Theater review: The Colored Museum

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I was rather amazed to discover that it had been more than seven years since the last time I saw George C. Wolfe’s audacious take on Afro-American history, The Colored Museum here in the Queen City. So much has changed on the local scene since that November 2003 production at CAST directed by Dee Abdullah. We can capsulize those changes in a few words: the Gantt Center and On Q Productions.

For Charlotte now has a more high-profile black cultural scene than it had 7+ years ago – including a rockin’ resident black theater company at Duke Energy Theatre. So it isn’t surprising that director Aisha Dew has a deeper talent pool in the current On Q revival. Overall energy and self-confidence on 7th Street are a notch or two above what we saw from the uneven cast at Clement Avenue in 2003, beginning with our stewardess, Leshea Stukes, welcoming us aboard our celebrity slaveship in “Git’ on Board” and cheerfully reminding us to fasten our shackles.

Stukes has just as much overcooked attitude in “The Hairpiece” as a Jericurl wig named Lawanda who argues with Afro wig Janine, portrayed by Leah Palmer-Licht, over which of them is the more suitable attire for Shar Marlin to wear when Hairpiece Woman breaks up with her boyfriend. All three of these women work beautifully together in a dressing-room tableau that precludes eye contact, sending us merrily into intermission.

We have an even more high-octane trio greeting us after the break in “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” Wolfe’s bodacious send-up of Raisin in the Sun and for colored girls. Marlin is the title matriarch, vying against Palmer-Licht as her daughter and Janalyn Moonie Walton as her daughter-in-law for top honors in outrageously overacting her anguish. Robert Isaac, as our Narrator, bestows the plaque upon Marlin but snatches it away after Walton delivers her grandiloquent rant. Meanwhile, Justin Moore as sorry-ass son Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie Jones can only pitifully interject “Wasn’t this play supposed to be about me?”

Stukes is not the only bravura soloist, either. Marlin dons the iconic Jemima kerchief for “Cookin’ With Aunt Ethel,” a demo on how to make a Negro, and Isaac portrays the crazed war vet of “Soldier With a Secret,” foreshadowing a future that will be as bloody as his past. Better yet, there’s Gerard Hazelton as Miss Roj, an extraterrestrial style queen attended by three demons in “The Gospel According to Miss Roj,” and Walton’s devastating “Lala’s Opening,” taking down a Deep South chanteuse who condescendingly returns for a stateside tour after achieving stardom in France.

Dew does all of this beautifully and gilds the lily with choreography by LaTanya Johnson and African dance by Stukes. Although the dance segments are graced by the fine contributions of Toi Johnson, Deborah Maine, and Surya Swilley, and although they vividly remind us of Hazelton’s versatility, they are a little too much of a good thing. Still, a little too much is so much better than too little, and the four-piece band, with Harvey Cummings at the keyboard, showers down additional flavor from the Duke balcony. Set design by Nathaniel Rorie is cleverly enriched by Lena J’s projected caricatures as we transition from one Museum exhibit to another. Costumes by Maxine A. Martin and lights by Tony Wright are also encouraging signs that, technically speaking, On Q is improving its game.

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