Mildred Inez Lewis Celebrates African American Sheroes
by Patricia L. Morin & K. Marguerite Caronna
Inspired by George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play “The Colored Museum,” Mildred Inez Lewis adds a Woman’s Wing to the museum of African American culture. “The Museum Annex” provides a comic, kaleidoscopic romp through the history of Black women’s achievements in the face of racism.
Wolfe’s play can be seen on YouTube if you want to delve into Lewis’ source. Her homage to resilient and brilliant Black women reminds us that they have made indelible contributions to American history—from the Civil War to the Space Age.
Lewis’ ‘Woman’s History of the U.S.’ puts a spotlight on generations of courageous, under-appreciated Black women. She takes us on an intense and comic tour of a hidden history.
Five energetic “docents” in bright turquoise blazers invite us in and take us on a journey through eleven vignettes. Each “Exhibit” exposes another subtle modality of racism—which seems to be infinitely varied. We visit assorted displays: “History” reminds us that “slaves are immigrants.”
In “The Promise of Reconstruction,” two women try to explain to a newly freed woman that she isn’t going to get Lincoln’s promised 40 acres of land and a mule. Instead, the poor woman gets a plaque welcoming the formerly enslaved to “freedom.”
Led by the docents—versatile Lala (Julia Jackson), charismatic Margo (Juanita Harris), energetic Bree (Ije Success), committed Njeri (Brenda Miles), and irrepressible Angie (Brittany Nicole Sims)—we discover that every movement has its downside as well as its sheroes. Black women’s incredible bravery is wrapped in the most unanticipated packages, like the “humble” seamstress Rosa Parks in the “Civil Rights Exhibit,” and “outspoken” poet Gwendolyn Brooks in the “Modern Period Exhibit.”
Director Elizabeth Carter keeps the flow moving. Set decor is simple, yet evocative. A colorful display of different brands of condoms hangs on the back wall in the “Sex Exhibit.” Tammy Berlin’s constantly changing period costumes create the visage of each era, while Alexa Burrell’s projection designs expand the depth of each scene, especially videos of the universe in the “Space Exhibit.”
At times the vignettes stray into a didactic mode, occasionally confusing with a lack of thematic cohesion. In the end, however, the astronaut shero yearns to shed her responsibility as a role model and merge with the galaxies in search of a new and better world. We are reminded that all of us are made of starlight.
“The Museum Annex” by Mildred Inez Lewis, directed by Elizabeth Carter, at Central Works, Berkeley. Info: CentralWorks.org – to November 13, 2022.
Cast: Juanita Harris, Julia Jackson, Brenda Miles, Brittany Nicole Sims, and Ije Success.
Banner photo: Julia Jackson, Juanita Harris, Brenda Miles, Ije Success, & Brittany Nicole Sims. Photo: Robbie Sweeny