The Colored Museum – Talawa Theatre Company at the V&A

I saw The Colored Museum by George C Wolfe at the Royal Court Theatre in 1987 (or thereabouts), and apart from enjoying it hugely thought it was an important piece. Talawa Theatre’s production in the (lecture) theatre at the V&A Museum:

(a) confirms that it is important;

(b) reminded me how funny and witty it is;

(c) reminded me how intelligent the writing is;

(d) shows that in places it is rather touching and moving, which I don’t remember from the Royal Court production.

In short, this is highly recommended. Don’t just take my word for it – a tweet from @LynGardner:

“Just come back from Talawa’s revival of The Colored Museum at V&A. Dated but really sparky too. A fabulous quintet of performers #stage”

Lyn Gardner is absolutely right that this is really lively and has excellent performances, but it didn’t seem dated to me. There are scenes that are in themselves of (or before) the 1980s, but the issues they explore are still relevant. I should add that I don’t think relevance is a necessary criterion for good theatre: plays can still be worth seeing even if they don’t have anything to say about our current conditions or concerns. But one thing that struck me about Talawa’s production (which, again, I don’t recall from the Royal Court production, but it was a long time ago) was that while the scenes derive from an African-American perspective, in many ways they are more universal than that: for example, the scene where a man is in discussion with his younger self about changing – or not – his identity to fit in with a changing world.

I referred to this as an important piece: I deliberately avoided using the word “play”. It’s certainly drama and theatre, but is it a play? The structure of the piece is of several different scenes, and there isn’t an overt thread connecting one scene to another. So one might perhaps call it a review. Except that it is much more than the sum of its parts – and the parts are very good in themselves: who can resist a scene titled “The Last Mama on a Couch Play”? – and the piece and the performances are undeniably playful. It’s not an accident that a “play” is a “play” in English and that the German for actor and actress (or “player”) are Schauspieler and Schauspielerin (literally show player), so it would be curmudgeonly not to call it a play.

Talawa’s production uses a simple and very effective set of packing cases of different sizes, the transitions between scenes are very effective, and the actors – should I say players? – give very good performances.

I was really pleased to see that Talawa were reviving The Colored Museum, and am delighted to be able to report that they do full justice to it. It’s on at the V&A from now (Monday 17 October) until Sunday 23 October, performances at 1pm each day, also with performances at 3:30pm on Saturday 22 and Sunday 23, and at 7pm on Tuesday 18 and Saturday 22. From which any readers will correctly conclude that I am urging people to see this.

Some links to give more information:!/TalawaTheatreCo

Lyn Gardner’s review in The Guardian

The Colored Museum is a barbed satire, written by George C Wolfe, which simultaneously celebrates, satirises and subverts 200 years of African-American history. It’s directed by Don Warrington, who you’ll know from Rising Damp, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing, or the National Theatre, RSC and Bristol Old Vic (depending on your viewing habits).

Set in an imaginary museum, the 11 living exhibits in The Colored Museum explore African-American identity in an exhibition of larger-than-life stereotypes. The play casts an unflinching eye on questions of identity and legacy, and has been delighting and discomforting audiences since it was first performed in 1986.

… Twenty-five years on, the company is celebrating its quarter century at the forefront of British black theatre (and this year’s Black History Month) with a play that’s the same age – George C Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, first performed in 1986 off-Broadway (and revived here once before by the Royal Court).

A wittily discomforting, ebulliently self-aware send-up of black cultural stereotypes (from voting preferences to hairstyles, from pronunciation to the blues), it’s presented as a series of ‘exhibits’. Aptly enough, Warrington’s new production will be performed at the V&A but it’s far from being a museum piece. In rehearsal, Warrington was surprised to find out how relevant the play and its gleefully satirical observations on black identity politics remain.

‘This piece is trying to find a balance between understanding and knowing the facts of black history and you can’t help but be angry about some of it,’ says Warrington, a stage and TV actor who made his Talawa debut with his production of Rum And Coca-Cola at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year.

‘But it’s also about understanding who you are in the modern world,’ chips in Patricia Cumper, Talawa’s outgoing artistic director. ‘It’s a complex thing to be black and British in London today. There are now more people of West African descent than Caribbean, so there’s a whole different view of the diaspora experience. There’s a growing Somali population, too. So there’s a real sense of multiple identities. A young Londoner today can be many, many things.’ …

[* As I noted in my comments/review, I think it’s more universal than its title might imply. *]

A personal note: in January 2011 I saw a play “Talking in Bed” which was dramatically very satisfying, especially the performances of Vera Chok and Dan McClane, and after the performance I started thinking of the first movement of Brahms’s 2nd Symphony, a musically very satisfying piece but not a piece I often think of so it was probably their performances that triggered that association. After seeing Talawa’s performance of The Colored Museum I started thinking of the first movement of Brahms’s 2nd Piano Concerto, another musically very satisfying piece, and also a piece that I rarely think about.


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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