essay: george c. wolfe and kenneth burke

On 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 Colored Museum

The cover to the 1988 Grove Press edition of THE COLORED MUSEUM (Image via

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).[1] 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.[2] 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.

Clarifyin(g) and Signifyin(g), Part I: Articulations of Identity and Alienation

But first, a clarification: I realize that my own “whiteness” introduces a level of personal and political estrangement from the complex issues associated with racially inscribed rhetorics, and I hope that by acknowledging at the outset the limitations of my own position I can begin shifting attention away from the categorical boundaries that my writing about “blackness” or “the black experience” would be forced to confront. The clarifying of my own racial identity may not seem necessary in a discussion of Wolfe’s Museum, but, as E. Patrick Johnson makes clear in Appropriating Blackness, the construction of blackness by white Americans often results in overly reductive images that “maintain ‘whiteness’ as the master trope of purity, supremacy, and entitlement, as a ubiquitous, fixed, unifying signifier that seems invisible” (4). In order to mitigate this concern as much as possible, I want to complicate my analysis of The Colored Museum by focusing more on Wolfe’s text than on the visual elements his play contains. The shift from bodies to texts is admittedly troublesome: the theater is a physical space in which an audience’s interactions with characters like Miss Pat, Aunt Ethel, or Miss Roj are at least as determined by the way these characters look and act as they are by the words these characters speak. But this shift also results in the concomitant benefit of allowing one to analyze talk about “blackness” or “the black experience” rather than restricting discussion to those essentializing notions of “black culture” or “the black body” against which Johnson warns us. And since, as Burke argued throughout his career, the rhetorical analysis of discourse about the world provides invaluable information about how we understand our position within it, the shift from bodies to texts in no way undermines a critical reading of Wolfe’s play.

And what might this discourse about identity signify for Burke? At the most basic level, talk about identities reveals that what we tend to think of as the autonomous, individual “self” is actually a complex construct formed of the various “interests” that a person possesses at a given moment in time. “The so-called ‘I’ is merely a unique combination of partially conflicting ‘corporate we’s,’” Burke writes in Attitudes Toward History (264), and each of these “corporate we’s” entails various attachments to attitudes, interests, and beliefs associated with the “corporation.” So when Wolfe’s character Miss Roj identifies herself as one of “The Snap Queens” (14),[3] she aligns her interests with those of other Amazonian drag queens who possess the same fantastical ability to “snap your ass into oblivion” (16).

[“The Gospel According to Miss Roj” from PBS’s 1991 version of The Colored Museum. Dir. George C. Wolfe]

But, as Miss Roj’s monologue and Burke’s theorizing suggest, the interplay of multiple corporations within one body all too often results in painful conflict about how to decide between competing interests. Miss Roj’s “demon”-fueled breakdown in the second half of her scene demonstrates an inability to juggle the competing interests that constitute her identity: even as she works to project the façade of a tough “Snap Queen” for the audience, her rambling tirade about everything from racism and homophobia to poverty and violence belies a fractured, conflicted, and vulnerable network of corporate interests. Miss Roj must fight to keep her identity stable as she marches offstage, holding out just long enough to hear the beginning of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” playing in the background (18).

According to Timothy Crusius, this level of “identity performance” is precisely what Burke has in mind for the process of deciding between competing corporate interests:

[T]o cope with our many, sometimes conflicting subpersonalities . . . the self must be fabricated, fictionalized. . . . [T]o whatever degree we can claim coherence and integrity, they are achievements, not givens; it requires effort, partly conscious and critical effort, analogous to the making of a work of art. Burke’s “I” is active, not only constructed but also constructing. (39)

Miss Roj may be an extreme example from The Colored Museum, but even in other, tamer characters, the fabrication of one’s identity as “black” (the Man from “Symbiosis”), as “fabulous” (the couple from “The Photo Session”), as a “star” (Lala from “Lala’s Opening”), or as a “family” (the four characters from “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play”) forms a central part of the audience’s experience. Each of these scenes illustrates a specific public or private sacrifice that many black men and women have felt compelled to make in order to create—or, more accurately, to perform—coherent identities that conform to the expectations society has for them. As the Man in “Symbiosis” says to his alter ego while disposing of all the markers of his younger, more radical self, “The climate is changing, Kid, and you either adjust or you end up extinct” (34). Avoiding “extinction” is a recurring theme throughout The Colored Museum, and Wolfe’s characters are highly Burkean in their willingness to re-constitute their identities as the social situation demands.

When the play is considered as a whole, however, the contradictions inherent in choosing between so many different “corporate we’s” in order to create an “authentic black experience” immediately become apparent. Miss Pat cannot remain a perky, upbeat flight attendant for Celebrity Slaveship without ignoring the lure of the tribal music that she and other characters feel throughout the play. The Woman in “The Hairpiece” cannot choose either of the two wigs available to her without also refusing the other one—which echoes the dilemma faced by the Man in “Symbiosis.” As the various choices and decisions facing these characters begin to infringe upon one another, it becomes impossible to draw up any feasible solution to all the contradictions Wolfe has embedded in the museum’s eleven exhibits. The action in “Lala’s Opening” synecdochically represents the action of the play as a whole: Despite Lala’s best attempts to maintain a coherent performance as “Lala Lamazing Grace,” doors onstage keep opening and introducing new characters and conflicts which threaten the unity and believability of her adopted persona. At one point she acknowledges the fabricated nature of her identity and the intrusive nature of her competing “corporate we’s” by saying to her maid, Admonia, “Darling, have you lost your mind coming onstage while I’m performing” (41). In much the same way, the revolving exhibits of The Colored Museum ensure that Wolfe’s characters keep coming onstage while others are performing, and the total effect of this constant string of incongruous performances is the disruption of identification with any one character and, by proxy, the rejection of any one “pure” conception of black identity.

Though never fully Brechtian in his disdain for the audience, Wolfe so thoroughly complicates the typical process of identification between viewer and performer that the two appear to inhabit different worlds, divorced from one another so completely that the logic of the dramatic realm remains unavailable to members of the audience. For Burke, this constitutes the realm of alienation, which he defines as “the state of affairs wherein a man no longer ‘owns’ his world because, for one reason or another, it seems basically unreasonable” (ATH 216, emphasis in the original). If one’s identity is a social construct which consists of highly-interested attachments to “corporations” existing outside the self,[4] then the basic unreasonableness of the outside world would make it nearly impossible to expand or even simply maintain these attachments. Protracted alienation can lead to frustration, distrust, and even death; the loss of one’s corporate attachments often results in the loss of one’s attachment to the world.

If Wolfe’s intent in writing The Colored Museum was, as he remarks in his interview with David Savran, to create “a form of liberation” (348), then why approach his characters and his audience in such an antagonistic manner? Why create a museum of contradictory black stereotypes that conceals its own internal coherence and denies even the most basic form of identification between those in the seats and those on the stage? In short, why provoke alienation in a play that asks its audience members to reevaluate their own positions in the world? Wolfe takes a calculated risk in Museum by pushing his audience to the brink of rejection, and in the following section I want to add one more voice to this discussion—that of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—to explore the payoff such a risk might have for Wolfe and his audience.

Clarifyin(g) and Signifyin(g), Part II: Gates and Burke on Rejection

Though Gates’s formulation of “the Signifying Monkey” is now widely familiar, I think it can be helpful for the present analysis of The Colored Museum to return briefly to his original 1983 essay in Critical Inquiry for a succinct statement of what it means to “signify” in this manner. According to Gates:

The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey—he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language—is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed, is our trope of chiasmus itself, repeating and simultaneously reversing in one deft, discursive act. (686)

In the discussions of Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed that follow, Gates works through the ramifications of the “Signifying Monkey” trope and what it means for the continued evolution of the relationship between black literary history, critical memory, and black cultural identity. His primary argument—that the Signifying Monkey is ultimately a parodic figure who returns to, revises, and retells traditional stories in ways that dislocate the assumed meaning(s) of these stories—thus makes it possible for writers and readers to reevaluate their cultural heritage through the language they use to communicate about it. By playing with the language of tradition, Gates argues, writers can engage in the “Afro-American rhetorical strategy of signifying” in order to avoid the specter of “some supposedly transcendent signified” (688).

Much like the texts Gates discusses, Wolfe’s The Colored Museum parodies black literary tradition in order to move into a more satirical exploration of black culture in general. Harry Elam notes how the “signifyin(g) of The Colored Museum is not limited to the dramatic text” because Wolfe’s use of the actors’ appearance and gestures “convey[s] through the theatrical performance of the play [his] signifyin(g) on African-American cultural practices” (292). When Wolfe’s stage directions describe Aunt Ethel as “a down-home black woman with a bandana on her head” who “belts out a hard-drivin’ blues and throws invisible ingredients into the big, black pot” (7), the actor’s mannerisms and actions are very much intended to signify on the cultural trope of the large, mysterious, Caribbean/Creole voodoo-woman who cooks up strange brews in a witch-like cauldron.[5] And though Wolfe’s treatment of the voodoo-woman trope is certainly more positive than his critique of other figures in the play, her song about baking “A BATCH OF NEGROES” (8) raises serious questions about the historical and cultural stagnation that continued adherence to the stereotypical “Aunt Ethel” trope works to ensure among the larger black community.

[“Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel” from PBS’s 1991 version of The Colored Museum. Dir. George C. Wolfe]

By featuring powerful black stereotypes in his exhibits, then, Wolfe signifies on these traditions with the hope of “repeating and simultaneously reversing” (Gates 686) their hold on members of his audience. As Kim Euell notes, because cultural stereotypes operate as “crippling inhibitors which undermine self-esteem, ambition, and progress,” The Colored Museum can be seen as “an attempt to exorcise the limitations that stereotypes place on people in general, and artists in particular” (667). From this perspective, Wolfe seeks to explode stereotypes in order to create the space necessary for locating new ways of performing black identity in the late twentieth century. Returning to Burke’s notion of the “I” as a “corporate we,” The Colored Museum signifies on popular black stereotypes so that individuals can explore/express multiple “we’s” rather than the one culturally-sanctioned “I” that a given stereotype about motherhood, or about masculinity, or about social mobility seems to demand.

There is, however, significant risk involved in attacking a culture’s perduring image(s) of itself. In Permanence and Change, Burke analyzes the way an individual’s worldview both conditions and is conditioned by the way she interprets the world in which she lives. Burke defines this worldview as an “orientation,” as “a bundle of judgments as to how things were, how they are, and how they may be” (14). As new experiences occur, they must be fitted into one’s orientation according to how well they correspond to the judgments one makes about the world. Borrowing from theological discourse, Burke labels pious those actions or attitudes which correspond with one’s orientation, and impious those which do not (74-75). As we build and modify our orientations over time, then, we tend to accept the things we consider pious and reject whatever we find impious—and this is why, as the title Permanence and Change suggests, enacting radical conversions of individual orientation remains such a challenging task. Our pieties tend toward permanence and away from change, and Burke warns against “an abrupt shift from one set of pieties to a completely different set” (Eddy 55) because any perceived benefits from such a radical break are likely to be lost once the discarded orientation attempts to enter the frame and reassert old pieties once again.

By directly challenging his audience’s orientation regarding the historical development of black identity in America, Wolfe forces viewers to decide whether his parodic images of the voodoo-woman, the desperate starlet, or the aspiring businessman can be “fitted into” historical and contemporary orientations toward black subjectivity. Even the most seemingly innocuous exhibits in the museum—the whispering solider in “A Soldier with a Secret” and the bald woman in “Hairpiece”—run directly counter to popular understandings of military heroism and personal style, and Wolfe makes certain that no cultural touchstones remain unturned. In everything from their dialogue to their dress, their make-up to their mannerisms, Wolfe’s characters have been strategically designed to confront the audience’s pieties about the “essential” qualities of blackness, and the playwright’s direct assault on his audience further complicates the process of identification discussed in the previous section.[6] If audience members can neither identify with the play as a whole or with individual characters or scenes within the play, then rejection remains the only possible outcome in the collision of competing orientations.

For Burke, this rejection can take one of two forms: the minor form of rejecting impious actions or attitudes which do not fit with one’s orientation, or the major form of rejecting an entire orientation because it no longer allows one to adequately function in the world at large. There can be little doubt that Burke’s minor form of rejection has haunted The Colored Museum since it first opened in 1986. In fact, Elam’s largely positive review of the play still manages to criticize “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” in precisely this manner, arguing that Wolfe’s parody of famous domestic dramas (such as Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun) constitutes an “inherently sexist” attack on black female writers (301). Wolfe’s biggest obstacle, then, lies in converting his audience’s orientation toward the tropes of black history and culture—i.e., the source of minor rejection—into a reason to engage the larger issue of stereotypes qua stereotypes in an attempt to move past them. If “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” for instance, successfully repeats and revises the Hansberrian stereotype of the black domestic sphere, then Wolfe can enact his “form of liberation” (Savran 348) and transcend the limitations of this piety to discover new ways of performing as a “family” in the future.

For most people, however, talk about identity or tradition helps ground them in the world. Despite its limitations, the Hansberry stereotype possesses a cultural cachet that resonates across a wide spectrum of races, genders, ages, and political affiliations. Its familiarity is its greatest source of comfort for viewers and readers: because so many people know it, there seems no reason to question it. So when Wolfe aggressively questions the viability of a safe, comforting stereotype like that of the “Mama” in this exhibit, he questions more than just the stereotype itself, but also the entire cultural orientation which considers this stereotype fundamental to its understanding of what constitutes “piety” at the individual, local, and global levels. The scope of Wolfe’s skepticism should not be underestimated. It strikes at core principles of personal and cultural identity in an openly antagonistic manner, and it invites more careful, considered reflection than would be possible during a ninety-minute stage production of The Colored Museum. Wolfe asks his audience to take everything in, to leave the theater thinking about the play, and then to continue that thinking until a decision can be reached about whether Burke’s minor or major form of rejection will win out in the end. Something must be rejected—the question is what. In the final section of this essay, I want to discuss the decision Wolfe hopes his audience will make before examining the potential this choice has for real, lasting change within the black literary and cultural traditions.

“I Know the Secret”: Wolfe, Burke, and the Rhetoric of Identification

Though “A Soldier with a Secret” lacks the same satiric signifying that many of Wolfe’s other exhibits possess, the trope of secret knowledge—of being able to see “a piece of the future on their faces” (12)—plays a vital role in the rhetorical relationship between The Colored Museum and its audience. In order to save other black soldiers from “[a]ll the hurt that was gonna get done to them and they was gonna do to folks” when they returned home from the war, Junie sneaks around in the middle of the night and kills each of the men by injecting air into their veins. Because he is able to recognize the men they will become if they remain on their current paths, Junie can use his knowledge of the “secret to their pain” to change the future by dramatically altering the present. And, in his final lines of the scene, Junie announces that he’s going to start “healin’” members of the audience next: “Pst, pst. I know the secret. The secret to your pain. The secret to yours, and yours. Pst. Pst. Pst. Pst” (13).

[“Soldier with a Secret” from PBS’s 1991 version of The Colored Museum. Dir. George C. Wolfe]

Whether Junie is actually alive or dead at this point, or whether he is actually able to sneak around killing other soldiers in the middle of the night, is less important here than the rhetorical relationship this scene establishes with Wolfe’s audience. When Junie states that he can see the secret to the viewer’s pain, he insinuates that he will continue his crusade to prevent future trauma by radically altering the present—in this case, by killing viewers in the same way he has been killing his fellow soldiers. This course of action implies a three-part rhetorical identification between the character onstage and the person in the audience. On one level, Junie’s direct address of the audience breaks the “fourth wall” of the stage and enters into a more intimate rhetor-auditor relationship that establishes a set of interests—the audience member’s life or death—both parties share in common. On another level, this address returns to the question of identity’s constructed or performed nature by highlighting the ability the soldier has to alter his identity (and perhaps the audience member’s as well) through rhetorical negotiations with those outside the self. And this leads directly to a third level of rhetorical identification, whereby the soldier is able to create a new identity for himself by rejecting the orientation of soldier-as-military-hero because it no longer adequately corresponds to the world in which he lives. The “Soldier with a Secret” is dangerous, yes, but he also highlights a way out of the seemingly irresolvable contradictions of The Colored Museum via the careful re-articulation of one’s position within the larger cultural networks each of Wolfe’s stereotypes attempts to critique.

But since murder is not an appropriate means of rejecting these stereotypes, how are viewers and readers expected to begin performing new identities? The answer, I propose, lies in the rejection of a stereotypical “black orientation” and subsequent pursuit of the rhetoric of identification—a process Burke likens to “consubstantiality” in A Rhetoric of Motives:

A doctrine of consubstantiality, either explicit or implicit, may be necessary to any way of life. For substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial. (21)

In much the same way that Burke’s theory regarding talk about identity and Gates’s conception of talk about tradition allow us to recognize the constructed nature of our positions and orientations in the world, the rhetoric of identification urges us to exploit the constructedness of these paradigms to build better relationships with the world around us. The nature of these seemingly stable constructs has long generated disagreement among philosophers and theorists about just how free we are to determine our position(s) in society, but Burke and Gates agree that we do, in fact, play a large role in their formation. Dana Anderson’s study of Burke and religious conversion refers to identity as “a strategy, a way of addressing a situation in order to transform it” (56), and Gates repeatedly mentions the malleability of various “tropes, figures of speech, [and] rhetorical constructs” in his analysis of signification (723). From this perspective, then, it becomes clear that Wolfe wants those who experience The Colored Museum to engage in a process of rhetorical (re)identification whereby the multiplicity of “colored contradictions” his play celebrates can be embraced simultaneously and unreservedly.

In Burkean terms, individuals embrace such multiplicity by adopting an orientation toward the world that accepts as many different perspectives as possible—what he calls “the comic frame” (ATH 166). And lest one think that the comic frame entails a relativistic quietism in which ‘anything goes,’ Burke is quick to point out that accepting multiple perspectives as potentially valid or desirable does not entail uncritically endorsing all perspectives equally:

In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would “transcend” himself by noting his own foibles. He would provide a rationale for locating the irrational and the non-rational. (171, emph. in original)

Burke here sounds remarkably like Topsy in Wolfe’s final exhibit, “The Party.” After describing a party that included “the largest gathering of black/Negro/colored Americans you’d ever want to see” (Wolfe 50), Topsy draws a parallel between the cacophony of sights and sounds at the party and the sights and sounds of black culture that coalesce to produce “the music of the madness in me” (51). Adopting a truly comic frame, Topsy assures the audience that “everything I need to get over in this world, is inside here, connecting me to everybody and everything that’s ever been.” By entering Burke’s realm of “maximum consciousness,” Topsy demonstrates the power that comes with “transcending” specific identities, stereotypes, or tropes and breaking free from any overly restrictive constructions of blackness or black culture. “So, hunny,” Topsy declares, “don’t waste your time trying to label or define me. . . . ‘cause I’m not what I was ten years ago or ten minutes ago. I’m all of that and then some. And whereas I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain, I can’t live without it” (52). As she embraces the comic frame, Topsy recognizes how the perspectives inside her combine to create a more powerful, more empowering conception of her own blackness that far exceeds the power any one perspective could provide. Wolfe further emphasizes this message by bringing Lala, Miss Roj, The Man, and Miss Pat back onstage for simultaneous monologues that culminate in the collective assertion that “My power is in my . . . Madness! . . . And my colored contradictions” (53). And through the rhetoric of identification, audience members who have been able to follow Wolfe’s rhetorical interventions “act together” with Topsy and others to achieve a similar level of “comic” understanding.

[“The Party” from PBS’s 1991 version of The Colored Museum. Dir. George C. Wolfe]

Coda: The Consequence of Contradiction

In working through a Burkean interpretation of The Colored Museum, I have sought to identify key moments in the play that help account for, on the one hand, Wolfe’s powerful message about transcending even the most beloved racial stereotypes and, on the other hand, the strong negative reaction that his signifying on these stereotypes has engendered over the past thirty years. And I have tried to reconcile these two drastically different responses to the play using various terms from Burke’s rhetorical oeuvre: identity, alienation, acceptance, rejection, identification, the comic frame. Yet I am aware that, for those unfamiliar with or dismissive of his work, my valorization of Wolfe’s play via a Burkean heuristic will not prove sufficiently satisfying. With this in mind, I want to close with the brief suggestion of an alternative reading of the Museum—one that ignores Burke altogether and looks instead at the moral implications of Wolfe’s play.

No matter one’s personal reaction to the play, Wolfe has been praised for attempting in The Colored Museum to “grapple with racial and gender stereotypes in order to move forward freely” (Euell 667), and Keith Clark includes Wolfe on a list with Nathan McCall, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and James Alan McPherson as writers whose work “deserve[s] more sustained critical analysis” (12). There is certainly something significant here, and the play’s message regarding the traps that popular stereotypes set for individuals attempting to understand their personal and historical identities would seem to have continued relevance for a twenty-first-century America in which bullying among teenagers is an everyday occurrence, vague assumptions about Islam threaten millions of American citizens who happen to be Muslim, and racist rhetoric directed toward the nation’s first black President is tolerated among many political and religious groups. The Colored Museum in no way provides solutions to these problems, but it does suggest an understanding of life’s “colored contradictions” that creates the space necessary for a more nuanced, more inclusive relationship among the myriad identities that contribute to American culture.


[1] Since this paper was originally written (April 2012), two articles on Wolfe’s The Colored Museum have been published: Jyoti Puri’s “Resistance through Parody and Humor: A Study of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum,” Language in India 12 (Nov. 2012): 612-27; and Christina Knight’s “‘Fasten Your Shackles’: Remembering Slavery and Laughing about It in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum,” African American Review 45.3 (Fall 2012): 355-69.

[2] Of these, Beth Eddy’s The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison (2003) and Bryan Crable’s Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide (2011) are of particular note.

[3] Though Wolfe’s stage directions refer to Miss Roj as a “he” (14), the fact that the character self-identifies as a “she” (16) leads me to use the feminine pronoun when discussing her scene. If, as Burke argues, discourse about identity is just as important as any physical markers are in understanding how identity shapes a person’s actions, then it seems disingenuous to label Miss Roj a “he” based solely on the body she inhabits.

[4] And, again, by “corporations,” Burke simply means groups of like-minded individuals who act with one another’s interests in mind.

[5] The cover of the 1988 Grove Press version of The Colored Museum reinforces this stereotype even further, as the brightly-colored image of Aunt Ethel stares out at an imaginary audience with large, knowing eyes.

[6] Even Harvey Young’s recent study Embodying Black Experience, which argues that “a remarkable similarity, a repetition with a difference, exists among embodied black experiences” (5), allows that there are “differences within the imbricated realities of race, culture, gender, and class” that bodily similarities simply cannot account for (11).

Works Cited

Anderson, Dana. Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion. Columbia, S.C.: U of South Carolina P, 2007. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

—. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

Clark, Keith. Introduction. Contemporary Black Men’s Fiction and Drama. By Clark. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001. 1-13. Print.

Crusius, Timothy W. Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

Eddy, Beth. The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Elam, Harry J. “Signifyin(g) on African-American Theatre: The Colored Museum by George Wolfe.” Rev. of The Colored Museum, by George G. Wolfe. Theatre Journal 44.3 (1992): 291-303. JSTOR. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.

Euell, Kim. “Signifyin(g) Ritual: Subverting Stereotypes, Salvaging Icons.” African American Review 31.4 (1997): 667-75. JSTOR. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. “The ‘Blackness of Blackness’: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey.” Critical Inquiry 9.4 (1983): 685-723. JSTOR. Web. 4 May 2012.

Johnson, E. Patrick. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Savran, David. The Playwright’s Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing and the Politics of Culture. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999. Print.

Wolfe, George C. The Colored Museum. New York: Grove P, 1988. Print.

Young, Harvey. Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Cultural Memory, and the Black Body. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2010. Print.

[Featured image via UNC Charlotte Department of Theatre]