As a relatively new resident of Thousand Oaks (seven years) and one of its relatively few African American residents, Saundra McClain appreciates the Conejo Valley community’s more relaxed, comfortable ambience.
“I love living here,” says the Philadelphia-born actress and director. “But it’s also true that people here are not used to having blacks in their community.”
Still, it was a bit of a shock when a year ago — soon after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president — McClain heard herself called “the N word” by someone in a car passing by as she stepped out of a dry cleaners’ store.
“I thought, ‘Well, O.K., I guess people feel they have a right to say that now,’ ” recalls McClain. “And it made me think that the isolation and division that’s taking place in society needs to be addressed.”
Which is why McClain is enthusiastically involved in the upcoming Cal Lutheran production of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s satirical play on African American stereotypes, running Feb. 7-11 at the university’s Black Box Studio Theatre.
The Colored Museum is familiar territory for McClain, having acted in the play in New York and London when it was brand-new. That was in 1986, well before any of the CLU student-actors involved in the current production were born.
One of them, criminal justice major Sonora Carroll from Bothell, Washington, recently spoke to a theater professor about the difficulty of finding on-campus
roles written specifically for minority actors. That prompted a discussion that led CLU’s Theater Arts Department to present this African American play, directed by an African American (McClain) during Black History Month (February).
Among its 11 vignettes, presented as exhibits in a museum of African American history, are “Git on Board” (addressing the theater audience as if they were slaves on a ship), “The Photo Session” (a critique of Ebony Magazine), and “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” (aimed at the black drama “formula” itself).
McClain, who has fond memories of performing in the play (“The audience in London got it even better than in New York”), believes The Colored Museum is an ideal project for today’s student-actors, and appropriate for all adult audiences, “especially in our current, racially charged political climate,” although the language makes it less appropriate for younger children.
“The play is not targeting anyone, just making satirical statements on racial stereotypes in an in-your-face sort of way, which is how Wolfe writes and I direct,” smiles McClain. “And it makes a statement as far as not going back to the way things used to be, or how we perceived them to be.
“In the ’80s, when The Colored Museum was new, it was making comments directed at the situations of the ’50s through the ’70s. I remember, as an understudy, when I first got involved, and I thought, ‘What the heck is this?’ And then I got it. You start to laugh at yourself, at the absurdity of the situation; you laugh because they survive.
“And now, looking back, those inferences really hold more weight today because many students who are in the play need to research some of the figures mentioned, and it makes them more aware.”
The Cal Lutheran production utilizes seven performers (the original used five), allowing more participation of African American student-actors. In addition to Carroll, the cast includes theater arts majors Jordan Bedgood (from Ventura) and Georgia Caines (Simi Valley), communication majors Babatunde Awe (Inglewood) and Cristian Lipps (North Hills), business administration major Brianna Bryan (Canoga Park) and English major Olivia Leyva (La Cañada).
“I’ve really enjoyed working with these students,” says McClain, a veteran of numerous stage productions as well as film and television shows over the past 40 years, who is seldom idle. In addition to preparing The Colored Museum, she currently is rehearsing for her role (as Mama) in A Raisin in the Sun at A Noise Within in Pasadena, and directing Oh Freedom! The Story of the Underground Railroad at Rancho Cucamonga’s Main Street Theatre.
“And the Cal Lutheran people have been very supportive,” continues McClain, who has taught Theater for Social Change at Cal State, Fullerton. “I do think it would be great if they could get some big donors for the theater department, because the arts are so important to our culture. Theater is my first love because it speaks to the times we live in and it needs the respect of community. All the arts need our support; I don’t know how I’d survive without them.”
The Colored Museum is presented Feb. 7-11 at Cal Lutheran University’s Black Box Studio Theatre, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For schedule, tickets and more information, call 493-3452 or visit www.callutheran.edu/college-arts-sciences/theatre-arts.