Emotional meeting closes curtains on “The Colored Museum” play

Ben Korn

After years of concerns that the Wilson theater department was not sufficiently representative of the student body, a bold step was taken. For the first time in school history, the Wilson Players would put on a play that was directed and acted by an all-Black cast. “The Colored Museum” premier was slated for May 10. But after a “very intense and very emotional meeting” with members of the cast and Wilson staff, the play was canceled.

The Players had many reasons for producing a play with an all-Black cast. They wanted to provide a platform for new voices, open up a historically white theater department, and tackle a pressing social issue at Wilson: race. However, their decision, which seemed to hold good intentions, was later questioned due to the satirical approach to sensitive racial issues.

Kadesha Bonds, Wilson’s Mass Media teacher, had seen the posters around the school and had some concerns. “There are still a lot of issues with race in America-that satire isn’t going to help educate anyone.” Bonds, who minored in theater in college, had also heard concerns from other students of color who felt like they did not have place in this production.

In each of their last three spring plays, the Players had attempted to address some form of social injustice. The Players confronted LGBTQ rights during the production of “The Laramie Project,” gun violence in their performance of “Columbinus,” and most recently, culture of sexual assault and harassment in “Slut.”

“We talk a lot about how art and the social message it relays can be very uncomfortable. That’s kind of what is beautiful about art,” said Addie Alexander, a junior and member of the Players.

The Players brainstormed a few plays that would help them confront race. After much discussion about which play would most effectively speak to race, the Players voted and selected “The Colored Museum,” a play based off a book that some Wilson seniors read in English IV.

The Players were under no false pretenses that their selected play would be easy. In fact, multiple Players involved in the process described the very reason they selected “The Colored Museum” was that it was “uncomfortable.”

“[‘The Colored Museum’] brings people to very uncomfortable positions. I think that discomfort from the play opens up discussions,” said Rylie Ward, a junior and would be director of the play.

The play went through the normal approval process and got a green light from Principal Kimberly Martin. Promotional flyers had been hung up around the school and auditions and callbacks had been held. The cast list had been announced and rehearsals had begun. A date had been set, and audio and visual work had begun. But three weeks out from the expected opening night, Martin asked that the Players attend the Diversity Task Force meeting to be part of a discussion on the collective concerns of the community regarding the play.

Nearly forty people attended the meeting, including teachers, administrators, parents, alumni, representatives from the Diversity Task Force, and members of the Players and cast. According to one student who was present, the meeting was tense from the start. Teachers and students stood apart, not talking or interacting despite many sharing classes.

Over pizza, salads, and drinks, students were told of the litany of concerns staff members had about the play. At the top of the list was that “The Colored Museum” was simply too challenging of a play for students to put on. Dealing with the history of race in America, “The Colored Museum” examines systemic race based oppression through a series of satirical skits. Topics include the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery.

The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was charged and tear-inducing. “Their points were very valid and very understandable, but it was really emotional especially because it was dealing with race,” Alexander said.

“I think that as we kept talking about it, we pulled back a lot of layers about the topic of race at Wilson so instead of just a meeting picking a play or deciding to do a play or not it became a meeting about diversifying the theater program, and how Players have slipped up, and how the theater program has slipped up, and what we can do better,” Alexander continued.

The Diversity Task Force had asked for Judith Williams to call in during the meeting.  Ms. Williams, who has a PHD in Theater and Performance studies at Stanford echoed the concerns of the administration. “I think the Colored Museum is a great play but I think a lot of the enjoyment of the play is predicated on having a really rich understanding of African-American theatre.”

“It’s hard to take criticism from adults you respect and admire in public about race when you had such good intentions,” said another student who was in attendance.

“It just seemed like they forgot they were talking to students. They were really grilling us. There were lots of valid of points, but they approved this play. We followed the process, so why  are we being berated?”

The next day, after emotions had settled and thoughts could be collected, the Players and the cast had reached a decision: “The Colored Museum” would be canceled. Another production with an all-black cast is in the works.