Learnin' and Laughin' 

“We gonna have a good time, good time we gonna have.” These are the lyrics to the opening number of OyamO’s In Living Colors, presented by Plowshares Theatre Company through February 28 at the Museum of African American History.

And truer words were never spoken. From beginning to end, a good time is had by all. One senses the performers themselves may be having an even better time. Whether a scene takes place in the cotton field, during a church service or in the big city, it works not because of eye-catching sets, but because of lively music and dance and a well-written script.

But don’t be misled, this festive dance musical transcends its genre and offers more than just dance and song. It generously includes an interesting script that educates as well as entertains — and at just an hour and 15 minutes, the audience is left wanting more.

Set against the backdrop of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, the play gives insight into the lives of the Gullah people, considered to be descendants of the first Africans brought to the United States. Through vignettes of dialogue and song, the impressive cast of seven effectively conveys this obscured people’s trials and tribulations, joys of community, and dedication to religion and music, from which they’ve always drawn strength.

Though somewhat isolated, the Gullah people could not avoid racism and poverty. But through it all they managed to cling to their African customs and traditions. The challenge was for the older generation to be able to instill the values of tradition, and the honor of hard work and ownership to the younger generation. As in most families and communities, some of the youth are inspired by stories of the past embracing family history and optimism for the future, while others rebel. In a memorable “big city” scene, the rebellious youth gets a lesson in why life is not always greener on the other side. Within a few minutes, the audience is nearly moved to tears of laughter and sentimentality.

How do you present such a delicate theme with both seriousness and humor, minus the conventional five-act format? Well, when the production is by nationally acclaimed playwright OyamO, it seems to come naturally. OyamO, who also teaches theater at the University of Michigan, displays an obvious love for African-American heritage and music in this and many of his plays. The award-winning playwright derived much of his text from actual interviews with the people of St. John’s Island, South Carolina.

Admitting he did not include many stage directions in the Living Colors script, OyamO credits first-time director Kimberly Renée Jones, who also served as choreographer. Clearly, she has a talent for bringing out solid performances in her cast, while balancing the elements of education and entertainment in the production.

For Black History Month, In Living Colors offers a unique way to learn and laugh from the cherished art of theater.

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