Black Arts Fest Celebrates 30th Anniversary With Interactive Play

Jul 7, 2016

The Colored Museum performed in 2015 at the Avenue of the Arts, Boston University Theatre
Credit T. Charles Erickson

Next week, Face Off Theatre Company will perform the play The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe as part of the week-long Black Arts Festival. In the satirical play, each monologue or vignette is an “exhibit” in the museum that portrays a different stereotype about African Americans. 

Director Marissa Harrington says Wolfe wrote the piece as a kind of wake up call.

“So that we could as a country take a look at ourselves and how we view other groups of people,” she says.

Harrington says for the Black Arts Fest, Face Off really wanted to run with the museum idea.

“We will have tour guides that will be taking you from one piece to another. So you will be seeing the traditional show, everything is intact but we are just doing it staged as an actual museum exhibit,” she explains.

In the exhibit, “The Last Mama on the Couch,” Wolfe shows black characters trying to make it in middle class America. Harrington explains:

“You have the mama that’s worked really hard to provide for her family. You have the young black man that’s like ok you taught my well, I’m going out here to work. But I feel like I’m being beaten down every day by racism. You have his girlfriend whose trying to raise his kids but also is frustrated with her own state in life as a black woman - feeling like she’s at the bottom of the totem pole. And then you have the sister who went away to college and then she comes back to where she came from and everything that she’s saying literally sounds like Greek - because she can’t now relate to her family. So George C. Wolfe took these storylines and these archetypes and he made a farce of it.”

If you think about it, The Colored Museum is the perfect play for Face Off - and not just because it deals with the black experience. You see, it premiered in 1986, the same year that the Black Arts Festival was started in Kalamazoo. And that festival, led to the creation of the Black Arts & Cultural Center - which later started Face Off Theatre Company just last year.

Director of the Cultural Center Yolonda Lavender says she’s excited to share the history of the BACC on at the Black Arts Festival’s 30th anniversary next week:

“So the Black Arts and Cultural Center actually started from the Black Arts Festival. So there’s a group of artists, poets, community activists who are really interested in Kalamazoo being able to experience black arts, black culture beyond this one week festival that they started in August of 1986. So they decided, hey after the festival let’s get together and really think about like making this a long-term thing.”

Those artists and activists were Gail Sydnor, James Palmore, Bertha McNeal, and Lois Jackson. Lavender says, with the exception of Gail Sydnor - who passed away in 2007 - all of the founders are still heavily involved in the BACC today.

Lavender says this year’s festival will have a parade and events will be held all over the city - not just in one location like previous years.

“Which I think is really important because there are tons of different people from different background that attend the festival and so it provides like a smorgasbord of opportunities for whatever fits your appetite, we have something for you,” says Lavender.

Face Off will perform The Colored Museum next Friday. Director Marissa Harrington says the play - like the festival’s anniversary - forces us to look back at the last 30 years.

“It’s a reflection. Have we come very far? If not, what adjustments can we make?” she says.

The Black Arts Festival takes place in Kalamazoo next week.