Ablaze with talent, ‘The Colored Museum’ at Studio Theatre plays against type

The brilliantly reconceived show entertains hilariously while inviting audiences to see through social stereotypes to what's inside.

Studio Theatre makes no bones about the fact The Colored Museum has itself become a museum piece. George C. Wolfe wrote the satire of African American culture in 1986 when he was 31, and his incisive script is chockablock with back-then mentions. Now playing at Studio, nearly 40 years on, is director Psalmayene 24’s brilliant reconception of the show, ablaze with talent, without a word updated. No need. The deep truths still throb.

The play is structured as a series of eleven “exhibits” — blackout sketches, really — each zeroing in on and exorcising an aspect of the Black psyche and experience in white America in the unresolved aftermath of slavery. Performed by five incredibly versatile actor/singers (Ayanna Bria Bakari, Kelli Blackwell, Iris Beaumier, Matthew Elijah Webb, William Oliver Watkins) in a fantastic array of costumes designed by Moyenda Kulameka, the play entertains hilariously while simultaneously inviting audiences to see through social stereotypes the contradictions and pain inside.

William Oliver Watkins, Kelli Blackwell, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Matthew Elijah Webb, and Iris Beaumier in the Party finale of ’The Colored Museum.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The production plunges the audience immediately into full-on immersion. An eerily evocative environment designed by Natsu Onoda Power features a massive sculptural slave ship in whose wood-slat hull the audience sits on benches facing a stage set resembling an art gallery. In darkness, an intense drumbeat by dextrous percussionist Jabari Exum signals the start of a Middle Passage emulation. Archival engravings of the enslaved appear, among many stunning projections designed by Kelly Colburn. Miss Pat, a pert-in-pink flight attendant played with saccharine sarcasm by Ayanna Bria Bakari, welcomes us passengers aboard and advises us to fasten our shackles. Then a turbulent storm of a time warp blows up — its alarming light effects by Jesse Belsky and sound effects by Matthew M. Nielson — and Bakari displays a knock-out knack for physical comedy.

And so it goes: facetious farce spliced and diced with past pain.

By far the most laugh-out-loud scene, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” features all five actors in what seems a snippy sendup of A Raisin in the Sun: one tough Mama on a sofa in a housedress (Blackwell), her son Walter (Watkins) done gone out of his mind with rage at The Man, his regal wife the Lady in Plaid (Beaumier), and his Juilliard-trained sister (Bakari), all hilariously overacting and awarded a gold statuette by tux-clad emcee Webb. Mama’s self-righteous religiosity is reflected in stained glass projections, and in a full-blown parody of a big Black Broadway musical, Walter does a show-stopping minstrel-ish dance (choreography by Tony Thomas).

As with many of the exhibits in The Colored Museum, exactly what’s being exorcised may be obscured by all the mockery and amusement. In writing this “Last Mama” scene, for instance, was George C. Wolfe perhaps not merely parodying but paying disrespect? Not according to this museum-style placard posted on the set:

Lorraine Hansberry is a wonderful playwright and A Raisin in the Sun is a wonderful play, but every February all the regional theaters discover black people because it’s Black History Month and they pull out Raisin in the Sun. I want to remove these dead, stale, empty icons blocking me from my own truth.  — George C. Wolfe

The fabulousness and shallowness of high fashion get a ribbing in “The Photo Session” as two glammed-up Ebony mag models (Iris Beaumier and Matthew Elijah Webb) strike pose after pose and smile away their contradictions and pain. In a bit called “The Hairpiece,” two talking wig stands (Bakari and Beaumier) snipe about the woman (Blackwell) who’s doing her face before a date to break up with her fool boyfriend. It’s broad variety-show sketch comedy, the stuff of surefire TV ratings, except with a subversive race-specific subtext about not blocking one’s truth.

TOP LEFT: Iris Beaumier, Kelli Blackwell, and Ayanna Bria Bakari in the Hairpiece exhibit; TOP RIGHT: Iris Beaumier and Matthew Elijah Webb in the Photo Session exhibit; ABOVE: Ayanna Bria Bakari (top), Kelli Blackwell, William Oliver Watkins, and Iris Beaumier (bottom) in The Last-Mama-on-the-Couch Play, in ’The Colored Museum.’ Photos by Teresa Castracane.

By far the darkest scene is about a wounded soldier (Watkins) who sees only pain in his future, dies in combat, then returns to heal the hurt of other “colored boys” by mercy-killing them. The monodrama lands like a grenade.

By contrast is the resilience and defiance of Miss Rog (Webb), a self-ID’ed “alien.” In a neon-lit scene in a gay bar called The Bottomless Pit, wearing a see-through glitter shirt and striped “Annette Funicello” patio pants, Miss Rog throws back drinks and rebukes anyone who crosses her with a drop-dead finger snap. Nothing in this show can be said to be too over the top.

In yet another larger-than life performance, Beaumier plays LaLa Lamazing Grace, an extravagantly garbed chanteuse who futilely sought freedom from U.S. racism in France. “What’s left is the girl inside,” she says ruefully — cue the entrance (from a cage) of doll-like tween Ruth Benson.

The finale is a big blow-out dance party scene with each of the five cast members attired as one of their memorable roles. They sing and vow to “dance to the music of the madness in me.” It’s an exilharating finish to a wild ride of a show..

Studio Theatre’s The Colored Museum has been curated with top-tier talent, a timeless eye on the past, and a trust that outrageously entertaining theater can speak healing truth.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

EXTENDED: The Colored Museum plays through August 18, 2024, in the Victor Shargai space at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($40–$95, with low-cost options and discounts available) online or by calling the box office at (202) 332-3300.

The program for The Colored Museum is online here.

Appropriate audience age: 13+ (strong language and adult themes)

COVID Safety: Studio Theatre recommends but does not require patrons to wear masks in the building.

The Colored Museum
By George C. Wolfe
Directed by Psalmayene 24
Music by Kysia Bostic

CAST AND MUSICIAN
Woman 1: Ayanna Bria Bakari
Woman 2: Kelli Blackwell
Woman 3: Iris Beaumier
Man 1: Matthew Elijah Webb
Man 2: William Oliver Watkins
Girl: Ruth Benson
Drummer: Jabari Exum

UNDERSTUDIES
Woman 1: Tymetrias L. Bolden
Woman 2: Madison Norwood
Woman 3: Sophia Early
Man1/Man 2: Henian Boone

PRODUCTION TEAM
Environmental Designer: Natsu Onoda Power
Costume Designer: Moyenda Kulameka
Lighting Designer: Jesse Belsky
Sound Designer/Composition: Matthew M. Nielson
Projection Design: Kelly Colburn
Music Consultant: William Knowles
Props Designer: Amy Kellett
Intimacy Coordinator: Sierra Young
Choreographer: Tony Thomas
Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel
Production Stage Manager: John Keith Hall
Assistant Stage Manager: Stephen Bubniak
Director of Production: Jeffery Martin
Technical Director: Rhiannon Sanders
Assistant Director: Ashley Mapley-Brittle
Casting: Geoff Josselson, CSA

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.

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