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[whitespace] Frederick D. Pitts Jr. Record Breaking: Frederick D. Pitts Jr. tosses the symbols of his past.

Photograph by Dave Lepori

Brutal Satire

'Colored Museum' pulls no punches at SJ Stage

By Heather Zimmerman

THERE'S SATIRE and then there's satire, and when in the opening scene of The Colored Museum the viciously pert Miss Pat, stewardess for Celebrity Slave Lines, trills "Fasten your shackles," there's a definite sense that playwright George C. Wolfe favors the kind of satire so brutal it seems to suck all the air out of a room. The San Jose Stage Company brings its season to a close with a brilliant production that can quite literally take your breath away.

But the opening sketch, "Git on Board" (the first of 11 vignettes, or exhibits, that make up the play), accomplishes a lot more than simply establishing Wolfe's skill for shock satire. As her "passengers" are deplaning, Miss Pat (Merri Ann Osborne) promises that all baggage left on board will be trashed, and she isn't kidding: it's a mandate that informs the play's remaining vignettes. The Colored Museum is all about baggage: the burdens of pain, anger and struggle that the legacy of slavery has brought to bear on African American identity.

Wolfe has written many of the scenes so that they address the audience, and director Baomi Butts-Bhanji maintains an engrossing edginess by making sure we're always conscious that the fourth wall is nowhere to be found, turning even the most introspective of scenes outward to the audience--we're witnesses, accomplices and participants in the proceedings. Of course, it's hard not to stay involved with a stellar ensemble that proves adept and insightful. In "Symbiosis," Frederick D. Pitts Jr. shows us the depths of conflict and hurt carefully concealed by a placid facade as The Man, a successful businessman throwing his past (Jimi Hendrix records and "Free Huey" buttons) into a dumpster, only to be confronted by his indignant younger self, The Kid (Carmichael Blankenship). In "The Gospel According to Miss Roj." Jerry Van Carlos Gore brings layers of pain and tenderness to the title character, a gay man who copes with a double dose of discrimination through sheer bravado.

The painful subject of self-image gets a real working over in "The Hair Piece," in which two wigs, Janine and LaWanda (Mahasin and Elizabeth Carter, both hilarious), an Afro wig and a long straight-haired wig, respectively, argue over which one of them their owner should wear to look truly devastating at a lunch date where she plans to break up with her fickle boyfriend.

But Wolfe brings the issues of African American history and identity into sharpest focus with "The Last Mama on the Couch Play," a fierce lampooning of the somewhat limited roles put forth in some more traditional African American theater, such as A Raisin in the Sun. Medea Jones (Osborne), sister to martyred protagonist Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie Jones (Blankenship), lays it on the line: "My pain and suffering have become classical and therefore universal." Before long, the whole cast is singing and dancing; Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie wouldn't have had to die, Mama tells us, if only he'd been born into one of those feel-good "all-black musicals." Wolfe shows us the madness in either extreme: that the suffering of the past is all-defining, or just as bad, that it can it be easily glossed over and ignored.

Wolfe embraces all sides of the identity conflict, in a sense, in "The Party," the final vignette, with Topsy Washington (Carter), a bubbly, self-aware woman who celebrates both her heritage and herself, who tells us, "I can't live inside yesterday's pain, but I can't live without it." On the journey through The Colored Museum, it seems the baggage can't get lost, but Wolfe suggests it can be claimed, owned and trashed all at the same time.

The Colored Museum plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 24 at the San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $16-$30. (408.283.7142)

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From the June 7-13, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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