Many shades of black 

The Colored Museum gives us a prismatic view into the cultural identities of African-Americans in America.

In “Symbiosis,” one of the most trenchant of the 11 scenes in George C. Wolfe’s incisive The Colored Museum, a newly successful black businessman (Kibwe Dorsey) attempts to throw out all the evidence of his angry, politicized past. Into the garbage go Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul of Ice,” Sly Stone’s “There’s a Riot Going On” and even The Jackson Five’s ”I Want You Back.”

Reacting with horror to these losses is “The Kid” (Robert Richards), an embodiment of the businessman’s committed youth, who pleads with his mature self not to jettison the memory of so many life-altering struggles. But the businessman is adamant: “The climate is changing, Kid, and either you adjust or you end up extinct… King Kong would have made it to the top if only he had taken the elevator. Instead he brought attention to his struggle and ended up dead.” Finally, the businessman puts The Kid himself into the trash, along with his “Free Angela,” “Free Bobby” and “Free Huey” buttons. But The Kid is resilient. At the very last moment, he emerges from the can with a death grip on the businessman’s arm and brazenly asks, “What’s happenin’?” It looks like one man’s attempt to deny his identity won’t be quite so easy.

Black identity — what it is and what it’s not — isn’t just the focus of this one scene in Wolfe’s fine play. The playwright — later the artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival — skillfully convinces us that the subject is wide and deep, and in need of multiple investigations, however contradictory the results. Are the smiling, shallow Girl (Tia Jemison) and Guy (Dorsey) of an Ebony magazine photo shoot to be adopted as the faces of black life in America, or is the struggling African-American family of the Raisin in the Sun parody more representative? Is a singing superstar like “Lala Amazing Grace” (Roberts) the mirror in which black Americans should see themselves, or is it the soldier Junie Robinson (Joshua Goff), who after dying on the battlefront comes to understand how black soldiers will be cursed, back at home, with “all the hurt that was gonna get done to them and they was gonna do to folks”?

Other images of black personhood that Museum interrogates are the gay transvestite Miss Roj (Richards), the two living wigs Janine the Afro (Gloria Bailey) and Lawanda the Long and Straight (Jemison), and Southern Normal Jean Reynolds (Jemison) a matriarch-to-be who lays an enormous white egg within which she can hear six hearts beating. Some of the scenes treat the history behind all these choices: “Git On Board” shows us a stewardess (Roberts) on “Celebrity Slaveship,” who mock-happily announces that “the songs you are going to sing in the cotton fields, under the burning heat and stinging lash, will metamorphose and give birth to the likes of James Brown and the Fabulous Flames.” And then there’s rural Aunt Ethel (Bailey) who cooks for us “a whole lot of humor/Salty language, mixed with sadness/Then throw in a box of blues/And simmer to madness.” If the end of the play doesn’t make sense of all that precedes it, it does suggest that, unwieldy though it be, this mélange is the ineradicable heritage of modern African-Americans, to be treasured because “any baggage you don’t claim, we trash.” Black or white, you have to respect such an inheritance.

The Stageworks production is first-class. Deftly directed by Anna Brennen and assistant director Ronn Bobb-Semple, the show’s talented actors play multiple parts with a potent regard for African-American variety and Wolfe’s skillful, multivalent satire. Frank Chavez’s set is a turntable backed by a large butterfly-like structure, and each new scene rolls on like a new “exhibit” of black potential. Chavez also designed a score of expressive costumes, from Aunt Ethel’s downhome, downscale togs to Soldier Junie’s camouflage gear and Miss Roj’s “patio pants” and high white boots. Slides projected on the butterfly wings tell us more about the exhibits — we see historic black soldiers behind the “Soldier with a Secret” scene, for example — and Karla Hartley’s notable lighting is, as always, superb. A scene at play’s end sort of sums up the unsummable, but the multiplicity and asymmetry of black identity is really the message.

Bottom line: This is one of the most perceptive, stimulating, entertaining shows of the year. I highly recommend it.

And don’t forget to bring some contradictions of your own.

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