Last Saturday, I had the immense pleasure of seeing the 5C theater department’s production of Pomona alumnus George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. Held in Pomona’s Allen Theater, the play seized the audience from moment one and did not let go until the last player had left the stage.
It’s difficult to say exactly what aspect of the performance made it so impressive. Wolfe’s screenplay, which satirizes representations of blackness in American culture, is stellar. The play opened with a flight attendant addressing the audience as passengers aboard the “Celebrity Slave Ship.” She explained the rules, showing the audience how to clasp their shackles and emphasizing that there will be absolutely no drumming. Regardless, the sounds of African drumming crept into the theater like a cry from the past, as the stewardess, panicked, explained that the ship was headed back through time.
The rest of the play was made up of ten vignettes, each representing a different museum exhibit come to life. The ensemble cast sang and danced their way through the different stereotypes of African American life, careening the audience through a full range of emotions. The scenes were horrifying, absurd, hysterical, and hilarious—frequently all at once. I literally both laughed and cried.
The satire was brutal in sketches such as “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” which depicted an African American family dynamic. Marshall Anderson PZ ’12 portrayed Walter Lee, an abusive husband and son who blames his problems on his hard work. It’s impossible not to sympathize with him, but his treatment of his family is grotesque in its cruelty. In the same scene, the Mama (Emelia Asiedu PO ’11) sings, lamenting that they were not born into “an all-black show.” After Lee’s treatment of his family, the audience is left wondering if an all-black show would really solve the problem. Benjamin Levine PZ ’14 broke the tension as the Narrator—a white man who would erupt into the room to award Oscars to the members of the family, snatching them back if another member outshone them.
In “Symbiosis,” the audience is shown “The Man” (Anderson) engaged in an internal battle with “The Kid,” his past self, portrayed by Micah Huang PZ ’13. The Man adjusts his shirt and tie, symbolically trashing his old records and destroying his past self. When The Kid refuses to back away, The Man strangles him, destroying his past in order to fit into the square, white world.
Solomzi Moleketi PZ ’14 shone as Miss Roj, a transvestite party-goer on the run from a past of discrimination and ostracism. As Miss Roj got progressively drunker, the emotional tension in the theater nearly built past what the audience could bear—she threw her arms up, remembering her father’s “faggot this and faggot that.” The tension was broken for a moment when one of the other actors asked me if I wanted a drink, but the tearing down of the fourth wall made the emotional payoff all the stronger; I felt as if I was in the club, witnessing Miss Roj's breakdown myself.
Emotionally, the play reached a high point with Efe Kabba’s PO ’13 stage-stealing portrayal of Lala, a slightly fictionalized version of Josephine Baker. Kabba emerged, tiara-clad and made-up, to belt out songs in between her admonishment of the audience members for their failure to pay attention. At one point, she frantically hollered at a young woman in the audience for looking away from her. I don’t know how anyone could manage to look away; my eyes were glued to Kabba.
The restrained hand of director Nataki Garrett was also obvious—the cast seemed to have been coached to interact with the audience just enough to break down our barriers without distracting us from the acting. She emphasized all the right moments, leading the audience, bit by bit, into a rabbit hole of stereotypes that burst into all-out minstrelsy in the final moment. A powerful performance of a powerful play, it was far and away the best theater performance I have seen on the 5Cs.