As I write this, Barack Obama has just won in the Iowa caucuses, making the junior senator from Illinois the first African American in history with a realistic shot at winning a major-party nomination for president. As you read this, you know whether that win has translated into a New Hampshire primary victory. No matter what, history is being made—not just for people of color but for all Americans. For Obama supporters, that's the point. It also means that Arch Productions' revival of George C. Wolfe's provocative play The Colored Museum, an 11-vignette satire that explores African-American cultural stereotypes, couldn't be better timed. Director Jason Summers is white.
Damien D. Smith, Arch Productions' executive producer, "came to me with the play," says Summers, "and after I read it, I realized it was important to do it again, partly because it isn't done often, with the exception of a few college productions." (It was revived in 2006 at Cleveland's Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, a major African-American venue.) "One of the reasons I felt it was important to do the play, 20 years after George C. Wolfe wrote it, is because so much of what he wrote is still vitally important, especially to black youth. There's a lot of disconnect when it comes to music, to cultural icons that are supposed to be important to the black community. I'm hoping our production will bring out some people in their 20s or 30s who aren't familiar with the piece, who didn't have the opportunity to see it 20 years ago, who will respond to the message Wolfe puts across."
It's a message predicated on sardonic laughter. For example, in "Git on Board," the opening vignette, a flight attendant aboard the Celebrity Slaveship advises passengers how to securely fasten their shackles. From there, the plane visits "museum" exhibits representing various aspects of African-American culture throughout history. "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," Summers explains, "parodies dramas of the '50s and '60s, taking potshots at A Raisin in the Sun and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf because those plays became cultural icons." Working closely with his African-American cast, Summers realized that "our culture hasn't pushed beyond certain realms. I hate to use specific examples, but take someone like Tyler Perry, who perpetuates certain stereotypes in his work. Not to take a shot at him, but it's just interesting that someone is still using certain stereotypes to entertain."
Another vignette pointedly illustrates Summers' fascination with the play: "The scene talks a lot about Josephine Baker, who's certainly an important icon culturally but whose name you just don't hear much anymore. Audiences may not understand such references, because people like her are not a part of our collective conscience. Stevie Wonder, the Temptations—even though some might be aware of those names, I don't feel there's a context to understand why they were important, why they were trailblazers." With a white man directing actors of color, this disconnect—and how The Colored Museum still addresses it—was an ongoing discussion point for all involved in the production.
"American youth in general is completely disconnected to any cultural history," Summers says. "This play tends to focus on the African-American community, but I think it would be very effective for anyone to see it, to understand that there is history. The civil rights era is often known as the 1950s and '60s, as if it's over, and I think that's a depressing outlook. I said to the cast, 'With the death of Martin Luther King,' I said, 'name for me another civil rights leader who's had the same galvanizing effect on the world—not just the African-American community—so we have a national holiday because of what he did.' And they were hard-pressed to come up with anyone."
In a small way, Summers says, not being of color and directing The Colored Museum fulfills King's dream of racial harmony in America. He adds that it also allows for the kinds of rehearsal discussions that add texture to the performance. "I think it's important to bring up questions that I am ignorant of," he says, "to take a moment to say to an actor, 'I don't quite understand why this is important.' There's a vignette, 'The Hairpiece,' played by actors arguing over who gets to be worn. Why is hair so important to the identity of black women? It brings up questions like these, with the actors having to dig deep to answer them. Not that an African-American director wouldn't ask, but there might be an assumption that we all have a common experience, that we wouldn't have to explore it."
And if Summers' ethnicity causes an uproar, "won't it force people to confront why they're so upset? Why can't we all have cross-cultural connections?"
The Colored Museum runs Jan. 10–20 at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 W. 26th St., NYC. For tickets, call (212) 696-7875 or go to www.theatermania.com.