note: entire contents copyright 1997 by E. Kyle Minor
by E. Kyle Minor
Mainstream Black Theatre has come a long way since George C. Wolfe's "The Colored Museum" opened off-Broadway in 1979. All the improvement has noticeably rounded off Wolfe's comic edge. Running through March 22 at Hartford Stage Company, "Museum" is a text-book example of the difficulties in comic sketch-writing. The play consists of 11 playlets, all deflating black stereotypes in America. Wolfe uses broad strokes, presumably operating under the theory that bigger is better. In some cases, about three, he's right. The rest of the sketches, however, unfold with the proficiency of a undergraduate thesis project.
The deceptively difficult nature of writing comic sketch become clear in Wolfe's play, despite Hartford's caring production. First, the subject of parody, satire or genial poking must first merit the effort. In this, Wolfe is on the money. The sketch should be a comic sprint, with jokes building up to the final black-out line. Here's where Wolfe often misfires on his target. Lastly, and this certainly holds hands with the second tenet, the writer must know when to quit. Again, "Museum" is sacked by one-gag ideas that go on too long.
"Museum's" first exhibit, as the sketches are called, is a prime example of a writer parking on a subject rather than giving it a drive-by treatment. "Git on Board" is a monologue offered by a airplane stewardess (Nora Cole). The gag is that the passengers are all Africans headed for slavery below the Mason-Dixon Line. The stewardess demonstrates how to apply the shackles rather than seat belt. This, of course, is the choice gag, the only gag in the scene. It drags on another five minutes, as indicated by the audience's waning laughter.
The second exhibit, "Cookin' With Pat," is a visual punchline as Aunt Ethel (Catrina Ganey) -- Aunt Gemima and Ethel Waters rolled in one -- pops up from behind a cast iron pot, complete with beaming smile and spoon. The sketch continues after the initial impact, overcooking the recipe.
"The Hairpiece" is a wickedly funny dialogue between two contrasting wigs eager to cover their common sconce on a hot date. The Afro (Ganey), ever strong and radical, goes head-to-head with the Glamour piece (Cole), which extols the virtues of policy over confrontation. This idea is exhausted and abandoned simultaneously, giving the audience its best laugh of the performance.
"The Photo Session" brings two print models from "Ebony" magazine(Peter Jay Fernandez and Cheryl Howard) to shallow life in comic fashion. "The Last Mama-on-the-couch Play" starts out is uproarious spirit, spoofing "Raisin in the Sun" to the letter. But it does go on...and on...
The most comically provocative sketch is "Symbiosis." An upper-middle class man (Fernandez) tries to throw out his past in a dumpster, but his African alter-ego (Chad L. Coleman) won't let him, fearing he will abandon his cultural roots. This piece succeeds in winning laughs and resounding with poetic truth in equal measure.
The cast is quiet good, bringing much charm, sharp execution and range to the
material. Director Reggie Montgomery's staging of "The Colored Museum" is as lively as can be
expected. Percussionist Alvin Benjamin Carter, Jr. compliments the text well.