Just as the country is consumed with the events of Ferguson, Selma, and now Madison, Wisconsin, comes "The Colored Museum," a play that makes no apologies over what it’s really about.
Originally written in 1987, The Huntington Theatre Company’s revival includes many current references. WGBH News Arts Editor Jared Bowen saw it and revealed on Greater Boston how it pushes just about every envelope there is.
"It's extremely funny until it's not, and when it's not," Bowen said, "it's very, very searing."
Bowen sat down with director and Tony Award-winning actor Billy Porter to learn more about what he wanted the audience to get out of the play:
BOWEN: I was caught by a description of "The Colored Museum" by George. C Wolfe, the playwright, where he called it both a celebration and an exorcism. How is it both of those things?
PORTER: Well, as the African-American experience sort of shows, it speaks to how in the most horrific of circumstances, we rise. And that’s what it means. And in terms of how the darkness can kind of take over, the pain can kind of take over, the madness; he speaks of madness all the time, the rage, it can take you over. In order to move through it, one must embrace it. My music is in my madness, he says, my colored contradictions. There’s madness in me. And that madness sets me free, you know, so the point is to encourage all of us to embrace that madness and not be afraid of it and understand that that madness, that pain, that struggle, is the very thing that gets you to the other side and brings you to the light.
Afraid is the key word there. I saw the show a couple of nights ago—and we’ll talk about this in a moment with the time that we’re in right now and the discussion of race—and I’m laughing, and I want to laugh, but at the same time have a deeply unsettled feeling for laughing, especially as a white person. How does being afraid fit into it and what is your hope that audiences will feel as they’re having this fill mix of emotions?
I think what I want people to feel personally is that it’s about the joy of life, always. It’s about the joy. Everybody has experienced pain. You know, everybody knows what it feels like to hurt. Everybody knows what it feels like to have a struggle. This particular struggle, this African-American struggle is very resonate, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. So I feel like this is a call to action. A reminding call to action to sort of encourage all of us to not get complacent, and to remember that the fight still continues, you know, the journey still continues, and we have to stay present. So I hope that’s what people leave with. Stay present and focused and forward moving.
As you’re going through this material, being a director here in 2015, I’m wondering how resonate the material has become, given, as I just mentioned, the discussions we’re having about race and the movements we’re seeing in this country: just recently the gathering in Selma, and suddenly it’s one of the top conversations in this country. And yet this piece was written more than 25 years ago, is it more resonant today than when it was written?
I really can’t speak to that; I really don’t know, but I will say that the resonance of the piece is palpable. I spoke to George—this is an interesting story: I spoke to George about references—he references a lot of cultural historical things in the play—and I asked him about possibly thinking about a historical reference that is simply of the moment. And he came back and changed one word, and it turns the entire play on its ear. And I’m not going to tell you what the word is because you have to see it, but you’ll know as soon as the character says it. You’ll go, “Oh, my god, right”, you know? And it’s just—we’re still having the conversation, and we still need to have it out loud because that’s a whole other day.