The Journey of African American Culture
By Camisha Jones
If you’ve ever doubted the resilience of African-Americans, be sure to catch The Colored Museum at Theatre VCU this February. Entertaining, educational and inspiring, the satirical play tells the story of 200 years of African American history and artistic contribution as if it were a museum exhibit. Authored by George C. Wolfe who wrote Jelly’s Last Jam and directed Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk, the humorous treatment of iconic images and stereotypes in The Colored Museum may remind you of Hollywood Shuffle. Throughout, there are references to well-known works such as Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Though first debuted in 1986, the topics explored in the eleven “exhibits” of this play remain contemporary. Each scene and monologue – whether it is about the journey through slavery, conforming to beauty standards or how the Black family is portrayed – is a living display of African American culture and the persistent effect of racism on it.
Integral to the themes of the show is the music of The Colored Museum which is in itself an exhibition of African-American culture. Music director and composer Andrienne Wilson explains, “I’ve written original music to go with (Wolfe’s) lyrics. And the idea…is to have the cast doing the work a capella but (also) have each piece of music literally cover the gamut of… all these different types of African American music so the music itself is like a museum exhibit…” In each scene, the music matches the wardrobe and time period that is represented. The songs, therefore, are inspired by a broad range of artists including Miles Davis, Take 6, Stylistics, Fats Waller, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Ross. Wilson considers it a privilege to showcase African-American music in this way explaining, “Everything that we recognize as American music, everything we take pride in (musically) as Americans is coming out of Black music and when you see all these periods that are the definitive sound for that period, it’s Black. So, for me as a composer, it’s like ‘Oh yeah, what a great thing to do!’”
Directing the play is VCU faculty member Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (affectionately known to most as “Dr. T”). As founder of The Conciliation Project, Richmond’s social justice theatre company, Dr. T’s approach is one that recognizes the power of theatre to provoke positive change. At VCU and through TCP, Dr. T has focused her work as a playwright and director on race and racism by giving a stage to unheard historical accounts that are followed by honest conversations. The aim of her efforts is best summed up in TCP’s mission: “to promote, through active and challenging dramatic work, open and honest dialogue about Racism in America in order to repair its damaging legacy.” The Colored Museum offers a rich opportunity to further that effort.
Even though the play has yet to open, it has already been eye-opening to many. The VCU students who comprise the show’s cast have deepened their knowledge of African-American artists and their struggles. To prepare for their roles, they have researched and learned about people such as Al Jolson, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson and James Baldwin. Dr. T explains the significance of these African-Americans, stating, “They were not only…tremendous artists but they were activist artists as well because they were living in a time when Black people didn’t have rights — the right to even come to some of the theatres that they were performing in. That’s what Black artists had to do. They had to be both artists and activists. This is what these young people are learning.”
Being in the play has, therefore, made a major impact on many of its cast, especially those who are majoring in theatre. “I’m loving this experience… because even as an African American I have been miseducated in my own history and through this process and through working with TCP…it’s…sparked my interest and really got me researching my own history,” shares junior Justin Bell. “Stuff like this changes my life, especially when it’s right in front of you and it’s the raw truth. It’s a life changer to me,” says senior Kendra Mosely.
Members of the cast are passionate when asked why people should see The Colored Museum. “I feel like the show takes the stereotypes and…opens (them) up and unfolds (them) and actually shows the truth behind our history…It’s like an education tool,” says Bell. Mosely adds, “…there is so much within our history as African Americans – or even American history period – that has been sugar coated or that people don’t know about or some people might not even care to know about…I feel like this show…brings it all to light…” Brandon Butts, a junior, believes that everyone needs to know the history represented in this show. They are all eager to share The Colored Museum with the city. “It’s a great piece and I love working on it, knowing that whoever sees it will be enlightened to a part of their history,” says Butts.
The play opens on February 15th at 7:30 p.m. at Theatre VCU’s Raymond Hodges Theatre. Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. on February 16th, 21st, and 23rd and at 3 p.m. on February 17th and 24th. The shows on February 17th and 24th will conclude with talk backs, allowing audience members to discuss what they saw. General admission price is $25 and discounted pricing is available for seniors, VCU faculty and staff ($20); VCU students with ID ($10); and other college students with ID ($15).
Be prepared. While laughing along with the caricatures of The Colored Museum, you just may leave with a similar revelation as its character, Topsy Washington, when she exclaims, “I been thinking we gave up our drums. but, naw, we still got ‘em. I know I got mine. they’re here, in my speech, my walk, my hair, my God, my style, my smile, and my eyes. And everything I need to get over in this world, is inside (me) connecting me to everybody and everything that’s ever been.”
For more information contact the Theatre VCU Box Office at 804-828-6026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.