sets were spare but imaginatively effective. The cast was insanely talented – as comics, actors and singers. And while each cast member was afforded at least one extended solo piece that would have stood out as the highlight of any lesser show, Nathan Lee Graham as the coke-snorting drag queen Miss Roj and Rema Webb as La La L’Amazing Grace (Diana Ross?) delivered mind-blowing performances.

While I was at the YMCA this morning, I recommended the show to an older theater-going friend, and he told me that he was “tired of all the race stuff” and a little reluctant to go. My impression of the show is that it has less to do with delivering some powerful educational message as it is an unflinching sendup of aspects of black culture by a playwright, director and cast who know how to deliver an absolutely terrific night of comic and dramatic theater – with a dose of insight thrown in for good measure. Just go. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2014-2015/colored-museum/