The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Colored Museum is a series of eleven short scenes with no intermission. Each scene is titled and self-contained, a separate “exhibit” in a museum that illuminates what it means to be African American in the United States during the 1980’s. A few of the scenes feature two or more actors speaking to one another, but in many of them the characters speak directly to the audience. The first scene, “Git on Board,” features Miss Pat, the ever-smiling flight attendant on the Celebrity Slaveship. In language that echoes the traditional patter of the information given before takeoff, Miss Pat instructs the audience to pay attention to the “Fasten Your Shackle” sign, to refrain from drumming and call-and-response singing while the flight is in progress, and to “abandon your God and worship a new one.”

“Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel” is a parody of a cooking show, whose star is a black woman with a bandana. As she sings a “hard-drivin’ blues” song about her procedure, she tosses in ingredients including style, flair, rhythms, attitude (“OOPS! I PUT TOO MUCH”) and humor to make “a batch of Negroes.” “The Photo Session” is an exhibit of“a very glamorous, gorgeous black couple” dressed in expensive clothing. They are models for Ebony Magazine, and their every move is rehearsed and beautiful. Photographic slides of black soldiers from past American wars are flashed on the wall to open “A Soldier with a Secret,” an exhibit of a black combat soldier who has died and returned as a kind of ghost. After his death, he explains, he was able to see the future in the faces of his comrades. He saw that several of the “colored boys” were going to suffer terribly back home after the war, so he methodically killed them one by one to spare them pain.

“The Gospel According to Miss Roj,” one of the most controversial exhibits in Wolfe’s museum, features an elegant and arrogant drag queen who dances at a club called “The Bottomless Pit.” Miss Roj describes his life as a series of...

(The entire section is 842 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Colored Museum relies heavily on visual and auditory elements. The play opens with slides, “rapidly flashing before us,” projected on the white wall of the museum, “[i]mages we’ve all seen before, of African slaves being captured, loaded onto ships, tortured.” The slides are not a backdrop: They are projected on an otherwise empty stage, before the action begins. Wolfe’s stage directions specify other visual effects, including the larger-than-life projections of the glamorous Girl and Guy, and slides of black soldiers from all the United States’ wars. The slides function only visually; no character speaks directly about these images. Wolfe’s instructions for costumes and props are very particular, specifying the color of Miss Pat’s shoes and instructing that Mama in the seventh exhibit and Admonia in the ninth should wear the same wig and shoes. Because the individual scenes are so short, Wolfe uses carefully chosen visual elements to establish characterization quickly.

The play also uses music, drawn from the African American tradition, to quickly establish the settings of individual scenes. Before the first slide is shown at the beginning of the play, the darkness is “cut by drums pounding.” Various styles of drumming punctuate the play. Many of the characters sing, including Aunt Ethel, The Kid, and Lala Lamazing Grace (whose stage name comes from a song), and “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” turns into “an all-black musical.” Songs by Aretha Franklin and The Temptations open or close scenes. For Wolfe, music is an important part of being African American, and he honors and affectionately parodies that tradition throughout the play.

The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Colored Museum, as has often been pointed out, is not set in a museum, and none of its characters ever utters the word “museum.” Instead, it is a series of eleven separate scenes or “exhibits” performed without intermission. Each has its own title, and each illustrates a different facet of African American life in the 1980’s. In many of the scenes, characters speak directly to the audience, exhibiting different examples of racism and of surrender to victimhood. For example, the first exhibit, “Git on Board,” is spoken by the smiling Miss Pat, a female flight attendant, delivering to the audience a version of the typical instructions given to passengers before an airplane takes off. However, Miss Pat is the flight attendant on a slave ship bound for Savannah, Georgia, and she instructs her passengers not to play drums or rebel but to fasten their shackles and sing spirituals.

The second exhibit is “Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel,” a parody of a television cooking show whose star speaks, and wears a bandana, like a stereotypical Mammy character. Aunt Ethel demonstrates a recipe for “Negroes” that includes such ingredients as rhythm, attitude, and style. “The Photo Session” features a Guy and a Girl, models for Ebony magazine, who have internalized the values of materialism and consumerism. Junie Robinson, the titular “Soldier with a Secret” in the play’s third scene, admits that he has killed some of his...

(The entire section is 437 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Catanese, Brandi Wilkins. “’And the Rest Is L.A. History’: Autobiographical Strategies in The Colored Museum.” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 14, no. 1 (Winter, 2002): 15-28. Examines Wolfe’s life in California between college and his move to New York City, as reflected in his most influential play.

Davis, Thulani. “Sapphire Attire.” Review of The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe. The Village Voice 31, no. 45 (November 11, 1986): 91. Finds the play funny but ultimately trivializing.

Elam, Harry J., Jr. “Signifyin(g) on African-American Theatre: The Colored Museum by George Wolfe.” Theatre Journal 44 (1992): 291-303. Explores the ways in which Wolfe’s play parodies, illuminates, and challenges earlier African American plays.

Euell, Kim. “Signifyin(g) Ritual: Subverting Stereotypes, Salvaging Icons.” African American Review 31, no. 4 (Winter, 1997): 667-675. Places The Colored Museum as the starting point of a black drama charged with challenging racist stereotypes. Lists playwrights following or influenced by Wolfe, including Michael Henry Brown, Robert Alexander, and Matt Robinson.

Jackson, Pamela Faith. Black Comedy—Nine Plays: A Critical Anthology with Interviews and Essays. New York: Applause, 1997. Includes the full text of the play, as well as an interview with L. Kenneth Richardson, the play’s original artistic director, discussing The Colored Museum and black theater.

Jung, Byung-Eon. “Fantasy Space and the Subversive Desire of ’the Uncanny’ in African American Drama.” Journal of Modern British and American Drama 18, no. 3 (December, 2005): 165-192. Thematic analysis of The Colored Museum and of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (pr. 1987, pb. 1990).

Little, Benilde. “George C. Wolfe: On Our Beauty and Complexity.” Essence 21, no. 10 (February, 1991): 35. To prepare audiences for the public television production of The Colored Museum, Wolfe explains why making viewers uncomfortable is important to his work.

Silverstein, Marc. “’Any Baggage You Don’t Claim, We Trash’: Living With(in) History in The Colored Museum.American Drama 8, no. 1 (Fall, 1998): 95-121. Argues that The Colored Museum challenges African Americans to understand and live both with and within history.