George C. Wolfe populated his satirical play The Colored Museum with characters from all across the spectrum of the African-American experience. Some of their stories are tragic, some are funny, and others straddle the line between what’s humorous enough to hurt, and what’s so painful that you just have to laugh.
Under the direction of Keith Arthur Bolden, American Stage’s five-member cast keeps the energy up and the characterizations fluid, and the end result is kind of a fast-paced mashup of A Raisin in the Sun and In Living Color.
And there aren’t any cheap laughs at the expense of Black stereotypes.
“We did a lot of dramaturgical work,” cast member Jemier Jenkins explains. “And one of the things that Keith did as a director to help push us in that direction was remind us that every character is fighting for joy. That way, you don’t get bogged down in the natural tragedy of the things we’re speaking about – you’re always fighting for your character to find joy.
“And so Black joy was a big theme in the room, and in our process as artists, finding that joy inside and outside of the production.”
Jenkins, a St. Pete native, is an actress, writer and model; she’s also Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Black Theatre Ensemble .
She wrote her first play while attending Lakewood High School’s Center for Advanced Technology, and also wrote and programs in church. “I love the power that community has to change people, and change hearts, and open up minds for conversation,” she says. “And I haven’t found anything else that does it in that way.”
At Florida State University, she majored in media production. Jenkins considers herself a storyteller. “I like telling the story from any position I can tell it.”
She appears in several of the vignettes in The Colored Museum. In Permutations, she’s a country girl who’s laid an enormous egg (“I had sexual relations with the garbageman”) and is waiting for it to hatch, and a talking head (literally) in The Hairpiece.
The opener, Git on Board, casts Jenkins as a smug flight attendant aboard a “Celebrity Slaveship” bound for Savannah, Georgia (the port of arrival, during slavery times, of ships from Africa’s Ivory Coast). She reminds her “passengers” to “fasten your shackles.”
The irony is not lost on the actress, who actually worked as a flight attendant, for PSA, for two years. “It helped me view the audience as passengers, because I’m very used to that,” Jenkins relates. “And the fear that people have when traveling. So it informed my performance in unexpected ways.”
What’s clear in the American Stage production of Wolfe’s play is the chemistry the five cast members have developed. “Sometimes we would be laughing so hard in rehearsal we’d have to stop, because someone would bring something new that we hadn’t seen before. It was hysterical, some of those things, just because they were unafraid to make a big choice and take a chance.”
The centerpiece of The Colored Museum is The Last Mama-on-the Couch Play, in which Jenkins and several others get to overact – on purpose – as a sharp parody of everything from dramatic plays like Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin, to Tyler Perry movies to “Black” Broadway musicals. And everything – literally everything – in between.
“I used to really not like that scene,” Jenkins explains. “I loosely call myself a Black female playwright – I’m not published – and when you’re trying to do that, you look up to certain people. And I have a reverence for Lorraine Hansberry, and there’s a difference between laughing with and laughing at.
“For me, at first it was laughing at, but throughout the process, I got more to laughing with, and finding the joy in it. And once I found that freedom, and Keith gave me a little push in the right direction, I was able to play. And now it’s like my favorite scene in the show.
“Me and Last Mama-on-the-Couch, we’ve had a long journey.”
The Colored Museum runs through Nov. 27 at American Stage. Find info and tickets here.