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Colored Museum (Review)

NKU production upstages itself with razzle-dazzle

By Tom McElfresh · February 22nd, 2010 · Onstage
When George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum was new, back in 1986, it drove some New York critics to spasms of praise for its liberating satire. Newsweek: “Bound to shake up blacks and whites with separate-but-equal impartiality.” The Village Voice: “Has the potential to bring to black theater the type of nasty, naked racial revelation once found only in Richard Pryor monologues.”

Wolfe, who grew up in Frankfort, Ky., used 11 dramatic “exhibits” to offer original, savagely comic looks at the responses of some black Americans to generations of racial oppression.

Well, that was then. Now onstage at Northern Kentucky University, there’s considerably more sizzle than satire — or substance — to Colored Museum.

Director Brian Robertson has musicalized this Museum, more than quadrupled its cast (including an all-white choir of 10 performers) and frazzle-dazzled it into vaudeville that insists on upstaging itself.

The edgy scenes are there. A past perky flight attendant on a slave plane demonstrates how to “buckle your shackles.” An up-and-coming businessman jettisons his last dashiki. An androgynous drag artiste reveals the social ramifications of finger-snapping. A woman with her hair wrapped in a towel engages in a riotously funny argument with two wigs about their differing political implications.

But it’s all played at screech volume and a pace so frenzied that the satire gets bludgeoned. And the underscoring, vivifying anger gets lost behind flashing lights and extraneous TV cameras and monitors. In one scene a couple of pretty models explain how being fabulous is all that really matters — which is an apt criticism of this production. It’s fabulous and empty.

The show’s most powerful scene is its simplest: Kay Brown as a Josephine Baker look-alike and sing-alike strips off her feathered headdress and quietly recalls the humanity she gave up to become famous.

COLORED MUSEUM, presented by Northern Kentucky University, continues through Feb. 28. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.



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