Black Is Black 

The Colored Museum puts African-American history under glass.

While watching The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe's breakthrough collection of pointed Afro-centric skits, I was reminded of "Colored Spade," a song from the musical Hair.

The song begins with a list of mostly pejorative names: "I'm a colored spade, a nigra, a black nigger, jungle bunny, jigaboo, coon, pickaninny, mau mau, Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo ... and President of the United States of Love." Then, after a quick rundown of the things a black man might be expected to eat, the upbeat number ends with a cheeky warning that the "Boogie Man" will get you: "Boooooo! Yeah!"

In Hair, a show that is less substantial than its controversial history might suggest, "Colored Spade" stands out for forcing audiences to confront the enduring nature of racism as perpetuated by a variety of both negative and seemingly benign stereotypes. And it occurred to me as I chuckled my way through the Hattiloo Theatre's uneven but ultimately rewarding production of The Colored Museum that the play is nothing if not a theatrical exploding of this song from Hair, which probably accomplishes more in three minutes than Wolfe's sketch collection does at nearly 30 times the length.

The Colored Museum, which racked up numerous accolades in 1986, hasn't aged well, but that isn't entirely the playwright's fault. Can he help it if Roj, a finger-snapping drag queen near the heart of the show, became an instant archetype whose antics have been appropriated by so many other, similar characters? Or that a once show-stopping monologue has evolved into one great big yawn? Jonathan Underwood couldn't be better in the role, but 13 years after Wigstock: The Movie, it's all old hat and patio pants.

The audience is introduced to Wolfe's museum by a stewardess who welcomes everybody aboard Celebrity Slave Ship and warns that the beating of rebellious drums is strictly forbidden as a "Fasten Shackles" light comes on down front. This opening could have been given new life in a post-9/11 world where such dangerous items as nail clippers and toothpaste are disallowed as carry-ons, but it's played only at face value and in an over-the-top style that makes the narrative hard to follow at times as the drumbeats pick up and Celebrity Slave Ship starts moving quickly through space and time, flying past all the highlights and lowlights of African-American culture.

Wolfe's play is filled with absurdist delights like "The Hairpiece," in which an Afro wig named LaWanda (Sandra Garrison-Wren) fights with a straight, blond wig named Janine (Cheryl Yates) over who gets to sit on the head of the Woman in the Mirror. It's a perfect marriage of Spike Lee and Samuel Beckett and a revelatory delight right up until the scalping.

For sheer audacity, "The Hairpiece" is matched only by the more somber silliness of "Permutations," which tells of a girl who lays an egg after having sex with the garbage man. Kristi Steele's naked vulnerability exposes all the painful realities hidden within an otherwise Seussical situation without sacrificing any of the dark comedy.

But none of Wolfe's characters are as memorable as the collection of clichés he presents in a sketch titled "The Last Black Mama on the Couch Play," which was intended to spoof shows like A Raisin in the Sun but now looks like the template for everything Tyler Perry has ever written. It's a sympathetic but no less scalding indictment of black artists who perpetuate a different set of black stereotypes that aren't that far removed from the minstrel shows of old.

Director Leslie Riddick has done a good job bringing all of Wolfe's extreme characters and outlandish situations to noisy life but not quite as good a job at stitching together the pieces of this crazy quilt. The audience's eyes are assaulted by full blackouts followed by bright lights turned full blast on a completely white set. And, except for the obvious (to the point of being unfortunate) use of Edwin Starr's "War, What Is It Good For?," very little has been done to move The Colored Museum smoothly from scene to scene. So it's a bumpy ride even at its best. And totally worth it.

Through February 15th

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