When T. G. Cooper first saw Tony Award-winning playwright George Wolfe's blistering satire, "The Colored Museum," he walked out.
"It seemed degrading to me," says Mr. Cooper, a pillar of the local arts community who directs Annapolis' Pamoja ensemble. "There were jokes about slavery and racism that just rubbed me the wrong way."
But first impressions are not always lasting impressions, which is a good thing, because Mr. Cooper's own Pamoja production of "Colored Museum" opens Thursday at the Unitarian Church of Anne Arundel County where it will run Thursdays through Sundays to Aug. 9.
Why the change of aesthetic heart for the Howard University professor?
"I realized that the first version I saw was just wrong," he says. "It was just too heavily done. There is so much humor in this show that I wanted to turn it into more of a celebration of how far we, as African-Americans, have come."
"The Colored Museum" is an intriguing piece of theater that explores many aspects of the black experience while poking fun at many of the stereotypes that have come to define it. Employing comedy, drama and music, each vignette -- or "exhibit," to coin the museum metaphor -- provides the audience with an originally drawn slice of black life.
"I'm very excited about this show," says the talented singer-actress Valerie Mills, who also happens to be married to the director. "It's very funny but, in the humor, there are many messages." Ms. Mills chuckles as she describes the scene in which she plays the stewardess on a celebrity slave ship
and concludes, "the audience will be laughing but they'll be thinking at the same time."
The play will also mark the return of Linda Gravatte, a Cooper colleague who has starred in many New York City productions to great acclaim.
"She is a terrific actress," says Mr. Cooper admiringly. "She's been directing a play in New York and we're very lucky she's available to come down and do this with us."
Ms. Gravatte will appear in nearly all "exhibits," including Mr. Cooper's favorite, "The Las Mama on the Couch Play," an affectionate spoof of dramas like "A Raisin In the Sun" and "River Niger."
"There's always that mother on the couch in these plays," says Mr. Cooper with a laugh, "and here Wolfe puts all of them together in one scene. It's hilarious."
There is a message in such satirical comedy, says the director. "We shouldn't always get bogged down by negatives," he insists. "We've all had bad times in our lives, but we don't want it constantly thrown in our own faces. To me, that's the message of this play."
Clearly these are exciting days as Mr. Cooper contemplates the upcoming association between his group and Dick Gessner's theater. Pamoja's production of the Broadway smash "Dream Girls" will open at the U.S. 50 nightspot on Sept. 2.
"We hope we can be successful and settle in there a while," says Mr. Cooper. "We've been limited in some ways by the places we've performed in and here's a chance to do some different things and maybe find a broader audience for our shows. Hopefully we can drum up some business for Dick and, at the same time, make Pamoja's name a household word in the community."