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A Veritable Feast for the Ears

'The Colored Museum,' a highly visual satire, wouldn't seem to work as radio theater--but it does.

May 02, 1999|EMORY HOLMES II | Emory Holmes II is an occasional contributor to Calendar

There were times during a recent L.A. Theatre Works live radio theater performance of "The Colored Museum" when actors Loretta Devine and Keith Jefferson would close their eyes onstage, ease back in their chairs, and seem to float on pillows of sound. Such are the pleasures of radio, that the mind's eye beholds what the eyes cannot see.

"I close my eyes and listen to the beautiful language George C. Wolfe has written, and it engulfs everything inside of me," Jefferson explained in a conversation after one performance last February before an audience at the Skirball Cultural Center. Said Devine, "They told us we could do that, to listen. With my eyes closed I try to imagine what it would be like on the radio. There were many people in the audience who did that." Indeed there were, and it seemed a sweet revenge that Wolfe's somewhat dated, highly visual musical satire on African American life would find a fresh new forum, and an enduring afterlife, in the antique medium of radio.

Part of L.A. Theatre Works' "The Play's the Thing" series, a taped version of the production will air on KCRW-FM (89.9) today at 6 p.m. It stars Jefferson, Kimberly Scott and LATW veteran Charlie Robinson, and reunites Devine with "Colored Museum" original cast members Vickilyn Reynolds and Reggie Montgomery.

Reynolds and Devine brilliantly reprise the roles they developed 13 years ago at New Jersey's Crossroads Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival, respectively. Montgomery, however, takes on a director's role here, bypassing a chance to reanimate the career-launching, Bacardi-guzzling drag queen of "Miss Roj," which he played memorably in the New York production.

"George [Wolfe] recommended that I direct this," says Montgomery, who has moved from acting to directing in the past several years, staging a number of productions on the East Coast, including Hartford Stage Company productions of Wolfe's "The Colored Museum" and "Spunk."

"I have never done radio. This is a new form for me. And this piece is a very visual piece. Things had to be changed. I don't mean rewritten, but we are finding out what things would or would not work because of the different form."

In 1986, "The Colored Museum" elevated the careers of Wolfe, Montgomery, Reynolds and Devine. "I had never heard of George Wolfe," recalled Reynolds, who until recently was part of the national touring company of "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," which Wolfe co-conceived and directed, first at New York's Public Theater (where he is now artistic director) and later on Broadway and on tour. "I was in the original New Jersey cast [of "Colored Museum"]. For my role, they primarily wanted to know that I could sing. But when I read the script, I said, 'Oh my God, this is profound--and funny.' For black people, you get to laugh at the stereotypes; but then for white folk to see! It was like, 'See. You been saying this all the time about us. But this is a joke to us, and not who we are.'

"I have always felt that white people didn't know that to be black people, we have to be like chameleons."

When the show moved from Crossroads to the Public, Reynolds met Devine, who would soon become her real-life best friend. "We stayed best friends ever since we did this so many years ago," Devine recalled. "I had just finished doing 'Dreamgirls,' and the talk of the town around New York was that there was this new show coming. I read the script and said, 'Oh my God, I will never get a chance to do this.' But I auditioned for the La La part, and I got it. I was so amazed, because La La is so broad and huge compared to what I thought my personality was at the time. My agents were so upset because I chose this, making absolutely no money, and I had no idea that it would be the sort of thing that pivoted my career from where I was into the next phase. I got a chance to go to London. I got a chance to come out here to L.A. to do it. And from that I got my first pilot for television, 'Sugar & Spice,' that Vicki and I did together. So it sort of really did project our careers into the next phase."

For L.A. Theatre Works founder and executive producer Susan Albert Loewenberg, there was no question she should reunite as much of the original cast as she could when she decided to re-create Wolfe's seminal work for radio. "I have always adored this piece," Loewenberg said. "When I saw it at the Mark Taper Forum [in 1988], I was absolutely blown away by it." Over the years she met and eventually worked with Devine on several productions, including the Ron Milner-Steve Albrezzi adaptation of William Bradford Huie's "Ruby McCollum." When she decided to do "Colored Museum," she immediately called Devine.

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