Winifred Sowell, set designer for The Ensemble Theatre's production of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, which opened in Houston Jan. 29 and continues through March 1, has framed the stage with neo-classicist columns linked together by a pediment, a formal Greek facade. The scathing 1986 satire examines prejudices new and old within the black community through sketches that Wolfe calls "exhibits." Consequently, Sowell says he wanted to create a suitable gallery, a collection and preserve.
Upon this emblematic structure she has mixed African and African-American motifs. A noose functions as a linchpin, a reminder of lynching. In a skit skewering the melodrama of A Raisin in the Sun, a mother's housecoat is the same material as her ragged sofa. Chains and shackles are a recurring motif in most scenes.
"I also wanted to unite the set to the actors," Sowell explained. So she asked cast and crew to donate personal items she could incorporate into the pediment. Someone whose marriage is dissolving gave an old comic book that once had sentimental value. Another who has decided to abstain from sex handed over unused condoms. And the director, Sterling Vappie, bestowed a prized prop from an incendiary race-relations play he starred in years ago.
"Everything is very balanced and orderly like in Greek architecture," Sowell concluded about her design. "And very symbolic and cultural in reference to the black experience."
The Colored Museum continues through March 1 at the Ensemble Theatre in Houston. For tickets, $10 - $25, call 1 (713) 520-0055. -- By Peter Szatmary