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Billy Porter, Capathia Jenkins discuss The Colored Museum

Stage comedy opens Friday at the Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Billy Porter, Capathia Jenkins discuss The Colored Museum
(L-R): Actors Nathan Lee Graham and Rema Webb; Diretctor Billy Porter (Center); Actors Shayna Small, Ken Robinson and Capathia Jenkins in the scathing comedy by George C. Wolfe that redefined what it meant to be black in contemporary America, The Colored Museum plays March 6 — April 5, 2015 at the Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre. (Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

Having worked with and known George now for this many years, he really is one of those people who has his finger on the pulse of what’s happening. And, not only his finger on the pulse of current events and things like that, but just his finger on the pulse of people. What makes people tick; behavioral things, emotional things,” says actress Capathia Jenkins of what makes the groundbreaking comedy The Colored Museum still relevant almost 30 years later.

Written by playwright and two-time Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe in 1986 (Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk and Angels in America: Millennium Approaches), The Colored Museum redefines what it means to be black in contemporary America through 11 humorous and often times biting satirical “exhibits.” The comedy skewers long-held stereotypes and beliefs from the fictional “celebrity slave ship” in which the Middle Passage takes place on a jet instead of a ship (in Git on Board) to the issue of hair and identity when an afro and a long-flowing wig come to life (in The Hairpiece).

The comedy, which is directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Billy Porter, opens at The Huntington Theatre on March 6. The Pittsburgh native, who won the Tony for his role as Lola in the musical Kinky Boots, is also a Grammy award-winning singer and composer.

Porter spoke to the Banner by phone recently. He says the play still resonates today “because it shines a light and turns a mirror on what is still actually happening.”

“I just think it’s the nature of any sort of civil rights/racial narratives,” he said. “There is always growth and there’s always a sort of stagnation. The more things change, the more they stay the same. So while there have been great strides we still have lots of racism in this country, in the fabric of the culture, that takes much longer to excavate.”

Jenkins, who most recently starred as Medda in the Disney production of Newsies on Broadway, thinks the comedy is still so timely partly because society still has a long way to go “in examining our human nature, or our history, or whatever it may be and really looking at it and owning it.”

The Brooklyn-born and raised actress, who is also an active concert artist who has performed with orchestras from around the world, didn’t hesitate when she was asked to star in The Colored Museum. She received a call one day from Porter.

“He said, ‘You know, I just met with the Artistic Director [Peter DuBois] for the Huntington Theatre Company. I’m going to direct The Colored Museum, and I want you to do it.’”

Even though she had never seen the comedy, Jenkins knew she couldn’t pass up this opportunity. She had heard about it forever and had previously worked with George C. Wolfe in 2004 when he directed her on Broadway in Caroline, or Change.

“I was just really excited,” she said. “I think I said yes, before I read it or YouTubed it. I was just excited about the possibilities.”

One of those possibilities includes playing the character Topsy Washington, whom Jenkins thinks is most like her.

“Topsy Washington does this piece called The Party at the very end of the piece. She’s a party girl but she’s self-assured. She’s smart, she’s funny. She likes to have a good time. And her celebration is all about those who have come before her and paved the way for her. I’m probably having the most fun with her and it’s appropriate the piece is called The Party.”

The character resonates with Jenkins the most, partly because “she was really easy to get inside of, and I’ll say that I think as recently as five years ago I probably would not have been able to say that,” says the veteran actress.

“I’ve been kind of working on myself, this journey to the center of myself, as I say. She has this confidence that’s just out there. She’s unapologetic. She’s just having a good time and when she starts to tell you about the party that she went to and the good time she was having you realize that she’s talking about all these great people who were at the party, like Ella Fitzgerald, and Aunt Jemima was there. It’s just these beautiful words that George wrote, and I think that she’s like me. At least I like to think so.”

Porter, who in addition to starring in Kinky Boots on Broadway, recently appeared opposite Al Pacino in the Barry Levinson-directed film The Humbling. He felt humbled and inspired by working with Pacino and Levinson .

“They don’t have to do anything they don’t want to be doing; to show up and watch them make this movie because they believed in it … There were no trailers. There was no pomp and circumstance.”

He continues, “It’s about doing things you believe and putting the right energy out into the world. It was astonishing to be in the presence of [Pacino].”

Getting back to The Colored Museum, Porter says, “George Wolfe describes the piece as ‘a celebration and an exorcism.’ I think for me, that’s what I hope audiences will leave with, that inside the darkest depths of pain, glorious and amazing things live.”

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