In late editions of yesterday's Style section, three actresses in the play "The Colored Museum" were misidentified in a photo caption. Alexrina Siglinda Davis plays the woman deciding on a wig; Lynda Gravatt and Traci Halima Williams portray the talking mannequins. (Published 1/29/88)
Schizophrenia reigns in "The Colored Museum," George C. Wolfe's satirical, often wildly imaginative examination of the black psyche today.
The play, a substantial off-Broadway hit in New York last season, is made up of 11 sketches -- living "exhibits," if you will, in a surreal Smithsonian of the playwright's devising. While the tone varies considerably -- from the farcical to the ferocious -- it is Wolfe's underlying thesis that blacks today are trapped in a welter of contradictions.
At the very least, his characters are confused. Some, however, finding their identities coming unraveled, teeter on the edge of madness.
"The Colored Museum" opened Sunday night at the Studio Theatre, where it will play in repertory with "Split Second" through Feb. 21. While neither is getting an ideal production, "The Colored Museum" has the advantage of its revuelike format. If one sketch falls flat, it is never too long before another comes along to set the show back on its feet.
Let's start with the lighter end of Wolfe's spectrum. A woman, seated at her vanity table, is getting ready for dinner with the boyfriend she intends to dump. What shall she wear -- the Afro wig on the mannequin to her right or the long, lustrous tresses on the mannequin to her left? As she mulls her decision, the mannequins come to life and start arguing their respective merits.
The Afro claims that she represents "attitude," the kind of tough, no-nonsense look the circumstances require. Not so, counters the silken wig. When you're breaking up with a man, you want to be able to toss your hair this way and that. Long hair will lend emotional flair to the proceedings. Caught in the cross fire, the poor woman is reduced to a dithering, nail-chewing wreck.
Her dilemma, funny as it is, is really no different from that faced later in the show by Lala Lamazing Grace, an international superstar clearly inspired by Josephine Baker. Lala has returned to America, but in the course of what is meant to be a triumphant homecoming appearance, the glamorously sequined French facade comes undone and her real self emerges.
Lala is really Sadie, a poor backwoods girl from Mississippi, seething with hurt and vindictiveness. The harder Lala struggles to deny her roots, the more insistent the demons of the past become. Cool sophistication gives way to murderous rage. Her magnanimity crumbles. An awkward Traci Halima Williams isn't up to the demands of the flashy role, but the point is evident. Stripped of her protective image, Lala is helpless and helplessly bewildered.
A pin-striped businessman (Michael W. Howell) puts it another way: "Being black is too emotionally taxing," he reasons, resolving to be black only on "weekends and holidays." As his younger self looks on with dismay, he throws out all the artifacts of his past -- his first Afro comb, the autographed picture of Stokely Carmichael, the copy of "Soul on Ice." Survival in the frigid 1980s is at stake. But that spunky younger self is not so easily disposed of.
Wolfe has a delirious imagination and a willingness to take on anyone and anything -- from upscale blacks who hide (literally) in the pages of Ebony magazine, to Lorraine Hansberry's hitherto all-but-sacred "A Raisin in the Sun," which he parodies mercilessly as "The Last Mamma-on-the-Couch Play." When the Studio production is willing simply to go along with the insanity, it can be highly entertaining.
Director Samuel P. Barton, however, does not possess a particularly light touch. In an attempt to wring the punch out of these sketches, he often overstates them and the cast members are allowed to overplay their hands. In Traci Halima Williams' case, that is usually disastrous. But you get the impression that with a little comic restraint, the other performers would also come on stronger. Every attack needn't be head on. Sometimes it's advisable to sneak up on the enemy.
In that respect, Alexria Siglinda Davis gives the most persuasive performance of the evening, as a moppet who has just laid a huge egg. Examining it, she hears a heartbeat, then two, then six. Her eyes open in wonderment. Inside are her babies, she tells us, and they're going to be special. They might even be able to fly. Davis brings such ingenuousness to the moment, such sweet simplicity, that the tale seems to signal the dawn of a new world, free of prejudice.
You are also likely to appreciate the versatility of Valdred Doug Brown. As Miss Roj, a finger-snapping drag queen who, between sips of Bacardi and Coke, fulminates against a decaying world, he is fearsome indeed. Minutes later, he is delivering an adroit Sidney Poitier takeoff, as Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie-James, the cowed hero of "The Last Mamma-on-the-Couch Play."
Howell, properly uptight as the businessman cutting loose his past, can't do much as a dead Vietnam soldier who returns to earth as an angel of death. It's probably Wolfe's weakest sketch. And Lynda Grava'tt, playing various corpulent matriarchs, seems to run out of sass after a while.
But you still may want to pay a visit to the Studio for Wolfe's sake. He's an original talent. Smashing icons, confronting taboos, challenging the past, he turns museum-going into a robust exercise in housecleaning.
The Colored Museum, by George C. Wolfe. Directed by Samuel P. Barton. Set, Michael Layton; costumes, Ric Thomas Rice; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner. With Alexria Siglinda Davis, Lynda Grava'tt, Traci Halima Williams, Michael W. Howell, Valdred Doug Brown. At the Studio Theatre in repertory with "Split Second," through Feb. 21.