‘The Colored Museum’ gets an impressive revival

Psalmayene 24 directs a new take on George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play at Studio Theatre.

Review by Trey Graham July 9, 2024 for the Washington Post

Ayanna Bria Bakari, top, and, from left, Kelli Blackwell, William Oliver Watkins and Iris Beaumier in Studio Theatre’s production of “The Colored Museum.” (Teresa Castracane)

Before he staged “Angels in America” on Broadway, before he took the helm at the Public Theater in New York, before he moved into filmmaking and brought us “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Rustin,” George C. Wolfe was a wet-behind-the-ears playwright whose experimental off-Broadway musical “Paradise” had just been demolished by the New York Times. What better time for a young Black writer to square his shoulders and take a swing at the titans of 20th-century African American culture?

The room was demonstrably ready when “The Colored Museum” opened at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre in 1986. The Times’s Frank Rich saluted the performers’ “stinging parodies,” praising the “pacing and unity” of an evening that’s basically a dozen dark-comedy sketches. The Washington Post’s David Richards hailed the playwright as one with “an antic imagination, a passionate sense of comedy and a welcome willingness to step on everyone’s toes.”

Style is where The Washington Post covers happenings on the front lines of culture and what it all means, including the arts, media, social trends, politics and yes, fashion, all told with personality and deep reporting. For more Style stories, click here.

What pins critics’ ears reliably back about “The Colored Museum” is “The Last Mama-On-the-Couch Play,” an affectionate but withering centerpiece skewering a half-century’s worth of Black theater landmarks: dramas such as “A Raisin in the Sun” and “For Colored Girls” and all-Black musicals like “Cabin in the Sky” and “Purlie.” Whatever the merits of those shows, Wolfe notes acerbically that their authors still traffic in frustrating stereotypes, locking Black characters into old positions and inviting White audiences just far enough in to snack casually on Black trauma before catching a late supper at the oyster bar across the way. Nor do Black actors escape the nip of Wolfe’s teeth: Watch the cast of Psalmayene 24’s handsome new Studio Theatre production scramble for possession of the Oscar statuette that gets passed around, even as Wolfe’s barbs about overacting detonate like tart little truth bombs.

The director, fresh off the Folger Theatre’s richly textured but curiously unmoving refresh of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” fares far better with “The Colored Museum,” a show similarly episodic in structure but much less dependent on tone. With less of the supernatural to integrate, and without the self-imposed addition of a unifying conceit, he and his cast — Matthew Elijah Webb, Kelli Blackwell, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Iris Beaumier and William Oliver Watkins are the tight ensemble, with drummer Jabari Exum drawing their efforts even more impressively together — can focus on squeezing each sketch for its individual vitality.

From left, Iris Beaumier, Kelli Blackwell and Ayanna Bria Bakari. (Teresa Castracane)

Thus does the evening have the breadth to satisfyingly explore the emotional price paid by a Josephine Baker-style chanteuse (Beaumier) who has sacrificed the simplicities of her Mississippi childhood to transform herself into a global sophisticate, while also reserving just the right sparkle and sass for a sequence in which a woman (Blackwell) getting dressed for a breakup dinner argues with her two unexpectedly sentient wigs — Beaumier and Bakari, one an exuberant Angela Davis-level Afro, the other a silkier Mariah Carey waterfall — over which of them will help her project the right Strong Black Woman vibe for the occasion.

Thus, too, does the production have stylistic room for the bitter honesty of Webb’s vivid “snap queen” Miss Roj, who would just as soon destroy you as let you get under his skin; the haunted and haunting “kindness” of a Vietnam soldier (a superbly contained Watkins) whose ghost goes about quietly killing his platoon in their sleep to spare them the grief and abuse he sees awaiting them back home; and the commandingly elemental innocence of Normal Jean Reynolds (the mesmerizing Bakari), a grubby red-dirt teenager with a deeply eerie monologue about how she came to give birth to an egg.

Famously, Wolfe framed “The Colored Museum” as a string of exhibits exploding the ways Black Americans tell and are told in their own stories. Psalmayene 24 and designer Natsu Onoda Power lean into the notion with a casually environmental approach that, not unlike Rorschach Theatre’s “Human Museum” earlier this season, reframes the Studio lobbies and parts of the Victor Shargai Theatre itself as an exhibition space wherein compact installations invite further reflection on the corresponding scenes — so take time before and after curtain to explore.

From left, William Oliver Watkins, Kelli Blackwell, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Matthew Elijah Webb and Iris Beaumier. (Teresa Castracane)

Even more famously, Wolfe bookends the show’s action with a skit welcoming audiences aboard a slave ship that’s either sailing the Middle Passage or time-warping its way through to the present, or both. Regardless, Power has transformed the theater space into the wood-benched deck of a merchant vessel, aboard which a cheerily hospitable cabin attendant (Bakari) warns patrons that drumming won’t be tolerated and that the Fasten Your Shackles sign must be closely observed. So maybe don’t bring your more easily offended theatergoing buddies.

Do bring a sense of hope, though: Wolfe’s “Museum” invites visitors to consider what kinds of pain are formative and what kinds are just poisonous: what’s key to remember and what’s safe to forget. Once visiting hours are over, Bakari’s travel guide returns, reminding audiences to check the overhead bins for anything we really want to take with us. Anything we choose to leave behind, she promises warmly, gets chucked straight into the trash.

The Colored Museum, through Aug. 11 at Studio Theatre in Washington. About 1 hour 30 minutes without intermission. studiotheatre.org.

1980 (Or Why I’m Voting For John Anderson) by Patricia Cotter at the Road Theatre Company Summer Playrights Festival

On July 20th the reading of 1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson) will be at the Road Theater Company as part of their SPF summer festival.

Written By Patricia Cotter
Directed By Meeghan Holaway

Buy Tickets

“1980 (Or Why I’m Voting For John Anderson)” is a comedy about class, race, and the politics of hope. In 1980 it seemed that unknown congressman, John Anderson, might have a shot to be a contender for President. In a Boston campaign office, four very different (and very lost) people come together with a dream that their long-shot candidate will change their country and their lives.

Ablaze with talent, ‘The Colored Museum’ at Studio Theatre plays against type

The brilliantly reconceived show entertains hilariously while inviting audiences to see through social stereotypes to what’s inside.

By John Stoltenberg July 9, 2024 for DC Theatre Arts

Studio Theatre makes no bones about the fact The Colored Museum has itself become a museum piece. George C. Wolfe wrote the satire of African American culture in 1986 when he was 31, and his incisive script is chockablock with back-then mentions. Now playing at Studio, nearly 40 years on, is director Psalmayene 24’s brilliant reconception of the show, ablaze with talent, without a word updated. No need. The deep truths still throb.

The play is structured as a series of eleven “exhibits” — blackout sketches, really — each zeroing in on and exorcising an aspect of the Black psyche and experience in white America in the unresolved aftermath of slavery. Performed by five incredibly versatile actor/singers (Ayanna Bria Bakari, Kelli Blackwell, Iris Beaumier, Matthew Elijah Webb, William Oliver Watkins) in a fantastic array of costumes designed by Moyenda Kulameka, the play entertains hilariously while simultaneously inviting audiences to see through social stereotypes the contradictions and pain inside.

William Oliver Watkins, Kelli Blackwell, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Matthew Elijah Webb, and Iris Beaumier in the Party finale of ’The Colored Museum.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The production plunges the audience immediately into full-on immersion. An eerily evocative environment designed by Natsu Onoda Power features a massive sculptural slave ship in whose wood-slat hull the audience sits on benches facing a stage set resembling an art gallery. In darkness, an intense drumbeat by dextrous percussionist Jabari Exum signals the start of a Middle Passage emulation. Archival engravings of the enslaved appear, among many stunning projections designed by Kelly Colburn. Miss Pat, a pert-in-pink flight attendant played with saccharine sarcasm by Ayanna Bria Bakari, welcomes us passengers aboard and advises us to fasten our shackles. Then a turbulent storm of a time warp blows up — its alarming light effects by Jesse Belsky and sound effects by Matthew M. Nielson — and Bakari displays a knock-out knack for physical comedy.

And so it goes: facetious farce spliced and diced with past pain.

By far the most laugh-out-loud scene, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” features all five actors in what seems a snippy sendup of A Raisin in the Sun: one tough Mama on a sofa in a housedress (Blackwell), her son Walter (Watkins) done gone out of his mind with rage at The Man, his regal wife the Lady in Plaid (Beaumier), and his Juilliard-trained sister (Bakari), all hilariously overacting and awarded a gold statuette by tux-clad emcee Webb. Mama’s self-righteous religiosity is reflected in stained glass projections, and in a full-blown parody of a big Black Broadway musical, Walter does a show-stopping minstrel-ish dance (choreography by Tony Thomas).

As with many of the exhibits in The Colored Museum, exactly what’s being exorcised may be obscured by all the mockery and amusement. In writing this “Last Mama” scene, for instance, was George C. Wolfe perhaps not merely parodying but paying disrespect? Not according to this museum-style placard posted on the set:

Lorraine Hansberry is a wonderful playwright and A Raisin in the Sun is a wonderful play, but every February all the regional theaters discover black people because it’s Black History Month and they pull out Raisin in the Sun. I want to remove these dead, stale, empty icons blocking me from my own truth.  — George C. Wolfe

The fabulousness and shallowness of high fashion get a ribbing in “The Photo Session” as two glammed-up Ebony mag models (Iris Beaumier and Matthew Elijah Webb) strike pose after pose and smile away their contradictions and pain. In a bit called “The Hairpiece,” two talking wig stands (Bakari and Beaumier) snipe about the woman (Blackwell) who’s doing her face before a date to break up with her fool boyfriend. It’s broad variety-show sketch comedy, the stuff of surefire TV ratings, except with a subversive race-specific subtext about not blocking one’s truth.

TOP LEFT: Iris Beaumier, Kelli Blackwell, and Ayanna Bria Bakari in the Hairpiece exhibit; TOP RIGHT: Iris Beaumier and Matthew Elijah Webb in the Photo Session exhibit; ABOVE: Ayanna Bria Bakari (top), Kelli Blackwell, William Oliver Watkins, and Iris Beaumier (bottom) in The Last-Mama-on-the-Couch Play, in ’The Colored Museum.’ Photos by Teresa Castracane.

By far the darkest scene is about a wounded soldier (Watkins) who sees only pain in his future, dies in combat, then returns to heal the hurt of other “colored boys” by mercy-killing them. The monodrama lands like a grenade.

By contrast is the resilience and defiance of Miss Rog (Webb), a self-ID’ed “alien.” In a neon-lit scene in a gay bar called The Bottomless Pit, wearing a see-through glitter shirt and striped “Annette Funicello” patio pants, Miss Rog throws back drinks and rebukes anyone who crosses her with a drop-dead finger snap. Nothing in this show can be said to be too over the top.

In yet another larger-than life performance, Beaumier plays LaLa Lamazing Grace, an extravagantly garbed chanteuse who futilely sought freedom from U.S. racism in France. “What’s left is the girl inside,” she says ruefully — cue the entrance (from a cage) of doll-like tween Ruth Benson.

The finale is a big blow-out dance party scene with each of the five cast members attired as one of their memorable roles. They sing and vow to “dance to the music of the madness in me.” It’s an exilharating finish to a wild ride of a show..

Studio Theatre’s The Colored Museum has been curated with top-tier talent, a timeless eye on the past, and a trust that outrageously entertaining theater can speak healing truth.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Colored Museum plays through August 11, 2024, in the Victor Shargai space at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($40–$95, with low-cost options and discounts available) online or by calling the box office at (202) 332-3300.

The program for The Colored Museum is online here.

Unicorn Theatre announces new artistic director Ernie Nolan

July 1, 2024 Kaylynn Mullins

Ernie Nolan

After an impressive 45-year run, Cynthia Levin is stepping down as Artistic Director at The Unicorn Theatre. The new director, Ernie Nolan, takes the reigns on July 1. Nolan possesses over 20 years of experience within the arts field and brings a passion for storytelling and inclusivity to this position.

Nolan will be coming to Kansas City after being the creative director at Nashville Children’s Theatre, where he brought forth an era of diversity that highlighted BIPOC artists more than ever during his leadership. “Like Unicorn, my career has been about developing new stories or remixing familiar stories for contemporary audiences. For me, it’s about creating mirrors and windows–opportunities where audiences either see themselves on stage or experience something they never knew existed. I can’t wait to continue that work at my new artistic home,” says Nolan.

Nolan has worked in theatre nationwide, and this won’t be his first time working with Unicorn Theatre. He choreographed one of his favorite projects, La Cage Aux Folles, there in 2007. Nolan says, “For decades, Kansas City artists have created magical, moving work on Unicorn stages. I am honored and excited to now contribute to that.”

Nolan’s impressive background includes winning New City’s Play of The Year Award for his work Love and Human Remains in Chicago and directing Tony-nominated artists. Known for his thought-provoking and bold plays, Nolan is excited to bring his expansive experience to Kansas City, “I can’t wait to join Kansas City’s vibrant and thriving artistic community,” Nolan says.

“Ernie’s artistic vision perfectly aligns with Unicorn Theatre’s, and his leadership style, coupled with his warm personality, will ensure the theatre remains a hub of artistic collaboration and growth in Kansas City,” says  President of the Board of Directors, Sally Everhart.

Joan Cushing, singing satirist of ‘Mrs. Foggybottom’ revue, dies at 77

She skewered Washington grandees in a long-running cabaret-style show before becoming a nationally known creator of musicals for children.

By Emily Langer June 25, 2024 for the Washington Post

Joan Cushing, as her alter ego Mrs. Foggybottom, ribbed Washington VIPs in a long-running political satire revue. (Courtesy of Joan Cushing)

Joan Cushing, a fixture of the Washington theatrical scene who entertained audiences of all ages, first as the plume-hatted Mrs. Foggybottom in a long-running political satire revue and later as a nationally known creator of plays for children, died May 21 at a care facility in Columbia, Md. She was 77.

Her family confirmed her death and said she had Parkinson’s disease.

Ms. Cushing, a onetime schoolteacher, began her performing career at Washington-area piano bars and burst to fame as Mrs. Foggybottom, a character she conjured up to amuse bar patrons in between show tunes and standards.

Named for the neighborhood of Washington that is home to the State Department, the Watergate complex and George Washington University, Mrs. Foggybottom was a martini-sipping dowager — one of “those ladies who lunch,” as Ms. Cushing described her.

In the persona of her alter ego, Ms. Cushing skewered the city’s grandees in a cabaret-style show, “Mrs. Foggybottom and Friends,” that opened in 1986 at the New Playwrights’ Theatre, played for nearly a decade at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, appeared at the Hexagon charity revue — where Ms. Cushing was a regular — and also went on the road.

“Political satire has an essential role in this town,” Ms. Cushing told the Washington Times in 1995. “People do take themselves too seriously.”

She joined several acts in Washington, among them the Capitol Steps and Gross National Product, that delivered sendups of politicos, wonks, VIPs and wannabe VIPs in a mixture of stand-up and song. Mark Russell, perhaps Washington’s best known musical parodist, once declared of Ms. Cushing that “she has more dignity than I do.”

Mrs. Foggybottom, the satirical creation of Joan Cushing, ran for president on the Cocktail Party ticket. (Courtesy of Joan Cushing)

Mrs. Foggybottom’s heyday coincided with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whom she lampooned as “Rip Van Reagan, the first president to complete his memoirs even before leaving office — both pages.”

She mocked Reagan’s executive order requiring drug testing of federal workers in the “Water Music Minuet,” in which she sang of urinalysis as “trickle-down theory working at last.”

Her number “The Deficit Shuffle” incongruously had U.S. Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.), authors of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget act of 1985, singing in rap.

During the George H.W. Bush administration, Ms. Cushing ribbed Vice President Dan Quayle, who was widely ridiculed for misspelling the word “potato.”

“Can you imagine if Dan Quayle were our commander in chief during the Panama invasion,” Mrs. Foggybottom quipped, “and our troops invaded Pomona, California?”

Mrs. Foggybottom mounted her own campaign for the presidency on the Cocktail Party ticket. She pledged, if elected, to ensure that every American could correctly spell “hors d’oeuvres.”

In addition to her stage performances, Ms. Cushing penned a satirical column that appeared in the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call and in the Georgetowner newspaper.

She had never written for children, however, when Imagination Stage, then located at the old White Flint Mall in suburban Montgomery County, Md., commissioned her in 2001 to write a musical based on the book “Miss Nelson Is Missing!” (1977) by Harry Allard with illustrations by James Marshall.

Kathryn Chase Bryer, the director of theater at Imagination Stage, said that she and her colleagues admired the cleverness of Ms. Cushing’s lyrics for Mrs. Foggybottom and did not see her lack of experience in theater for young people as a limitation.

Ms. Cushing was a gifted storyteller, Bryer said, and the principles of storytelling are the same, whether the audience is made up of grown-ups or children. “When you’re a child you care about things passionately,” Bryer said. “They just happen to be different things than what you care about when you’re an adult.”

“Miss Nelson Is Missing!” — about a schoolteacher, her class and the dreaded substitute Viola Swamp — became one of the most popular musicals for children. (It is currently playing again at Imagination Stage, now located in Bethesda, Md.)

A scene from Ms. Cushing’s play “Miss Nelson Is Missing!” at Imagination Stage in Maryland. (Margot Schulman)

From that point on, Ms. Cushing devoted her career in large part to young audiences. Her works became mainstays of Imagination Stage, the Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo in Washington and other children’s theaters around the country.

She followed “Miss Nelson Is Missing!” with “Miss Nelson Has a Field Day” and brought author Barbara Park’s popular character Junie B. Jones to stage in “Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business.”

Ms. Cushing’s play “Petite Rouge,” based on a book by Mike Artell with illustrations by Jim Harris, is a Cajun retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, and “Ella’s Big Chance,” adapted from a book by Shirley Hughes, sets Cinderella in the Jazz Age.

Ms. Cushing’s play “Grace for President,” based on a book by Kelly DiPucchio and LeUyen Pham, centers on an African American girl who runs for president in a mock election at her school. It remains one of Ms. Cushing’s most popular works, according to her agent, Susan Gurman.

Joan Marie Cushing was born in Evanston, Ill., on Aug. 18, 1946. Her father was a physicist, and her mother was a Montessori teacher who raised Ms. Cushing and her seven siblings.

Ms. Cushing grew up in Winnetka, Ill., outside Chicago, before moving at age 13 to Kensington, Md., a suburb of Washington. She had years of classical music training and graduated from the Academy of the Holy Cross, an all-girls Catholic school in Kensington, in 1964. She was a 1970 elementary education graduate of the University of Maryland.

Ms. Cushing taught elementary school while moonlighting as a piano player at Washington-area bars and restaurants, including Mr. Smith’s in Georgetown and the Fire Escape Lounge in Alexandria, Va., where Mrs. Foggybottom made her debut. “One day,” Ms. Cushing told The Washington Post, “I decided that playing piano was more fun” than teaching.

Her husband, Paul Buchbinder, died in 2010 after 25 years of marriage. Survivors include a son, Ben Buchbinder of New Orleans; a stepson, Chris Buchbinder of Mill Valley, Calif.; a son from a previous relationship, Patrick Lavelle of Lafitte, La.; a sister; six brothers; and four grandchildren.

Ms. Cushing was a longtime District resident and belonged to Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown.

She wrote several plays for adults, including “Flush!,” set in a restroom at a venue that is hosting both a wedding and a funeral; “Tussaud,” about the French wax sculptor Marie Tussaud; and “Breast in Show,” a musical about the experience of breast cancer.

But her works for young people were perhaps the most enduring, if only because the collective audience of children is continually renewed.

“When I write, I don’t write for kids,” Ms. Cushing told the Nashville Tennessean. “I just write. I know in my head that a kid audience will see it, but I try not to think about that. When I was growing up, we didn’t go to children’s musicals. We just went to Broadway. And no, we didn’t get everything, but we still had a great time. Sometimes, with children’s musicals, there can be a very simple story on the surface, but another level underneath.”

Ms. Cushing signs an autograph in 2009. (Matthew Cole for The Capital/Baltimore Sun)