Assistant Spectrum Editor
Despite original concerns surrounding its promotional poster, which displayed historic images of people in “blackface,” “The Colored Museum” opened last Thursday to an inviting audience.
“The Colored Museum,” a play written by George C. Wolfe, explores the conflict and history behind African-American identity by presenting and confronting racial stereotypes and the history of African-American culture in the U.S.
The show opens as African-American students become trapped in the museum and are forced to confront their history through a series of vignettes. These students and other actors adopt a variety of caricatures and stereotypes ranging from the first enslaved Africans and then bridging centuries of black culture, including vaudeville and minstrelsy.
There is a heavy emphasis on the entertainment industry, including musics, fashion and television that helps portray further cultures and traditions. Through this process, they start to learn and accept their past, and only then are they permitted to leave the museum.
The museum metaphor in the play has multiple meanings, introducing the conflict between preservation and progress in regards to African-American identity. Even though it was written in 1986, the issues and messages surrounding racial stereotypes are still relevant today.
Lasting about a month, the rigorous rehearsal process focused on obvious elements such as choreography and music, requiring a lot of character development and research off the stage. The show relies heavily on history in terms of content and performance techniques, including dance and speech and the research required for the show.
Students received research packets from Grant Freeman, the show’s dramaturg, who was responsible for ensuring the historical accuracy of the show. He distributed packets containing lists of books, movies and music actors could use as reference points to better understand their characters.
One of the most impressive qualities of the cast was their ability to portray a multitude of characters. Sophomore performance major Raven Wilkes watched “Gone with the Wind” and “Imitation of Life” as part of the research for the “Mammy” stereotype, which she embodies while portraying the character Aunt Ethel. This caricature, according to Wilkes, was fabricated to suggest that African-Americans were willingly enslaved and wanted to serve their masters.
“It was very breathtaking to learn about how black people were portrayed back then and how it has evolved into modern day stereotypes,” Wilkes said. “I learned so much about my history and culture and myself throughout the course of developing these characters.”
Another key element of the show is conflict. Each vignette illustrates some kind of conflict, ranging from lighthearted to disconcerting. One of the narratives features two hairpieces vying to be picked by their owner. In another, a man fights to rid himself of his past, symbolized by various stereotype-charged objects he once valued. In a third, a soldier discusses his pain as an African-American serving for the U.S. army. Each of these characters illustrates the limitations created by racial stereotypes throughout American history.
At the end of the show, various stereotypes come together in a chaotic celebration of African-American identity.
“I believe the best forms of art are the ones that make you think and really feel something new,” Wilkes said. “I hope this show gives that to the audience. I hope it opens everyone’s mind to something new and positive.”
“The Colored Museum” runs Feb. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 17 and 24 at 3:00 p.m. with high school matinees Feb. 19 and 20 at 10 a.m. at the Singleton Center. Tickets are on sale online or at the box office.
Check out a photo gallery with scenes from the show here — > http://www.commonwealthtimes.org/2013/02/17/photo-gallery-vcu-theatre-presents-the-colored-museum/