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Cultural Baggage 

by Michael Bowen

George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (at the Civic's Studio Theater through Nov. 13) features 11 "exhibits," satiric skits that poke fun -- and comment seriously -- on a variety of black American attitudes. At the outset, for example, audience members settle into an airline flight that suddenly morphs into a wild slave-ship ride through black history.

Repeatedly, Wolfe's script has us laughing at things that soon turn out to be serious, disturbing, shocking, crying out for justice. Repeatedly, he hauls us away from feeling distanced and toward feeling empathy -- which, significantly, is exactly how we break down stereotypes.

Wolfe even provides both comic and deadly serious versions of the Black Cultural Baggage scene: In the first, an affluent woman tries to trash her old bottles of Afro Sheen and albums by Sly Stone, only to be prevented by a spirit of black hipsterdom she can never completely discard. Later, a Josephine Baker-style diva (movingly played by Alyssa Jordan) trades in as many vestiges of her blackness as she can in return for fame -- only to be confronted by an image of the farm girl she once was. Bryan Jackson directs the scenes of reconciliation with power, making us feel how futile it is for any of us to run away from our cultural forebears -- and how self-defeating it is in particular for blacks.

A skit at a makeup table with a woman arguing with alternative wigs -- should she go tonight with the Afro or the long, flowing hairstyle? -- turns into a skewering of the kind of self-hatred imposed on blacks by the white majority.

"The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play" sends up Raisin in the Sun, suggesting that Lorraine Hansberry's characters have now become delimiting clich & eacute;s: Black men can't blame The Man for their poor performance in school and in life, any more than appeals to African culture or to matriarchal wisdom will solve all of black America's problems. Symira Smith is wonderfully exasperated as Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie Jones, though Wolfe's scene-ending transition into a black musical seems pointless and overlong.

Less successful scenes involving a cooking show and a Vietnam soldier, however, are muted by poor diction and a lack of clear signals indicating what's being satirized. Kysia Bostic can take pride in how the production's music complements the action -- though too often, the volume of the sound effects garbles the actors' lines. In the skit about the shallowness of Ebony supermodels, Jackson allows all the preening to go on too long.

And while it takes considerable chutzpah for a man to appear onstage as a drag queen -- complete with four-inch heels, butt-clinging white vinyl pants and a glittery butterfly top -- Kirk Wayne ironically reins in his flamboyance, so that Miss Roj's insistence on a defiant gay "snap!" to the world's cruelty and injustice seems ineffective.

Still, this production of The Colored Museum is superior in every way to the version the Onyx Theater Troupe presented about eight years ago at the East Central Community Center. In fact, Onyx is back with its best show in years, and with new blood: Most of the actors in this production are making their Studio debut. And though director Jackson had to fill some male roles with actresses, still he was able to summon up 12 actors when only five are called for in the script. That's a sign of a growing theater. If Onyx were to tackle new plays by August Wilson, Lynn Nottage and others, we'd be eager to "git on board" -- and claim all our baggage too.

Publication date: 10/28/04

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