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In Concord, ‘The Colored Museum’ puts racial stereotypes on exhibit

BW Gonzalez (left) and Kai Clifton in a scene from "The Colored Museum" at Umbrella Stage Company in Concord.Gillian Mariner Gordon

The satire in George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” alternates playful moments with squirm-inducing ones, a dichotomy director Pascale Florestal says is central to the Black experience in America.

“The stereotypes the play pokes fun at don’t define the Black experience, but they do explore the madness of being a Black person,” says Florestal, who directs the Umbrella Stage Company production now onstage in Concord through June 5.

“There have been some modest script updates, but even though the play is nearly 40 years old, what has changed? What have we learned?” Florestal says. “Why has it taken this long to see the first Black [White House] press secretary and the first female Black Supreme Court justice?”

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The cast of “The Colored Museum” ranges from performers just getting started in their careers to those with extensive stage experience.

“Everyone is familiar with the tropes,” she says, “but it’s been wonderful to have a cast member who was in a production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ commiserating with actors just getting started on the familiarity of the moments in the play.”

Wolfe’s play is a collection of scenes, or “exhibits,” that reflect some of the stereotypes of the Black American cultural experience. The show includes “Hairpiece,” a sketch about a Black woman’s decision whether to wear an Afro-styled wig or one that looks more like “a Barbie dipped in chocolate.” In another scene, audience members are passengers on a “celebrity slave ship” in which a helpful flight attendant describes the correct way to “fasten your shackles.” A third satirizes Black characters in theater with the domestic melodrama “The Last-Mama-on-the-Couch Play.”

At the Umbrella Arts Center, the stage production is accompanied by an art exhibit in the theater lobby called “The Colored Museum: Past/Present/Future,” featuring works by 10 Black New England artists, curated by Cedric Vise1 Douglas.

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“You walk into a ‘Colored Museum,’” says Florestal. “You can’t avoid it.”

All of the works reflect the themes of the play, and many include an activist component that asks viewers to not simply observe the artwork but engage in efforts to dismantle racism in their own community. Florestal says she and Douglas talked about the ways in which the gallery exhibit uplifts Black visual artists by reminding audiences of their talent, as well as how rare it is to see an art gallery or museum devoted to the work of contemporary Black artists.

Cedric Vise1 Douglas's "Tug of War" is among the works on display in “The Colored Museum: Past/Present/Future” exhibit at the Umbrella Arts Center.Courtesy of Umbrella Stage Company

“Cedric and I talked about interactive exhibits as a way to deconstruct what a museum is and does,” she says. “How do white consumers use these spaces, and how can the spaces be more inclusive? We created a confessional booth in which people can go in and talk about the microaggressions or racist acts they have committed.”

Most of all, she says, “The Colored Museum” is an opportunity for Black and white audiences to share their reactions. At the end of a recent performance, once the ensemble took their final bows, a cast member stepped forward to ask for a moment of silence and then read the names and ages of each of the 10 people murdered in a racist mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket on May 14.

“It’s easy to be complicit,” Florestal says. “We need to remind people of what has changed, and what has not.”

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A Revels name change

In advance of its 52nd season of holiday performances, “The Christmas Revels” is officially changing its name to “The Midwinter Revels: A Celebration of the Solstice.”

Director Paddy Swanson says the name change more accurately describes the seasonal celebration which, this year, will feature Irish, Mexican, and Jewish cultures. “Although in the past we have invited and included Arabic, Muslim, and Jewish performers and material under the banner of ‘The Christmas Revels,’ we are taking the opportunity this year to be more inclusive in emphasizing the secular aspects of our popular seasonal event,” he said in a statement.

The performances will run at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre Dec. 16-29.

The announcement comes as Revels is scheduling its volunteer chorus auditions for the holiday performances. The chorus of adults and children serve as the core of the production, while a handful of professional performers play the leading roles. The annual auditions are open to all, and Revels is eager to cast a diverse group of adults and children for its 15 performances. Auditions take place June 13-14 at the Revels offices, Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church, 80 Mount Auburn St., Watertown (children ages 7-12, 4-6 p.m.; adults, 7-10 p.m.); June 18 at Tony Williams Dance Center, 284 Amory St. #5, Jamaica Plain (children ages 7-12, 4-6 p.m.; adults, 7-10 p.m.). For more information or to schedule an audition, go to www.revels.org/auditions.

THE COLORED MUSEUM

Presented by Umbrella Stage Company. Through June 5. At the Umbrella Arts Center, 40 Stow St., Concord. $15-$44. “The Colored Museum: Past/Present/Future” visual art exhibit. Through June 30. Free. www.theumbrellaarts.org

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