Coloured folk sure are strange

THEATRE: Bafana Khumalo

‘KING Kong would have made it to the top,” declares a young, upwardly mobile black man as he throws out his collection of Temptations, Jimmy Hendrix and Jackson Five records, “if only he had used the elevator. Instead, he drew attention to his struggle and ended up dead.” Another, dressed as a kid, Sixties- style, is aghast, particularly at the discarding of the Jackson Five record, and protests: “You can’t throw that away. It’s living proof that Michael had a black nose.”

This is The Colored Museum, at the Market Theatre, and this yuppie in race-bound turmoil is one of its exhibits.
His plight may be familiar to many a black who has decided to climb the ladder of advancement in what can be seen to be the white man’s world. He finds that he has to shed his past to fit in with the demands of the world he has chosen. Or does he?

This contradiction in the coloured state is presented with humour—- sometimes rip- roaringly funny, sometimes bitingly cruel—- in the various exhibits.

In the first exhibit, the audience is invited aboard a flight across the Atlantic on the Celebrity Slaveship, guided along quite ably by Nkhensani Manganyi as the air stewardess, Miss Pat. This, as you may have gathered, is the journey which in real life was in cruelly dehumanising slave galleys.

“Once we are airborne,” she says in that very professional, practised, empty manner so typical of air stewardesses, “I’ll be by with magazines, and earphones can be purchased for the price of your first-born male.” Ouch!

This is not another “whites are bad and they owe black folks reparation for 400 years of slavery” speech. On the contrary, much of the time the humour is quite self-deprecating, as in the exhibit straight out of the pages of Ebony magazine. Two black and beautiful models, Moshidi Motshengwa and Vusi Kunene, jump straight out of the pages of that American icon of black success and declare that they live in a world “... where everyone is beautiful ... no one says anything profound ... or meaningful…. or contradictory”. I must say, it was refreshing to see Kunene in an environment other than the overwhelming shower of tears which he had to deal with alongside James Earl Jones in Cry, the Beloved Country. He is good, our Vusi.

He switches from being black and beautiful to being downright bitchy as Miss Roj ... “That’s ROJ, thank you,” with relative ease.

Miss Roj is a member of another species in this exhibit that gets placed under a microscope: New York drag queens who, with a flick of the wrist , can snap you right out of existence.

While sitting in the theatre in downtown Johannesburg, I could not help wondering how this presentation was received when it was performed by the Crossroads Theatre Company at its 1986 premiere in the US. The audience probably immediately recognised the various types of coloured folks, and was able to catch on to the subtleties of humour better than I was able to.

I had to work really hard to find the drag- queen sequence funny, as I am not au fait with that aspect of American culture. Then again, I must confess that my overwhelming experience with African-Americans has been in the early 1970s blaxploitation movies, where black people walked as if they were wearing shoes with pogo sticks attached to their heels; The Cosby Show in the 1980s, when everyone was going to go to college and become a gynaecologist like good old Dr Huxtable; and lately in Boys N the (Gratuitously Violent) Hood movies, where everyone is, of course, armed with an Uzi and waging a vendetta against himself. This is a limited knowledge of a people and The Colored Museum cured a bit of that ignorance. It presented a different take altogether.

Which I don’t think the playwright intended. This is not an anthropological piece. This is coloured folks looking at themselves and saying: “This is us! We sure can be strange sometimes.”

The Colored Museum is at the Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 20

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