In performances of The Colored Museum, both African American and white audiences have laughed and been made uncomfortable in equal measure: Wolfe’s messages target both groups. On one level, the play is an indictment of the history of racism against African Americans, from the institution of slavery through the oppressive economic and social conditions that continue to make life difficult for many African Americans today. The characters refer to the thankless contributions of African American combat soldiers (“Git on Board” and “A Soldier with a Secret”), to the replacement of African religions with Christianity (“The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play”), and to stereotypes of the female Mammy (“Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel”) and the male basketball player (“Git on Board”).
However, the play also warns African Americans to resist assimilation more actively and to take more responsibility for moving forward. Too many African Americans, the play charges, are stuck in a “time warp,” playing out the roles assigned to them years ago, and they have not seen ways to move beyond these roles except by adopting an Anglo-European culture. Many of the exhibits show African Americans who have pursued white materialism (“The Photo Session” and “Symbiosis”) or have bought intentionally or unintentionally into European views of physical beauty (“The Hairpiece”) or the way to speak and dress (“Lala’s Opening” and “Symbiosis”). Others have used historical oppression to justify present domestic violence (“A Soldier with a Secret”) or homophobia (“The Gospel According to Miss Roj”). At the play’s end, Topsy urges the audience to find a balance between the past and the future, because “whereas I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain, I can’t live without it.” Wolfe’s theme is implied in his title, The Colored Museum. A museum is a place where static, unchanging artifacts from the past are displayed. By relegating his stereotypical characters to a museum, Wolfe places them in the past and makes room for the future.