In The Colored Museum, a wittily biting play now at Karamu Theatre, a collection of sketches written by George C. Wolfe slices neat and deep, poking fun at the way blacks (and whites) behave within their own community and in the broader world. Inevitably, a few of the scenes work better than others, but the overall result is an exhilarating evening that sends you off with a few punctured stereotypes, along with some thoughts about how we can all deal with the residue of pain that life deals out.
Though the material is 20 years old, Wolfe's edgy takes on the black experience still ring clear and comic, with a great assist from director Caroline Jackson Smith and a sublimely talented cast of five. Accompanied by Courtney-Savali L. Andrews on electronic piano (the West African drummer was absent on this night), each vignette poses a distinct and piercing portrayal of blacks in America -- very much like walking through a museum, only without the boring parts.
The show is staged using a central turntable that pivots to end one scene and begin the next, with the actors coming out of a statuesque freeze to present their material. And it all begins with a hot satirical charge as Miss Pat (a sweetly smiling Kimberly Brown) welcomes passengers onto a slave ship named Celebrity Airlines and asks everyone to obey the "Fasten Shackles" sign and settle in for the trip to Savannah. The terminally perky Miss Pat forbids drum playing (could start a revolt) and notes that, while the passengers will have to endure hundreds of years of torment and "abandon your god and worship a new one," they will eventually land in a world where people dance the Funky Chicken and white guys like William Faulkner will write about them.
Playwright Wolfe clearly has strong opinions and a sure sense of what clicks theatrically (in the 1990s, he won Tony Awards for directing Angels in America and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk). He wisely resists being trapped into similar sketch formats, so some sequences are fairly straight acting bits, while others ride waves of music ranging from gospel to blues to pop. But underneath all the chuckles is the undercurrent of the pain blacks have endured and how they can use it to make today and tomorrow better.
One view of the pain, in a scene called "The Photo Session," features a sleek couple continually posing and preening in their expensive duds as they "live inside Ebony magazine." Performed with slick precision by Katrice Monee Headd and G. Carlos Henderson, these two obviously feel no pain at all and wonder if they're the worse because of it. In another sketch, Jimmie Woody and Henderson play two parts of a man: his younger, unapologetically black self and his current iteration, a polished and sophisticated dude. As the man tries to throw away bits and pieces of his former life (an album by the Temptations, a jar of curl relaxer), he explains that being black is too emotionally taxing; he can only manage it on weekends and holidays. But the young man in him fights to retain his identity, along with an album by Michael Jackson "that proved he had a black nose."
Perhaps the funniest bit is a send-up of Raisin in the Sun titled "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," in which Stephanie Stovall is delightful as the archetypal black mother, who reads her Bible and keeps her rebellious and/or pretentious children on a short leash. When her rage-filled son Walter steps out of line, she sends him flying with one of the best burlesque stage slaps in recent memory. And as other relatives parade through, overemoting as they go, a Masterpiece Theatre-style narrator hands out acting awards on the spot.
Finishing a close second in the laughter derby is "The Hairpiece," in which two wigs battle verbally for the favor of their owner, even while they diss her. Headd (the Afro) and Stovall (the Euro) are only acting from the neck up, but their priceless expressions and nanosecond timing turn this brief skit into a minor gem.
Though there are also a couple of flat parts -- Brown doesn't have the chops to play the centerpiece diva in "Lala's Opening," and "Permutations," about a pregnant teen, is too meandering and cloying -- this is one museum that definitely demands a field trip.