Victory Gardens Theater

I am surely just one of many people who eagerly anticipated Victory Gardens’s Chicago premiere of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s off-Broadway success. There was interest in seeing the play itself–a potentially virtuosic series of performance pieces on the theme of black American images. And there was considerable excitement generated by the return to Chicago of Andre De Shields, the actor-choreographer who went to New York with the Organic Theater’s Warp! in the early 1970s, stayed there after it flopped, and then hit the Broadway big time by creating the title role of The Wiz opposite Stephanie Mills. De Shields is an important Chicago-nurtured talent, and the idea of having him direct Wolfe’s play for a Chicago company was inspired and provocative.

Would that the results had lived up to that promise. Perhaps now that the show has gotten past first-night jitters and settled into its run, it has begun to do so. But at last week’s opening, The Colored Museum came across as stiff and, worse, tame; it was entertaining, sometimes very funny, and frequently instructive, but without the dangerously fierce intensity that it needs.

The play’s premise is to present a “museum” of living displays that, taken together in all their jarring incongruity, reflect the cultural and spiritual confusion that gnaws at contemporary blacks living in, as one character puts it, the “ice age” of the Reagan era. Wolfe is after an effect of lacerating iconoclasm, searing comedy that gives way suddenly to outpourings of rage, sorrow, and madness, in the style of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor at the height of their powers. And the playwright also seeks to deflate both the white stereotypes of black culture and more subtle myths blacks have about themselves.

The issue of slavery, for example, is tackled right at the top in a skit in which a kewpie-doll stewardess welcomes the audience aboard the “Celebrity Slave Ship”: “Please wear your shackles at all times . . . please refrain from call and response singing . . . that sort of thing can lead to rebellion,” she says through her pasted-on, clenched-teeth smile. From this deliberately bad-taste beginning, Wolfe takes us through the mammy stereotype (with Aunt Ethel, a cross between Aunt Jemima and Julia Child who offers to show us how to cook chitlin quiche), the Raisin in the Sun school of black domestic drama (“The Last Mama on the Couch Play,” in which a Bible-totin’ matriarch wallops her overwrought son for blaspheming, while her daughter flounces around the house spouting off about her Egyptian roots), the Vietnam War (as seen through the eyes of a deranged soldier), and on up to the black bourgeois image represented by the slick, plastic fashion models in Ebony magazine (I wonder if John H. Johnson has seen this play).

Three skits focus on the psychic dislocation of self-invention. In one, an upwardly mobile “buppie” wrangles with his alter ego, the streetwise adolescent punk he once was; in another, Lala, a Diana Ross-style pop diva, in glittering gown and carefully cultivated French accent, sings for us while trying to hide her black maid and white husband and her own inner-city upbringing; and a third sketch gives us Miss Roj, a hard-as-nails drag queen who parades his disdainful attitude with a whiplike snap of the fingers.

There are moments of more overt fantasy: Wolfe gives us a mixed-up woman getting sassy but sisterly advice from her two wigs–one a defiant Afro, the other a processed-for-success straight fall. And in another scene, shortly after losing her virginity, little Normal Jean Reynolds finds herself delivered of a large white egg, Wolfe’s metaphor for the still-to-be-hatched potential of a black American population that must resolve, rise above, and yet hold onto its own painful, disorienting, infuriating, contradictory heritage.

All of these “exhibits” are performed by a five-person cast long on individual talent and energy but, at least here, short on subtlety, ensemble interaction, and character differentiation. Blues singer Rita Warford is the earth mother of the troupe with a raise-the-rafters voice; Sybil Walker is the wide-eyed cutie, Denise James the sleek and elegant mannequin type. Of the men, Johnny Lee Davenport is the big dramatic hunk, Terrence A. Carson (Scarecrow in the Marriott Lincolnshire’s controversial The Wiz last season) the lithe and limber song and dance man. They’re all good, but they don’t really change much from scene to scene, which undercuts Wolfe’s concern with contradictory images; and their technical proficiency makes their sudden transitions from comedy to pathos too slick to have any real punch.

De Shields’s staging–the exhibits come before us on a turntable, like figures in a Swiss clock–is surprisingly limited and constricted in its use of space; I think the show would feel much more alive and punchy in a smaller cabaret setting, in which both the audience and the actors could shake free of the inhibitions that seem to weigh on them now. I enjoyed The Colored Museum, and I learned from it, but I was hoping for more from Wolfe’s audacious premise.