Aunt Jemima to Angela Davis: Wringing Some Laughs from Racism

​While it's an obvious nod to the fact that February is Black History Month, George Wolfe's The Colored Museum, which opens this weekend at UC Irvine, is also right in time for those who blanch at the thought of the Hallmark holiday of Feb. 14. It's all about hate.

Okay, maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with Valentine's Day, but I couldn't resist.

The piece, according to UCI's press release, is "composed of 11 'museum exhibits' that unflinchingly confront the deeply complex residue of racial hatred, a condition still embedded into the fiber of the 21st Century."

Wolfe, who was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, studied theater at Claremont's Pomona College. After graduating, he spent a few years teaching theater to inner-city kids in Los Angeles before relocating to New York. The Colored Museum, initially produced in 1986, was his breakthrough. It landed in the hands of Joe Papp, the brains behind NYC's Public Theater, and it earned Wolfe the Dramatists' Guild's Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner award for the best play dealing with social, religious or political issues.

Wolfe has gone on to great success: He earned 11 Tony nominations for his musical Jelly's Last Jam and also helmed the Broadway premiere of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: The Millennium Approacheswhich won him another slew of awards.

After Papp died in 1991, Wolfe was named the Public Theater's producer and artistic director. While he still directs theater, his primary focus is film. He directed the 2005 film Lackawanna Blues.

The Colored Museum is an exaggerated satire of the black experience in America in the 1980s. Issues of racism, family and self-identity are all explored, through a prism that is less conventional theater than hard-edged sketch comedy. And that edginess has provoked plenty of controversy over the years. Of course, any play with a sketch that counters Aunt Jemima with Angela Davis is sure to drop some jaws.

The first of its 11 short scenes, Git on Board, opens with a feisty stewardess for Celebrity Slaves Lines, Miss Pat, who tells the audience to "fasten your shackles." Other vignettes include an older man throwing away his "Free Huey" buttons only to be admonished by a younger man and another in which two wigs, one an Afro and the other straight-haired, argue about which one their owner should wear for a hot date.

There is also a devastating critique on the way that black theater has represented African-Americans in the final piece, The Last Mama On the Couch Play, in which Wolfe sharply lampoons successful plays such as A Raisin in the Sun.

In a 2008 New York Times review of a revival of the show in New York City, Anita Gates touched on the fact that while the 25-year-old show exhibited some signs of wear, it remained vitally relevant:  

"The Colored Museum isn't really a play. When people call it a forerunner to In Living Color, the 1990s sketch-comedy series, the comparison makes sense. Like sketch comedy, The Colored Museum bombs as often as it kills (in the standup-comic sense). Unlike that genre, The Colored Museum turns deadly serious now and then."

UC Irvine's Little Theatre, 4000 Mesa Verde Dr., Irvine, (949) 824-2787. Opens Fri. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Through Feb. 12. $16-$18. Click here for directions.


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