George C. Wolfe’s ‘The Colored Museum’ Still Resonates Strongly in ‘Black Lives Matter’ Era

Paige Mayes, Clara McDaniel, and Tavia Percia in 'The Hairpiece, a vignette in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum' at the African-American Shakespeare Company (Photo: Lance Huntley)

When George C. Wolfe wrote The Colored Museum, his seminal pop-culture-infused play detailing with panoramic wit and passion the black experience in America, it was 1986, and African-Americans were starting to emerge as a mainstream cultural force in this country. Michael Jackson’s Thriller blew all previous album sales records apart soon after being released in 1982; Alice Walker received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple in 1983; and in 1986, people across the U.S. celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the first time.

But this long overdue emergence was offset by massive challenges, like the burgeoning crack cocaine epidemic among the urban black communities across the land, as well as mushrooming homicide rates for young black males, weapons arrests and kids in foster care.

Clara McDaniel as Aunt Ethel in “Cooking with Aunt Ethel” segment of ‘The Colored Museum’
Clara McDaniel as Aunt Ethel in “Cooking with Aunt Ethel” segment of ‘The Colored Museum’ (Photo: Lance Huntley)

Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that Wolfe’s acerbic comedy went on to become as much an American theater classic as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Rain in the Sun did after it premiered roughly a quarter of a century earlier -- or indeed that Wolfe devotes one of his 90-minute play’s 11 vaudeville-meets-sitcom-style vignettes (or “exhibits” as the sections are dubbed in the show’s framework) to making fun of Hansberry’s drama.

Hansberry broke new ground with her work which chronicles a black family in Chicago’s attempt to rise up in the world following an insurance payout from the death of the family patriarch. The play became a model for subsequent African-American dramatists. Wolfe cracks the formula open with the sarcastic promise to present ''a searing, domestic drama that tears at the very fabric of racist America.''

“The issue raised by his Hansberry parody percolates in every sketch,” wrote New York Times theater critic in his review of the original production of The Colored Museum at The Public Theater (where Wolfe would go on to serve as the producer for nearly a decade starting in 1993). “How do American black men and women at once honor and escape the legacy of suffering that is the baggage of their past?”

Paige Mayes as Normal Jean in the “Permutations” segment of ‘The Colored Museum’
Paige Mayes as Normal Jean in the “Permutations” segment of ‘The Colored Museum’ (Photo: Lance Huntley)

A vibrant new production of the play currently underway at the Buriel Clay Theater under the auspices of the African-American Shakespeare Company shows the issues Wolfe was dealing with back in the 1980s are still very prescient today, even as the Black Lives Matter movement gathers traction. A quartet of great, local directors -- Velina Brown, L. Peter Callender, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, and Michael Gene Sullivan -- emphasize what’s fresh and current in this work, whether it’s about sending up old-fashioned, hopelessly racist minstrel shows (as in the skit "Cookin' With Aunt Ethel,") or, in "Git on Board," employing sarcastic silliness when a flight attendant demands that the passengers of a slave ship fasten their shackles and refrain from drumming in economy class.

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The Colored Museum, plays through Sunday, Mar. 13 at the Buriel Clay Theater in San Francisco. For more information, go here.