Optimism and Humor in the African-American Shakespeare Company's The Colored Museum

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and as a palate cleanser from this season's Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, the African-American Shakespeare Company staged George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. The primary thing to keep foremost in mind is that this play premiered in 1986, and like the tale of star-crossed lovers in fair Verona, it feels no less contemporary today.

[jump] The 90-minute, one-act play contains 11 vignettes — “exhibits,” in the show's internal parlance — that examine different facets of the African-American cultural experience. Some are stronger than others, and that's to be expected. But with the possible exception of the Ebony-skewering quickie “The Photo Session,” none of The Colored Museum's material feels dated. Rather, the humor is candid, balancing satire with silliness. Much of the time, the jokes stand on their own, but at key moments, things become poignant. When, in “Git on Board,” put-upon Jet Age flight attendant Miss Pat asks slave ship passengers to fasten their shackles and kindly not foment a rebellion with drumming in economy class, it wrings every last drop from the premise — only for the scene to cut to a bewildered slave at the airport, a despondent piece of unclaimed baggage.

Even “Cookin' With Aunt Ethel,” which broadly lampoons minstrelsy in popular entertainment along with the “I's-In-Town, Honey”-era Aunt Jemima ads, feels current. The sketch hits it home when the result of Ethel's stovetop activity turns out to be “a batch of negroes” in the form of strung-together gingerbread men. (Its only downside: This is a character with a lot of potential for further development. What if Aunt Ethel were treated as a real show, and we got to see it as well as offstage glimpses of an actor who plays a mammy on TV in the 21st century?)

Funny as Ethel is, it's “The Hairpiece,” a verbal duel between two self-important wigs, which produces the biggest laughs. As the bickering rivals start back-talking to their ostensible owner after she hesitates over which one to wear on an emotionally difficult date, the comedic temperature just goes up and up. Similarly, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” a winking jab at all the derivative melodrama that copied Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, piles high the woe-is-me factor until suddenly people are chucking infants out the window to damn The Man.

But the truly dramatic segments aren't buried under the absurdity. “Lala's Window” imagines a singer from Mississippi who grew up to be a Continental diva but can't quite destroy every trace of the girl she used to be, and the strangest exhibit of all, “Permutations,” meditates on otherness and the specter of incipient loss in the form of a girl who gives birth to a giant egg.

The Colored Museum's setup is very simple: The stage is mounted on a turntable, and the 20 or so parts are played by the same five cast members. Trained in the art of lengthy soliloquies, these actors have no trouble maintaining the required intensity, and cycle through the parts with aplomb. They reprise their most colorful roles in the final exhibit — “The Party” — which leaves things hopeful and joyous. That this play was written in the late '80s, a dark time for urban America, is telling. The first African-American president will leave office in less than a year, and racism is percolating through American society to such a degree that the giddiness that welcomed Obama in 2008 seems almost foolish in hindsight, but The Colored Museum, which preceded it all by decades, knows better.

The Colored Museum, through March 13, $15-$34, at the Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton, african-americanshakes.org.

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