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Turn Up the Music!

Program Note for the Huntington Theatre Company's production of
The Colored Museum
by George C. Wolfe
directed by Billy Porter
When Billy Porter was cast in the 2003 play Radiant Baby, he was thrilled at the chance to meet George C. Wolfe, an idol since his teen years. During the same production, Porter met music director James Sampliner, and they became frequent collaborators. Twelve years later, Porter and Sampliner are taking a new look at the music in Wolfe’s modern classic, The Colored Museum.

Music has always been central to Wolfe's vision of the play. Almost every ‘exhibit’ is underscored with everything from “low-down gut-bucket blues” to “cold, pounding, unrelenting,” electronic music, in addition to several original songs composed by Kysia Bostic. For Wolfe, music is an essential vehicle for this story because it is the native medium of African American cultural history. “Where are the stories of black people stored? They're not stored in the history books; they're just beginning to be. In my theory, they're stored in the music. There's more history to be found in the twenties and the thirties in those blues songs than there are in the history books that were written at that exact same time,” says Wolfe. “This play opens a dialogue about the African American experience, which seems almost impossible to have without parts of it being sung,” echoes Sampliner. The songs written for the play’s 1986 premiere tapped into this potent legacy. To make the music just as robust in 2015, Sampliner and director Billy Porter are rearranging the compositions for contemporary ears. “Since 30 years ago, the rhythms have shifted a little bit,” says Porter. “I looked at how it's resonating today. How are we responding today? To what kind of rhythms? And I tried to put those in musically so that we can communicate with this audience.”

This aim drove a rich collaborative process, as Sampliner details, “Billy would play me a couple templates of songs that he liked -- or feels or textures or emotions that he liked -- and then I would go into my studio with him and improvise some things. We would settle on a chord structure, andBilly would then go back and write more melodic ideas over that structure.” The duo layered in a variety of new musical references, from “radio friendly R&B” to “traditional black Pentecostal gospel,” toDreamgirls, and other Broadway shows they both love. “Somehow the music was sogreat the first time around,” says Porter, “that we just had to go inside of the original melodies and crack them open.” Expanding the compositions opened the music to contemporary influences – and contemporary listeners.

Orienting the play to today’s audience through song was a natural choice for Porter, a musicaltheater veteran and a firm believer in music’s power to connect.“There's something that goes on when drums are playing that unites the community,” says Porter, and his staging embodies this sentiment through the role of an omnipresent live drummer. In the play’s first exhibit, the stewardess Miss Pat demands her passengers “stop playing those damn drums,” recalling thesweeping state drumming bans of the 1740s. “Rhythm is the thing that they wanted to take away,” says Porter, “because they knew doing so was the only way to fracture that community.” For Porterand Sampliner, music catalyzed African American community-building well beyond 18th century drum bans, and Sampliner posits, “music for African Americans was an escape…it was a way to break free of the literal and metaphoric chains that were binding them.” Porter reflects, “whether it's the old African tribal music that brought the communities together to anything from Gospel music and spirituals, to R&B, soul, hip-hop, or jazz, they all have a rhythm -- and it's always something that functions as a healing property. When you're broken, and when you're in pain, the rhythm can heal you if you can let it.”

This great potential to heal is more often used to commodify, as Porter can attest. Early in his career, he found himself boxed into playing reductive or clownish stereotypes. “We don't want to hear your story, we just want you to sing and dance,” he recalls hearing; “It’s something that I have actually lived as a performer.” Porter points to the cheerful showtunes, falsely exuberant tap numbers, “the obligatory gospel number in the middle of a random musical,” that The Colored Museum lampoons in “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.” Its sharp satire reminds us these crowd-pleasing musical motifs dance around “the reality and the truth of what it is to be a black person in this world,” and thrive at the expense of more human stories, says Porter. This narrow version of the story, he continues, “is really the only version of the story that exists 99% of the time.”

Much as the limitations of song-and-dance feel at odds with the healing capacity of rhythm, playwright George C. Wolfe reminds us that, “the power of American culture, of black American culture exists not in its purity but in its contradictions.” The potency of these contradictions within the African American musical legacy demands Sampliner and Porter’s careful attention -- and rearrangements that stare contemporary audiences square in the eye. They demand, as Topsy will tell us in “The Party” exhibit, that we “Turn up the music! Turn up the music!”

- Molly FitzMaurice