An Interview with Erin Crowder on “The Colored Museum”
A still from "The Colored Museum."
On March 21-23, Georgetown’s Black Theatre Ensemble produced “The Colored Museum,” a 1980s play by George C. Wolfe that explores the history of emotional and physical trauma attached to blackness. Told through a series of 11 sketches, playfully called “exhibits,” the show is both a critique of and reflection on the black identity in America. “The Colored Museum” forces you to awkwardly stare at each character, only to remind you that you had no right gawking at all. I sat down with freshman Erin Crowder, the show’s stage manager, to discuss the show’s significance beyond the context of racism and the role of black arts, both on campus and in American society.
Can you just start us off by telling us about “The Colored Museum,” and what it means to you?
The play itself, by George C. Wolfe, to me takes African American history in different periods of time—the cultural history of the people—to show how being black in a white society affects us, and how we’ve been suppressed and oppressed. “The Colored Museum” is just a way for people to see all the factors that make a person who they are. There’s a different form to blackness, and I think that the play celebrates that. It brings awareness and allows people to understand what it means to be black in America.
Why do you think it’s important to tell this story? What do you think it brings to the campus and black culture in general?
Black people built this country. We’ve had numerous experiences while being here. Some good, some obviously terrible. It’s important that people recognize blackness because blackness has multiple facets to it. It’s not just the same stereotypical idea of “lazy black folks” or all the other negative stereotypes that come with being black. I think that there are so many different parts of us that people don't get to see and celebrate and enjoy. This play, and theatre itself, allows people to see that part of us. Not a lot of black kids do theatre, so I think it’s important to see that black students were able to unify and put this production together as the best way to not only convey our blackness, but to celebrate it.
Why do you think the promotion of black arts and theatre is so important, both on and off campus? Like you said, there aren’t a lot of black kids in the arts, especially theatre, so why is it so important that we bring more in?
We are so talented. That talent has been suppressed because so many of us have thought that we need to go for something more practical. If you’re going to do something, either you’re going to play a sport or you’re going to go into the maths or sciences. The arts allow us to explore our creativity. My sister is so talented, and she’s so creative. But sometimes she represses that creative side of her because she feels that it’s not really that practical for her to do that. It’s harder for black people to thrive in the arts. I think that if we push for black students in the arts, we’ll see more of us. At the end of the day, I think representation is so important, and we need to see more of ourselves in everything we do.
When I was at the show, I saw a lot of white people in attendance, which is definitely a good thing. What do you want the non-black community to leave with after having watched the show?
I want them to understand that this is a part of history. The stories that are being told, they are a form of history that we have experienced as black people in America. I read this play in one of my classes and one of the kids didn’t recognize it as a part of history. He kept downplaying it by calling it a piece of culture. But it’s a piece of culture that’s a part of the history. Black people have had a major stake in this country; it’s important that people recognize that and honor it. We need to see that black folks are more than just sports. I know the football team is mostly black. The basketball team is mostly black. I just think there’s more to us than just that.
Can you tell us what your favorite scene is and why?
My favorite exhibit would have to be “Symbiosis” because you can see there’s a man and there’s a kid; he’s fighting himself. He’s trying to renounce his blackness in order to remain on top, figuring that’s the way he has to be in order to compete with white folks. I think that it really pays homage to some of the things we face here as Georgetown students. Sometimes I feel like I have to hide my blackness a little bit. I have to hide who I am and soften myself, so that people won't be as intimidated of me as I feel that they would be. “Symbiosis” has a nice play on that, and it also brings to light [the fact] that you don’t necessarily have to [hide who you are] in order to succeed. As you see in the end, the kid comes back. So at the end of the day, you can’t get rid of your “kid”; it’s a part of who you are. I think it teaches people to stay true to themselves, and it all works out in the end.
It was very refreshing to me to see that the play includes a member of the LGBTQ+ community who is also a member of the black community. I know that there is often little support from black people to those who identify as queer. Why is it so important to see that blend of the LGBTQ+ community and the black community in one production, and what does Miss Roj, who’s a black transgender woman, bring to the show?
I think that it’s very important that Miss Roj’s character was in the play. At first, we were having a hard time casting that role. Either we didn’t find the right person to do the role, or the role wasn’t going to be put out at all. [The director especially] thought that it was crucial that a member of the LGBTQ+ community played Miss Roj because that’s their narrative. No one can tell anybody else’s narrative better than the person experiencing it themselves. It’s very important and very timely—especially right now, when we are fighting for the rights of not only ourselves as heterosexual black people, but also for the rights of queer black people. It was one of the most powerful scenes in the play because Miss Roj was not only talking about her sexuality or blackness, but also the link between the two. I think that right now, people are learning to speak up for issues, especially with the rise of social media, which is helping to propel this.
One of the lines that stuck out to me the most was when Miss Roj says, “We traded in our drums for respectability.” I know that I, as a black woman, feed into the idea of respectability politics, so when I heard that line it really impacted me. What are your thoughts?
The drums are a recurring idea throughout the entire play. In the beginning, Miss Pat talks about “the drums.” It’s a signifier of the African culture. We have bass and rhythm. “Trading in our drums” signifies that we are giving up something to be a part of something else; it’s assimilation. We have to assimilate to an entirely new culture and become a whole different type of people. Miss Roj does a good job of framing that narrative of the black persona and how that has changed throughout time.
Black women in society are often forced to lower their voices, so how do you think “The Photo Session” tackles this issue?
“The Photo Session” shows the facade that people put up. Especially as a black woman, you have to act a certain way and carry yourself a certain way. It negates the idea of the angry black woman narrative that’s constantly portrayed. Black women are always being silenced. She’s speaking but you don't really hear what she’s saying; you’re just looking at her. In one of my classes, we talked about the hyper-visibility and hyper-audibility of black women and how people see/hear them but never truly see/hear them. Even between what she’s saying you can see the pain in her face, in the forced laugh. People see it, but they don't see it. There’s much more to being black than just being black.
I was confused by the scene “Permutations,” where a young woman lays an egg. Can you explain it a little bit?
Before I start, I want to mention that the meaning of the scenes is completely subjective to the individual when you see it in the moment. And that changes depending on how you’re feeling or what you’ve learned. I was definitely confused the first time I read it, but there are several things at play here. First of all, there’s statutory rape. There’s teenage pregnancy. Then you have the mom and how she is sheltering her daughter out. She doesn’t give her the love and attention that she needs. Then, she’s laying a white egg. It’s very important that the color white is highlighted, because she’s giving birth to babies that are formed in a white setting. She’s trying to show that they’re breaking out of the barriers of whiteness, and she wants her kids to be beyond that.
Speaking of the color white, can you tell me about the choice to just have the very simplistic yet striking all-white block set?
It’s an exhibit; you guys came to see a display. This whole thing of blackness is how we’re always put on display. We’re always put into one category, but this play separates the idea of what “being black” is. It distorts that narrative to create a new one.
Fabre is an Undeclared Freshman.
Photo Credit: Ryon Henderson.