The Colored Museum is a daunting choice for a young actor. From singing and dancing to comedy to its undercurrent of caustic satirical wit, the play demands a lot both physically and emotionally from its lead actress, recent Juilliard grad Shayna Small. For Small, the challenge is worth it: Working at the Huntington is a dream come true, a huge honor, and sadly well-timed.
“I came to Boston primarily for Billy [Porter] and this play,” she says. “I found out that they were doing this play right around the time that all these protests and marches were happening in New York and it just felt like, wow. It’s an older play, but it’s still really relevant, which is kind of sad, that we’re still having that conversation.”
That conversation is the continuing larger one about black culture that is more often than not engaged in by people who have no business stating their misguided opinions on race and class to begin with. But The Colored Museum turns stereotypes and prejudices on their heads with 11 “exhibits” of African-American culture, searching for what it really means to be black in contemporary America. While it was originally penned in 1986 by Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe, the play remains just as topical today.
Small, the youngest in a talented cast of Broadway veterans (Nathan Lee Graham, Capathia Jenkins, Ken Robinson, and Rema Webb), plays four different characters, from a flight attendant on a slave ship to a country girl named Normal Jean. And considering the intimidating role, as well as the company she’s in, Small is embracing the opportunity.
“It was so interesting to be in rehearsal and performances and to notice the differences in conversation and perspectives on the things that’d come up, and how we reacted differently to it,” Small says. “Like, what’s more upsetting to them might not upset me as much. But there are still some things that are just very universally felt, and that’s across racial boundaries or across age; it’s still very prevalent.”
Despite its comedic nature, The Colored Museum takes no prisoners, spearing the systems of oppression and racism that incur problematic modes of thinking and cause consequences on a wide scale—from the microaggressions suffered daily by people of color to the egregious acts of violence nationwide that gave life and a voice to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s not easy material to do in that it makes people uncomfortable. A lot of the subjects that it touches on, people would rather sweep under the rug,” Small says. “It’s been a challenge to play to the lightness, so that it’s more easily digestible, but not shying away from discomfort. It’s great if someone leaves a little bit uncomfortable. I’m hoping that it sparks a conversation so that they can talk about it.”
And Small explains that George C. Wolfe always described the play as an “exorcism”—of both emotion and of truth.
“By the time I’m done with the play, I’m out of breath and sweating, and it really does feel like I’ve been through an exorcism of sorts,” she says. “How do we move forward now that we’ve acknowledged our past? That’s what it’s about. Embracing your past in all of its storied history, the good and the bad, and then moving forward and outward and upward.”
Above all, Small hopes that people who come to see The Colored Museum will do more than laugh (although there will be plenty of that, according to her). She hopes that it will spark conversations and give people pause so they can stop and examine the root causes behind what they say and do, and their preconceived notions on matters of race.
“Even if it’s, you know, ‘I hate the play,’ I’d rather someone have a strong emotion about it than just not talk about it at all,” she says. “And really ask themselves why they hated it. What did it bring up for you? Because otherwise, why even do this?”