As the lights dim into the first scene, a spotlight focuses on pedestals in each corner of the stage. The Iseman Theatre morphs into a museum. Over the loudspeaker, we hear the words of the African-American novelist, James Baldwin:
“We are in the middle of an imminent metamorphosis here, a metamorphosis which will, it is devoutly to be hoped, rob us of our myths and give us our history, which will destroy our attitudes and give us back our personalities.”
The Colored Museum, written by George C. Wolfe in the 1980s, is a play unlike any I’ve seen before at Yale. Directed by Alexis Payne ‘19, The Colored Museum, which opened on Thursday night, is a spectacularly chaotic journey. The play consists of eleven powerful vignettes, each of which takes a snapshot of the lives of African-Americans at different moments in American history.
Asked to summarize the play in one word, the producer of the show Declan Kunkel ‘19 chose “provocative.” The feelings The Colored Museum evokes are deep and sharp. There were moments when I found myself laughing so hard that I almost wanted to cup my mouth shut, followed by moments that scared the breath out of me.
The six actors—Rayo Oyeyemi ‘20, Lexi Butler ‘17, Me’Lena Laudig ‘19, Branson Rideux ‘20, Kerry Burke-Mccloud ‘17, and Alcindor Leadon ‘17—play 22 different characters. For each vignette, the cast transforms into new characters with deceptive ease. The changes, in accent and physicality, though dramatic, were imperceptible. The nuance of emotion that were portrayed by each character is a testament to the ability of the cast. It is this subtlety, these points of pain in a larger farce of happiness, that define the turmoil of identity that The Colored Museum tackles.
Powerful music, directed by Adé Ben-Salahuddin ‘18, fills up the world.The cast members prove themselves to be powerful singers, particularly Laudig who is also a member of Shades.
The venue of the Iseman Theatre also serves the play well. With the audience surrounding the actors on all four sides, the stage is completely exposed.Transitions lack the comfort of a curtain. Instead, the passage backstage is as visible as the stage itself. As Payne puts it: “this museum is not consensual.”
At the same time, the structure of the stage allows the audience to feel the physical momentum of the play. In each scene, moments of calm and moments of storm follow each other without pause. The eyes of the audience track the actors as they pivot across each side of the stage. Whether or not the audience has an intellectual understanding of the material being presented, they are still able to feel deeply as they soak up the physical energy the actors exude. The organic neatness of the script, coupled with a dynamic set designed by Adam Lessing ‘19, allows the audience to project their own consciousness and identity into the play. In this way, the audience is the 23rd character.
As lights dim, and the audience begins to clap, the stage has a new facade. The museum, now destroyed, holds the shells of a cocoon, evidence of the metamorphosis that has just occurred. “This is theatre in it’s raw, pure form,” Kunkel told The Politic, “Theatre that tries to push ideas, push ideologies.”
The Colored Museum resonates with the Yale community, especially after the events of last year. “I believe that plays like this validate the black experience,” Abiola Makinwa ‘19 told The Politic, “certain individuals have the talent to be able to express what this means, and it is important to have this represented.” In the post-show talk, Branson Rideaux joked about how working on this play felt like an additional class. Members of the cast also discussed how the production created a process of learning and self discovery. Rideaux, Burke-Mcloud and Laudig, who come from multiracial backgrounds, said the play helped them understand what their black identity meant to them.
The Colored Museum is playing this Friday at eight and Saturday at two and eight. The Saturday night performance has reserved half of its tickets to be distributed at the door on a “pay-what-you-can” basis.