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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘The Colored Museum’ uses theater to share dialogues about race and identity

Published: March 7, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

With a satirical bite, George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” chomped into the issues and stereotypes faced by blacks and African-Americans. Presented by Brandeis Ensemble Theatre (BET), with sponsorship from the Brandeis Black Student Organization (BBSO), “The Colored Museum” engaged its audience in Schwartz Hall during the past weekend by opening up much needed dialogue about race and identity, especially concerning being black in this country.

“The Colored Museum” presents eleven exhibits, each narrating a different struggle that comes from being black. Most of these exhibits were satirical in nature, such as “Last Mama-on-the-Couch” and “Git on Board,” which used dark humor as a way of opening up conversation about stereotypes within black communities.

For its director, Iyvon Edebiri ’13, the themes of the play resonated on a personal level. Edebiri said she feels that because there is not enough diversity within theater at Brandeis, productions like “The Colored Museum” are important. Not only do they explore the issues experienced by minorities on this campus, but these productions help create a “legacy that theater should be for everyone, and everyone should be free to take part in it,” the IGS and Italian major said. Her sentiment was shared by audiences during the question and answer session at the Sunday matinee showing. Indeed, what truly tied each exhibit together was the personal commitment of the eight-member student cast, who were all students of color, and the production staff that made the cultural complexities accessible to viewers.

“The Colored Museum” came out with strong performances from the get-go, with its first exhibit, “Git on Board,” featuring Maya Grant ’13 as Miss Pat. As the ever peppy and bubbly flight attendant of a celebrity slave ship, Grant tapped into a sadistic sense of humor to give an overview of black history, a history tracing from the fields of plantations to the fields of war in the early 20th century. Despite the pain and struggle, and through Miss Pat’s sadism, Grant’s maturity and comfort on the stage provided a window for audiences to look at the experience of blacks and African-Americans, while introducing themes for further exploration.

In the next exhibit, “Cooking with Aunt Ethel,” Jamesh Hunter ’15 brilliantly showed the audience that she can “cook ain’t like no other” as the energetic and exuberant Aunt Ethel. Hunter, who had a direct link to the audience’s funny bone from her natural ability to make them laugh, played a chef teaching a recipe for a mysterious dish. With “a heap of survivor, humility, just a touch, and add in some attitude,” among other ingredients, Aunt Ethel satirically showed the way to making colored babies. Here, Hunter’s witty performance reminds us of the complexities of being black as something both jazz and blue, a myriad of various elements and experiences that cannot be described by any stereotypical description.

Another well-performed piece was “The Hairpiece,” which comically explored the power of hair. Ra Malika Imhotep plays The Woman who prepares for a date. With a bit of magic realism, her two wigs, Janie (Jamesh Hunter) and LaWanda (Christina Dones ’14) come alive and start arguing over who should be worn by The Woman. Dones, as the sleek, straight wig, and Hunter, as the curly wig, were both phenomenal in their ability to bring levity and humor into the often controversial and highly personal world of hair within the black community.

Dennis Hermida ’16 and Shaquan Perkins ’13 gave one of the most honest and heartfelt performances of the show with “Symbiosis.” Hermida, playing the The Man, is depicted symbolically throwing away his ethnic identity—his character’s blackness—for corporate success by tossing items such as Afro Sheen, curl relaxer, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” in the trash. Doing so, Perkins, as Hermida’s personified attachment to his black culture, pleads desperately to The Man to stop rejecting his roots. The way Hermida and Perkins, who was equally noteworthy in his role of exploring homosexuality in the character of Miss Roj, were able to bring such a high degree of sensitivity and vulnerability into “Symbiosis” to make the piece memorable. It shed light on the sad sacrifice some deem necessary in order to reach the top of a primarily white business world.

Through sharp commentary, wit and unapologetic humor, the lively cast of “The Colored Museum” revealed the triumph, pain and baggage carried by blacks and African-Americans. Despite such dark themes and humor, “The Colored Museum” does not cast away the baggage it presents, but rather gives the message of accepting baggage as essential and part of the black experience. In the end, the themes of “The Colored Museum” remind audiences that there needs to be a better discussion of race. Through the stories of its characters—Aunt Ethel, The Kid and so many more—audiences are challenged to think about their plight long after the show is over.