The Colored Museum | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Colored Museum 

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THE COLORED MUSEUM, Victory Gardens Theater. Attempting to express the way the painful reality of African American life is often masked by supposed acceptance and glamorization, this comedy revue by playwright George C. Wolfe takes the audience on a guided tour of cultural stereotypes, with uneven results. A slick Broadway director, Wolfe the writer seems most comfortable when his material matches his show-biz sensibility. The evening's highlight, "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," spoofs Hansberry-esque histrionics in a black domestic drama that incongruously turns into a happy-face musical. In a tour de force concert sequence, a Diana Ross/Donna Summer type, Lala Lamazing Grace, flaunts a fake French accent and struggles to keep her own small-town southern dialect--and the long-buried reality of her background--from emerging. And in the play's most famous sequence, a flamboyantly fucked-up transvestite demonstrates the lethal power of his disdainful finger snaps.

These people are performers, whose self-invented personas unsuccessfully disguise the psychic cost at which black success is won in a prejudiced society. Wolfe conveys their inherent contradictions in sharp if superficial satire. He's less convincing in vignettes about less flamboyant folk: a ghostly soldier in the Vietnam war who kills his buddies to spare them the anguish they'd face in America, for instance, or an upwardly mobile exec who wrestles with his punkish adolescent alter ego. The potential force of these sequences is lost in campy fantasy; Wolfe doesn't seem to know these men from the inside the way he knows his divas and drag queens. And his climactic portraits of two far-out women--Normal Jean, the mother of a gigantic egg that represents the African American identity, and Topsy Washington, a loner who revels in her own specialness--seem less poetic than eccentric.

Andre De Shields's direction is much livelier than his 1987 staging at the same theater. His actors--Sylvia Carter, Marshall Titus, Jacqueline Williams, Rick Worthy, and the wonderful Velma Austin--give their all to a work that's often amusing but not nearly as audacious or insightful as it wants to be.

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