Black Satire Matters: The African-American Shakespeare Company Tackles The Colored Museum

For the first time in its 21-year history, and during the biggest resurgence in civil rights activism in almost half a century, the African-American Shakespeare Company is producing George C. Wolfe's satire, The Colored Museum. (In spite of its name, the troupe departs from Elizabethan drama once or twice per season.) It's a multi-part work, with five actors in 11 vignettes, and in a collaborative spirit, four highly regarded Bay Area directors have divvied up the stories among themselves through the play's run from the middle of Black History Month into early March.

Although The Colored Museum dates to 1987, L. Peter Callender, the AACS's Artistic Director, believes it's more relevant than ever. After the retrenchment of racism in the American political system during the Obama years, Callender feels a bracing dose of humor is a necessary corrective. But, to him, the time is also right to accept the need to keep charging ahead. 

[jump] “We’ve certainly moved forward, but we’re still struggling to take those giant steps,” Callender said. “I just directed [August Wilson's] Jitney. A lot of characters talk about 'The white man don’t care about me, the white man is this, and the white man is that.' This play is saying, 'Look guys, leave those attitudes in a museum. Let’s take care of teach other, let’s not harbor these resentments and stifle ourselves. Let’s choose it now, when we’re about to say farewell to one of the greatest presidents — in my opinion — this country ever had. It’s time.” 

That conciliatory tone might strike some as discordant with the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, but Callender regards The Colored Museum's loving jabs at Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson as coming straight from the comic tradition of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Speaking about actress and Fox contributor Stacey Dash's remarks about how BET and Black History Month shouldn't exist, Callender grew quite caustic.

“Darling, really?” he said. “These killings of black men by police officers, it’s skyrocketed over the past eight years: Why is that?”

“I think every black man that was gunned down has the face of our president,” he added. “There’s a significant, underlying resentment of the fact that our president is one of the best — and he is black, and his administration has been almost without scandal, compared to others. A lot of the racists in this country look at these black men and wish they could get rid of this president. It’s endemic, it’s cancerous, and it needs to be rooted out. Now, with Colored Museum, we could poke a little fun at it and say, 'Ease up.'”

Another prescient dimension is the play's transgender character.

“Miss Roj will be played by Aejay Mitchell, so that’s another aspect of the timeliness of this play. There’s Miss Roj dealing with his/her sexuality. How does she relate to women, to men, to herself, to her family? How does she attract attention? Wolfe was talking about this in the early '80s!”

As that element seems decades ahead of its time, Callender notes that the play's use of the word colored is neither an accident nor an anachronism.

“Wolfe deliberately pushed buttons calling it The Colored Museum,” he said. “Back in the '80s, we were black. Black and proud. It just sort of raised the hairs of the necks of both blacks and whites. It's a particular word that gets the ire. It's a racist word. The first piece talks about 'Get on board the slave ship!' and there's this well-dressed stewardess saying 'Make sure your shackles are buckled.' You're supposed to laugh.”

The Colored Museum, Feb. 13 – March 6, Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m.; $15-$34, at the African-American Shakespeare Company, 762 Fulton, 415-762-2071.

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