by Emily Almendarez
feature photo by Nina Goodheart
Upon entry to the Iseman Theatre, in the wing that is the temporary home of The Colored Museum, the arrangement of five, white, veiled pedestals and rummaging of a pre-show stage is only a shadow of what is in store. The rehearsing taps of drums, as played by Matthew Kegley, from the second balcony platform, mimic the anticipating putters nested in the chests of both audience members and actors alike. First-time director Alexis Payne circles her cast and reminds them of the radical act of existing and the “radical act of being on this stage.” It is this idea that frames and carries the show.
“I wanted to try something unconventional that had room for exploration,” Payne said in an interview, regarding her choice of play. “There’s so much written but also so little because everything said means so much at once. We have to figure out what this play means to us.”
The Colored Museum, originally written by George C. Wolfe and performed in 1986, illustrates the changing culture and history experienced by the Black American community. Illuminating the fluidity and interchangeability of time in its nonlinearity, the play demonstrating various facets of Black life as they are propelled and funneled into institutions that negate to acknowledge its existence in its natural and varying state. Composed of 11 exhibits, Payne intertwines the kaleidoscopic spectrum of their lives with the youthful talent of undergraduate students at Yale.
As the play begins, the stage is projected with chained fists as the ship attendant, played by Rayo Oyeyemi, commands the slaves on the Celebrity Slave ship to “keep their chains buckled at all times.” The momentous drums set the adrenaline for the scene, as she commands for them to cease in rhythm. While the audience laughs at first due to the ridiculous nature of it. However, it soon ends once the actors onstage pantomime various wars throughout U.S. history that have included Black people in its war force, but have provided close to no benefits for them.
As the exhibit titled “Soldier with a Secret” overrides the stage, Kerry Burke-McCloud stands over handcuffs, reminiscing his service in a war that provided him and his mates no benefits. Clothed in combat boots and a army green uniform, he stands with his arms stretched out mimicking Jesus Christ on the cross, being both the martyr and the embodiment of a violent history: suits playing God. McCloud’s profile is brushed by whirling gusts of smoke, as his demeanor dissipates with it. His pseudo-masculinity grounds him as his eyes threaten to extinguish the explosions he has both died and survived in. Leaving goosebumps and voids in the hearts of spectators, McCloud exits, with bunker images flashing center stage.
The “snap queen” herself, Ms. Roj (Alcindor Leadon), enters. She sports flowy red pants and shiny white go-go boots in an unapologetic way. One’s intuition betrays them in thinking that “The Gospel According to Ms. Roj” will be purely comedic. However, Leadon treads a fine line of wordsmithing as Ms. Roj shares in moving tones and rhythms her father’s homophobic diction, and winding, uncensored confidence. Ms. Roj presents herself as an Extra Terrestrial, capable of shining bright as a celestial muse. Leadon accomplishes to fill said boots perfectly, leaving resonating drums through Ms. Roj’s final words: “We do not ask for acceptance or for approval.”
Ms. Roj’s snaps and dances remind us what it means to live with both joy and suffering, how to exist with those lived contradictions is difficult but also powerful. Payne relates this further to our day-to-day, “This school, this environment, or this space is going to feel like shit sometimes, but being here is also radical. Your ancestors were not allowed in this space and here you are.” In acknowledging pain and suffering we are able to live more fully. Moreover, it is daily rather than out of the ordinary. “Resistance is not extraneous – people are constantly pushing back against the boxes they’re put in. Resistance is a natural part of what it means to be human. Each of these exhibits is a box, and each these characters are breaking from the box in some way.”
Branson Rideaux, dressed in a grey suit and tie, lathers his face in white cream as Burke-McCloud contrasts this style in a grey zipped up hoodie and blue cap. Titled “Symbiosis,” the stage turns into a magnetic battle ground, as the two subjects repel and draw each other closer. Rideaux’s presentation of curl relaxer and dashiki from a prim, white bag, and prompt disposal to a nearby, tin trash can centers the audience. Burke-McCloud’s character pleads him to not dispose his Jackson 5 record, and while there are chuckles emanating from the crowd, Branson’s facade communicates his character’s determination to strip himself of these possessions that make him unique and Burke-McCloud’s reminders of what makes them precious. As he wrestles with Burke-McCloud, he relates the analogous King Kong. With grunts, communicating the physical toll and emotional strip, he states, “… (King Kong) brought attention to its struggle and became extinct.” The assimilating journey of the scene proposes the duplicitous nature of surviving in an “ice aged” society. Rideaux embodies this transition and takes the audience along for the ride.
Lala (Lexi Butler) dons a silver, glamorous, form-fitting dress. Her blonde hair is feathered in arranging directions, accompanying her thick accent and walk. She presents herself as an exotic woman, questioning America for negating to recognize her for these features. Interestingly, said accent filters in and out as her content turns to anger, resulting from the criticism of an imaginary fan mail writer. This broadcasted deterioration is brought to life through Butler’s blotching eyes and range of voice. Whether intentionally done, or the result of faulty hairpins, the fall of her blonde wig grounds her in her natural state. In that natural state, she exhibits vulnerability and emotional rawness.
Lala’s eyes connect with a younger girl (Rayo Oyeyemi) through a mirrorless wooden frame. Her dreams and aspirations are reflected through the brightly lit face of the doll carrying girl. Oyeyemi jumpstarts the audience’s heart, as she loses herself in her character’s abusive past, hidden away in a closet. While the audience laughs at her remarks of having sexual relations that felt like “fuck(ing) a fruit salad,” the metaphorical egg she carries, composed of an exterior shell of newspaper, communicates the marring of her future. Oyeyemi’s eyes constrict the lungs of those who watch her exist on stage through her demonstration of the encroachment of black children’s innocence.
Me’Lena Laudig ends the show sporting curly hair, larger than life hoops, tall wedges, and a bat-winged green dress. She speaks of a party in which “Angela Davis and Aunt Jemima share greens and talk about Africa.” Through her jubilation and tripping over her own breath, her fellow cast members circle her in union, acting as children playing tag and double dutching. She closes the show through the exclamations and through her beautiful vibrato, echoing the words “madness,” and how “madness sets me (her) free.” Holding her fist up, her melodious, passionate voice surfaces the fact that the drums, the same drums lulled silent through history, is within them all.
The Colored Museum is an emotional rollercoaster, which everyone should experience, that sheds light upon the idea of “blackness” and what it means to be “black” in the United States. As a POC, it is easy to leave the show with pride of our varying potency of melanin and history of survival. Payne explained the importance of the play’s title, stating,
“It’s important to think about who owns this museum and how these people got there. This museum is not consensual, the characters are not there of their own accord – someone placed them here and asked – forced – them to perform. By the end of the show, the stage is completely destroyed, and we have to think about what it means to perform.”
This constrictive idea of performance placed upon Black Americans in the United States is not one that must be followed. In her parting remarks, Alexis Payne shared advice for any person of color struggling to find themselves and love their melanin rich skin:
“There’s a line from the play, ‘Whereas I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain, I can’t live without it.’ This school, this environment, or this space is going to feel like shit sometimes, but being here is also radical. Your ancestors were not allowed in this space and here you are.”
The Colored Museum runs Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, with a matinee performance on Saturday at 2pm followed by a talkback with Daphne Brooks, professor of African American Studies and Theater Studies. Given the complex and intertextual nature of the play, viewers are advised to read the director’s note beforehand, or peruse the sources in the lobby pre-show.