To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Talawa Theatre Company – Britain’s leading black-led theatre company – is staging The Colored Museum, George C Wolfe’s 25-year-old satire on black identity. Directed by Don Warrington and running 15-23 October (UK Black History Month), the ‘play’ is a curation of 11 exhibits that come to life at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre.
Opening with a flight attendent’s interactive welcome on board a slave ship bound for Savannah (‘passengers are recommended to have their shackles fastened at all times’), it is quite clear what we’re in for: a creatively funny, critical appraisal of the past few hundred years of black history. Often, the anger in each segment is nicely balanced by a silly – although sharp-edged – postmodern humour. And so it is with the next bit – Aunt Ethel’s singing parody of a cooking show – in which we are shown how to make a secret food (‘add some attitude – Oops! I put too much’) until finally we’re told ‘you have baked yourself a batch of Negroes – but I can’t tell you what to do with ‘em now.’
The Colored Museum is definitely at its best when walking this line between light and darkness; drawing laughs while stimulating thought. Other pieces that do so include an oh-so-Seventies investigation into just how ‘fabulous’ those in Ebony magazine spreads are, a hilarious riff on black female headwear and a brilliantly detailed, incisive take on how black stories are told in the visual arts. This one might particularly grab your interest in the same week the similarly race-themed The Help is released in cinemas.
However there are those chapters that are let down by going on too long, or growing too dark. One transvestite’s spirited and laugh-out-loud monologue turns horrifying in a beat, while a couple of others – a Vietnam piece, or one with a southern girl who lays an egg – are slightly alienating not only in their madness but because they are unremittingly bleak. It is almost always the case with a series of sketches that some hit and some miss. These bits certainly make their own valid points, but they had me longing for the return of the sass-talking mannequin heads.
There is a confusing struggle, The Colored Museum seems to say, in how far one black person is able to – or even should – embrace all aspects of black history and culture into one healthy, happy identity. It is a fascinating idea entertainingly explored in a brave and intelligent piece of theatre.
The Colored Museum runs from Saturday 15 until Sunday 23 October. For more information visit the Talawa Theatre Company website.