Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Beginning with the word “Colored” in the title, The Colored Museum announces its complicated relationship with the past. By 1986, when the play was first performed, the word “colored” was considered at best old-fashioned and at worst racist, and it would have made 1980’s audiences quite uncomfortable. Its inclusion in the title signals George C. Wolfe’s determination to unblinkingly confront African American history. The first “exhibit,” “Git on Board,” is about slavery, and other scenes address segregation, the loss of African religion, and the role of African Americans in the military. Wolfe calls upon African Americans to look closely at their history and to see the ways they have been limited by it, so they might find ways to move forward. He also calls upon white people to see clearly the evils of racism and oppression. His hope is that the attitudes displayed in the play will be regarded as museum pieces: unchanging exhibits of the past, rather than living moments or models for the future.

Another theme of the play is the role of African American literature in the development of the culture. In “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” Wolfe boldly makes fun of perhaps the best-known play by an African American writer, Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr., pb. 1959). Wolfe’s Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie-Jones is a parody of Hansberry’s Walter Lee, and Wolfe makes a mockery of Mama, Walter Lee’s mother, who guides her family with wisdom and strength from her seat on the couch. The play also refers to other African American dramas, to the slave Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1851-1852, serial; 1852, book), and to the music of Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and the Temptations. Wolfe has commented in interviews that he respects the literature and music he parodies, but just as it is time for African Americans to leave stereotypical attitudes in a museum, so it is time to retire the old forms of art and create new ones.