In a second-floor rehearsal room next door to the BU Theatre on Huntington Avenue, a group of African-American actors is satirizing an icon of African-American literature. And it’s hilarious.
The butt of the joke, as it were, is “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play about a black family — a play that is about as revered as sacred cows get. In the revisionist riff offered in George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” the original piece is re-imagined as “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.”
Actress Capathia Jenkins plays the matriarch’s wise and wizened affect with deliberate hamminess, drawing all eyes to her. Ken Robinson, playing her son, stalks around the playing space, angrily demanding that the focus of the scene remain on his own experience and pain. When a narrator — who speaks in an impossibly pinched British accent salted with bits of black dialect — intrudes to bestow a trophy on Mama for her performance, the rehearsal room erupts in laughter.
Director Billy Porter, 45, who’s running the cheerful rehearsal, leads the laughs.
“The Colored Museum” was written by an African-American and features an all-black cast. Porter, who won an acting Tony for “Kinky Boots,” is black too. The self-critique embedded in Wolfe’s deeply satirical play is well intentioned, but is there something problematic about white audiences sitting in a theater and more or less laughing at “A Raisin in the Sun”?
“No,” Porter says quickly, munching on a salad earlier in a small office down the hall from the rehearsal room, “it’s not just the presentation of a black stereotype. It’s about where it came from. And this is how we receive it now, so where do you fit in? We’re skewering the stereotypes. But there’s always truth in stereotypes, and sometimes we backpedal from them because it makes us uncomfortable.”
The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “The Colored Museum” begins preview performances Friday and runs through April 5.
Wolfe’s play is a series of 11 vignettes delivered in one act. They are presented as if they were exhibits in a museum of African-American history, in which old stereotypes and hoary tropes are pushed to extremes. One lampoons the supposedly perfect lives depicted in Ebony magazine. Elsewhere, it’s implied that all-black musicals are a modern incarnation of, as Wolfe has it, “coon shows.” The satire bites with fangs in the opening scene, which recapitulates black history, from the slavery era onward, in the form of a welcome message delivered by an airline stewardess.
In that scene, the “stewardess” cheerfully goads the audience to say things like: “I will not rebel.” Porter says the play indeed calls for a certain amount of audience discomfort.
“I don’t want to make the audience feel like they have to participate, but I do not want to let them off the hook. Letting them off the hook means you get to sit in the dark all night. Sometimes the lights will be on,” he says. “You need to look at the person next to you and experience the uncomfortable-ness of the moment.”
Porter looks every inch the thoughtful director on this day, sporting a hat at a rakish angle, a turtleneck under a zippered sweater, and stylish glasses. One might say he’s been preparing for this particular gig for 28 years. He was given a copy of “The Colored Museum” as a high school junior not long after the play’s 1986 premiere. One scene, a monologue by a drag queen named Miss Roj, was a revelation. Here was a character who, like Porter, was both black and gay, and not depicted as a clown or a villain. Sympathetic representations like this were hard to come by in theater or any other medium, Porter recalls. He used the speech as his audition to get into the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University. Wolfe would become a mentor.
As a young actor, Porter had some early success in New York as a replacement actor on the original production of “Miss Saigon,” and then in a 1994 revival of “Grease.” But he spent about 15 years grinding it out in low-profile acting jobs, eventually sharpening his chops as a playwright and director — not only to explore his creativity, but also to find more work. There were breakthrough moments, but, as he told The New York Times, he still ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2007.
Then came “Kinky Boots.” His starring role as Lola nabbed him the Tony Award for best actor in a musical in 2013; the cast soundtrack album won a Grammy. He’s been quite busy since, even while remaining in the Broadway cast. He had an original play, “While I Yet Live,” produced off-Broadway this season, and he’s due to be featured in an episode of “Live From Lincoln Center” on PBS in April. (He had previously written an autobiographical musical, “Ghetto Superstar,” that played at New York’s Public Theatre.) Now he’s directing “The Colored Museum” at the Huntington in the midst of a three-month break before returning to “Kinky Boots.”
“I just say thank God I’m relevant again and people want to hear what I have to say,” he says, “because there was a long time when I was not.”
Peter DuBois, the Huntington’s artistic director, met Porter when they were both in residence at the Public Theatre, where Wolfe had been the longtime boss. Wolfe directed a one-night reading of “The Colored Museum” and made an offhand remark to DuBois that someone should revive the play. Years later, Porter seemed the perfect person to lead the project.
“Billy has such an intimate knowledge of George’s writing, his politics, his sense of humor,” DuBois says. “Also, it’s a real feast for actors who have a heightened sense of theatricality, and Billy is that kind of actor. So he’s got an automatic language that he can share.”
Like her director, Rema Webb, who is part of the five-member ensemble, has a deep connection to the play. She recalls her mother taking her to see a production in Pittsburgh. “That started my obsession with the play,” she says. “Now we have ‘Book of Mormon’ and ‘South Park’ and a lot of different avenues to use heightened parody to make a social statement. Back then, it wasn’t really happening. I had never been exposed to anything like that.”
For all its socio-political import and confrontational moments, Porter stresses that this production will have worked, in the end, only if it makes people laugh.
“You should feel like you want to dance down the street and exorcise your demons,” he says. “Get ’em all out! So you can live life freely and to the fullest. It really is a positive message. No matter what we as a culture have been through, we continue to do this. That’s what this piece is about.”
Watch a behind-the-scenes look from the Huntington Theatre Company: