This past Tuesday (April 22), I had the good fortune to receive “The Australia Tarver Award for Critical Essay on Race, Post-Colonialism, or Multi-Ethnic Studies” at the TCU English Department’s Creative Writing Awards. The following essay took me outside my comfort zone as a writer quite a bit — I rarely write about drama, and as the second section of the essay discusses, I’m leery of any project that purports to make sweeping statements about personal identity — but it also provided me an invaluable opportunity to explore Wolfe’s controversial play from a rhetorical perspective. Two years after I completed the first draft of this piece, I think it still holds up pretty well — and, luckily for me, the award’s judge(s) agreed.
“My Colored Contradictions”: George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum as Rhetorical Performance
THE NOTION of the contradiction has played a large role in defining playwright George C. Wolfe’s relationship with his audiences. In a 1998 interview with David Savran, Wolfe describes his use of contradiction in The Colored Museum as a process of “searching for [one’s] own complexity,” of “try[ing] as a human being not to choose this quality over that quality, but to try to embrace all of them” (Savran 347). The mélange of exhibits in Museum results in a varied tapestry of black experiences and stereotypes that suggests multiplicity is the only way to discover unity—or, as the character Topsy declares in the final scene of the play, “I’m not what I was ten years ago or ten minutes ago. I’m all of that and then some. . . . My power is in my [madness] and my colored contradictions” (Wolfe 52-53). Yet—and this strikes at the root of Wolfe’s contradictions—the same “tapestry of black experiences and stereotypes” that affords The Colored Museum its power as critical commentary also places it squarely in the crosshairs of those who would reject the play as inherently racist, misogynist, or insensitive to the history of blacks in America. As Wolfe declares to Savran, “And I got trashed for [The Colored Museum]! I got trashed by a lot of black people for it because they didn’t see the flip side, they only saw the side that nobody’s supposed to talk about” (Savran 348). In attempting to explore multiple, conflicting facets of African American culture in a single performance, Wolfe’s “colored contradictions” alienated many audience members and relegated his art to the periphery of the national conversation about race relations in the mid-1980s.
The purpose of this essay, then, is to begin the process of reclaiming The Colored Museum by exploring how and why this play has elicited such divided responses from audiences over the last thirty years. Critical analyses of the play are virtually nonexistent; with the exception of a few scattered reviews, little has been written about Wolfe’s first play, in part because so much attention has been paid his later (and more commercially successful) works like Spunk (1990), Jelly’s Last Jam (1992), and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1996). I want to propose, however, that box office receipts only tell part of the story. In order to understand how a play that accepts so many divergent perspectives can be rejected by individuals whose interests it seems to have in mind, I want to use rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke’s conception of identification as a heuristic for exploring the imbricated discursive formations represented by Wolfe’s satiric Museum. The choice of Burke may seem odd to those unfamiliar with his hybridized approach to the relationship between literature and rhetoric, but his career-spanning interest in theatrical metaphors and “dramatistic” approach to analyzing symbolic actions suggest a fecund theoretical fit with the world of drama, and his long correspondence with Ralph Ellison has already been the subject of multiple critical works on Burke’s implications for race studies. In aligning Burke with Wolfe, I want to demonstrate how the performative aspects of black identity that constitute so many of The Colored Museum’s infamous “contradictions” engage in a dialectical negotiation between alienation and identification which holds, as its ultimate goal, the transcendence of these two states in order to fully embrace the historical, cultural, and political complexity exhibited in Wolfe’s play. If The Colored Museum is meant to be viewed as an argument about the state of American black culture in the 1980s—and I believe that it is—then the pairing of Wolfe and Burke enables us to explore the play’s symbolic resources in such a way as to make this argument clear while, at the same time, exposing points of contention that have served to undermine Wolfe’s communication with audiences.