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Trashing The Temptations

Sharp play handles the baggage

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In its current offering at Central Avenue Playhouse, Victory Pictures issues the strangest of invitations. Step aboard the Celebrity Airlines passenger plane, settle into your seat for a transoceanic flight leaving from Gold Coast bound for Savannah, and... fasten your shackles!

There's turbulence and hilarity galore in George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. Like all great satirists, Wolfe jerks you around, unpredictably changing his tone and target in mid-flight, sometimes heading in two directions at the same time.

From the moment our aircraft takes wing, journeying through the sordid history of smuggled Africans liberated and marooned in America, Wolfe is going to have it both ways. While tasting the humiliation of the black experience, whites will be gently taken to task for their arrogance as slavemasters and their smugness as emancipators. "Cookin' with Aunt Ethel" reminds us of the rustic, servile Jemima image carved out for black women at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, perpetuated in Hollywood and pancake mix boxes.

Blacks take an even worse lashing as we view the 11 pointed exhibits of Wolfe's wickedly curated Museum. Most famously, we see Wolfe's hilarious evisceration of Raisin in the Sun and for colored girls, "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," where Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie-Smith vies with the three women of his household to see whose sufferings are the most heart-rending -- and who can chew the most scenery declaiming them.

Besides these tenement dwellers shamelessly overdramatizing themselves, we also see the odd mutations in Afro-American lifestyle. First, there's the snap-snap Ru Paul dismissiveness of Miss Roj. Then a black woman freaks out choosing between her Afro and relaxed-hair wigs as she preps to dump her man. Later there's the buttoned-down, upwardly mobile company man tossing away his early Michael Jackson and Temptations albums in an all-out purging of the ethnic artifacts lurking in his closet.

Dee Abdullah directs her uneven cast with sufficient style, commitment and brazenness to keep Wolfe's exhibits hanging together instead of splitting apart. She resourcefully calls upon Chris Thompson to lay down an African beat before we embark, reprising Thompson's drumming and choreography at strategic spots during our journey.

Michael Simmons adds to the fun with his alert lighting and detailed production design. Our playbills are cleverly configured like airline boarding passes. Refreshments are served at our seats from a cart on loan from USAir, and there's ironic "For Coloreds Only" signage on the restrooms.

None of the ensemble members has frequently shown up on local radar before. My favorite discovery was Roderick Shepherd, a poignant "Soldier With a Secret" and a hilariously self-absorbed Walter-Lee. Brian Daye was somewhat outsized as Miss Roj, but his incarnations as the couch Mama and the assimilating exec were perfection. Moraya Orija, implicated in Satchel Paige back in February, vindicates herself under competent direction, and Kasi Tiller, somewhat unsteady greeting us as our flight attendant, warmed up nicely in later skits.

The ultimate questions from Wolfe apply with a fierce pertinence to all oppressed peoples. How do we carry the baggage of the past into the future without hampering and crippling ourselves? And how do we leave this baggage behind without discarding key parts of our culture, our heritage, and our identity? These grim questions go unanswered, but watching this energized ensemble wrestling with them will likely double you over with laughter.

NC Dance Theatre came up from big Belk Theater to intimate Booth Playhouse for last week's Innovative Works. Always a refreshing move. The house was filled to capacity with adventurous modern dance fans, and the individual skills of the company's star performers were spotlighted to fuller advantage.All three of the world premieres delivered their own unique electricity and provocation. Darrell Moultrie's Beyond Breath featured guys in burgundy skirts and vests dancing to the ominous music of Karl Jenkins. Not exactly your traditional highland fling.

Lead dancer Uri Sands chimed in with his most interesting creation to date, Shapes and Gaits. Mixing Malcolm X and MLK into the soundtrack with Vivaldi, Bach and Radiohead, it all had something to do with race relations. But what?

Perhaps most astounding was Mark Diamond's turnabout. After long brooding pieces these past three years exhuming Hamlet, Blanche DuBois and They Shoot Horses, NCDT's resident genius was getting down with the techno beat of Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin. The new buoyancy of There Again, Not Slowly was welcome -- and infectious. A fine vehicle for Nicholle-Rochelle, Jason Jacobs and Daniel Wiley, vaulting them all higher in NCDT's firmament.

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